'The Unspeakable'

Fee-Alexandra Haase


Why do we say that something is unspeakable, even though we know the issue well? We find in many cultural contexts the classification of something as ‘unspeakable'. Using semantics and semiotic theory separating between ‘concept', ‘sign', and ‘reference object of the sign' in several cases where the ‘unspeakable' is described, we will discuss the functions of ‘the unspeakable‘ as a cultural phenomenon. Philosophers use the term frequently with reference to their culture. In our article we will look at the socio-cultural conditions of the concept of ‘the unspeakable'. While it seems that this concept is universal, functions and meanings of this concept vary depending on the cultural settings. We will examine in this article the functions of this concept comparing the use of it in different cultures with religious and mythological impact expressed in this concept. Furthermore, we will look at the linguistic settings that allow us a construction like ‘the unspeakable' to be used as a representation for something not spoken in speech, but existing in another cultural or transcendental sphere. We will show that the expression serves as a semiotic replacement for issues that could be articulated, but due to cultural limits like religion or myths as act of cultural censorship should not be articulated in speech.


"The unspeakable", taboo, mythology, linguistic functions, semantics, cultural context, Western culture, Eastern culture, semiotics, Wittgenstein, de Saussure, Peirce

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