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The Delta Factor[edit | edit source]

Walker Percy's theory of language (1975)
The Delta Factor, Percy's theory of language, is framed in the context of the story of Helen Keller's learning to say and sign the word water while Annie Sullivan poured water over [one of] her hands and repeatedly made the signs for the word into her [other] hand. [1] A behaviorist linguistic reading of this scene might suggest a causal relationship—in other words, Keller felt Sullivan's sign-language stimulus in her hand and in response made a connection in her brain between the signifier and the signified. This is too simplistic a reading, says Percy, because Keller was receiving from both the signifier (the sign for water) and the referent (the water itself). This creates a triangle between water (the word), water (the liquid), and Helen, in which all three corners lead to the other two corners and which Percy says is "absolutely irreducible" (40). This linguistic triangle is thus the building block for all of human intelligence. The moment when this Delta Δ entered the mind of man . . . he became man.

@ Wikipedia: The Message in the Bottle #"The Delta Factor"

In relation to the subtitle How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language is, and What One Has to Do with the Other of The Message in the Bottle (1975), Walker Percy, to begin with, regrets that the vital question of how language really works or how people really communicate by presenting and understanding symbols in language, is not properly viewed and studied by existing researchers. For him, they are mostly split between linguistics and psychology, in spite of psycholinguistics.

In this regard, Percy tries to base his integral theory of language on what he calls the Delta Factor, which looks like a parody or conceptual metaphor (1980) of the "triangle of reference" Ogden and Richards have made so popular since 1923. “The Delta Factor” is the first, so-called flagship article of the book.

Meanwhile, Percy derives the Delta Factor from the exciting moment of Helen Keller’s beginning to communicate meaningfully at last by forming such a marvelous idea in mind, say, WATER that integrates itself with the spelling w-a-t-e-r on the one hand and the flowing water on the other, resulting in a triadic whole he sees “absolutely irreducible.”

Percy holds that the Delta Factor is the building block for all human intelligence, and that the significance of all the three separate corners is enhanced by their being connected and integrated into the Delta Factor as a whole.

  1. The bracketed are mine.