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SIGNS AND LANGUAGE Human beings recognize patterns of information and organize them to generate meaning.

Collections of these organized patterns form the languages that humans use when they communicate.
We use certain "signs" among ourselves that do not point to anything in our actual surroundings. Instead of announcers of things, they are reminders ... they take the place of things that we have perceived in the past, or even things that we can merely imagine by combining memories, things that might be in the past or future experience. They serve to let us develop a characteristic attitude toward objects in absentia, which is called "thinking of" or "referring to" what is not here. --Suzzane Langer 1016

Human beings possess the ability to notice patterns in their environments. When the perception of these patterns leads to the interpretation of new information in the context of previous knowledge, we might say that meaning occurs. The notion of meaning, or the making sense out of one's information, is an important aspect of human communication. There is little agreement as to how the term "meaning" should be defined, nor is there agreement as to how meaning is created, preserved and destroyed in the midst of the communication process. However, attempts to reconcile these disagreements have led to the development of a number of differing points-of-view. Important among these are the following:

that meaning is contained in the patterns themselves, that meaning is created entirely in the minds of the individual senders and receivers, that meaning arises from the social interactions of the communicators.

One widely used approach to the study of the relationships among patterns of perception and meaning is called semiotics. Central to semiotics is the notion of thesign.
Such a statement as "The word 'cat' stand for a certain small mammal" is not either true or false. Its truth depends upon agreement between the speakers that it be true. In terms of such agreement they understand each other; or where disagreement occurs they will meet with misunderstanding. --Gregory Bateson

A sign is a pattern of data which, when perceived, brings to mind something other than itself. Although this definition appears simple on the surface, it has complex implications. Please pause to look at Figure 1 for a moment or two.

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Figure 1

Now, briefly, and to yourself describe the thoughts that Figure 1 brought to your mind. It may help if you write these down.
...........waiting............. ... please look at the picture and form your thoughts before you continue ... ..................................

This situation illustrates the three fundamental building blocks which, together with the rules that describe how they relate to one another, will be used to construct the Semiotic Model of Communication.

The first of these building blocks is the data, or the perceived pattern of dark-on-light, that to an observer "is" Figure 1. This will be called the sign. The second building block is the real-world animal that Figure 1 resembles. This will be called the object. In the terminology of the semiotic model the sign is said to "refer to" its object -- similarly, the object is sometimes called the "referent" of the sign. The third building block is the thought that forms in the mind of a reader as he or she gazes at Figure 1. This will be called the concept.

These three elements relate to one another as a semiotic system.

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At the beginning of the exercise, did this sign: , bring to mind a large, African or Indian animal? Or memories of a trip to the zoo? Or images recalled from a favorite book read as a child, or a television show, or a movie...? Perhaps it brings to mind an American political party; or perhaps the notion of memory (as in: "a large animal with a trunk and big ears that never forgets ..."). Notice that whatever the sign brings to mind, the concept is related to the reader's past experience with the object. This is always the case with signs, and one of the advantages of the semiotic model lies in its ability to highlight relationships among the sign, the concepts the sign brings to mind and the experience of the reader. The next picture illustrates this relationship.

ICON, INDEX AND SYMBOL Why does a particular sign bring to mind a particular concept? For example, why does bring to mind an animal, while does not? In this case, the connection lies in the resemblance of the sign to the object. 1004 It might be that one day during a trip to the zoo, the reader saw a large animal -and so later when he or she sees a printed image that resembles the animal, that earlier experience is brought to mind. Connection-by-resemblance is one of the three fundamental ways that signs, concepts and experiences relate. This particular kind of sign is called an icon. If a sign is a perception that refers to, or brings to mind, something other than itself, an icon is a type of sign that resembles the thing that it refers to. Thus, icon because it resembles the animal that it brings to mind. 1020 is an

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You may have noticed that in our discussion of , we have carefully refrained from using the word elephant. The reason for this is that the word #elephant# is itself a sign, though a different kind of sign than
Note: what do the #s mean in the last paragraph?

This second type of sign is called a symbol. Symbols and the objects that they bring to mind are related in an arbitrary manner. This means that there is no known reason why the symbol and the object are related. For example, there is no reason why the large animal under discussion might not be tagged by a different word -#nordnet#, for example, or #frindlemat#, or perhaps #barracuda#. #Elephant# is used simply because over the years, it has come to be used -- no one knows why.

#Elephant# Used As A Symbol arbitrary

A third kind of sign brings a concept to mind by means of a direct, physical connection between itself and its object. For example, if someone is walking down a street and suddenly encounters the smell of freshly baking bread, he or she might find the concept of a bakery coming to mind. This kind of sign is called an index.

The Smell of Baking Bread As An Index

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To summarize -- there are three basic types of signs: the icon, the index, and the symbol. Each brings to mind concepts that are related to the perceiver's previous experience with objects in the world. Each operates in a different way: Icon -- a sign that resembles its object

If this brings to mind a kind of fruit, it is acting as an icon. Index -- a sign that is physically connected to its object


If the rain touching your face brings to mind the nearby storm, it is acting as an index. 1005 Symbol -- a sign whose relationship to its object is arbitrary

If this brings to mind an interstate highway in the United States, it is acting as a symbol.
icon symbol index
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THE SEMIOTIC MODEL The Semiotic Model provides a coordinated way of talking about how the thoughts in our minds can be expressed in terms of the world outside of our minds. The model contains three basic entities:

the sign: something which is perceived, but which stands for something else, the concept: the thoughts or images that are brought to mind by the perception of the sign, the object: the "something else" in the world to which the sign refers.

The model is most often represented as the semiotic triangle.

This version of the semiotic model is adapted from the work of the American philosopher Charles S. Pierce. Pierce is generally acknowledged as an important pioneer in the study of signs. Notice that

the sign and the concept are connected by the person's perception, the concept and the object are connected by the person's experience, the sign and the object are connected by the conventions, or the culture, of the social group within which the person lives.

These connections are important to the study of how meaning arises during the daily encounters with the many signs that fill the human environment. The remaining sections of this tutorial investigate some of the ways that meaning arises as people make use of signs during the process of communication.
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For humans, data include any patterns in a medium that can be interpreted as relevant to some context. Data gain meaning, they become information in the human sense, through interpretation. Information includes both data and the relevance of data in some context. --David Ritchie

Most signs have at least one normal, "common sense" meaning. This meaning, called the sign's denotation, is shared among many people and is the most widely used meaning of the sign. But signs also may have many different "subjective" meanings that arise from each individual's personal experiences. These are called theconnotations of the sign. 1001 1003 For example, most people would agree that the symbol #frog# refers to a tail-less, web-footed amphibious animal -- this is its denotation and is the meaning that is listed for the term in the dictionary. On the other hand, the connotations of #frog# depend on each person's individual experiences and might include such as memories of a dissection experiment in biology class, or a story about a frog read as a young child, or just the rather vague concept "ugggh." Where do denotations come from? Why does the string of letters #frog# denote an amphibian while the string #book# denotes a bound collection of printed papers? Why does this symbol, , denote a male human being, while this one, , denotes a female? Why does this symbol, , denote the presence of money, while this one, , denotes a question? If each person made up his or her own denotation for every sign, people would not be able to understand one another. Thus, while people do have their own personal, connotative meanings for many signs, most signs have at least one meaning that is shared in common. This notion of shared, denotational meaning is one of the keys to understanding human communication. 1024 Thus, the denotation of a sign represents a agreement among a group of people that they will share that meaning of the sign among themselves. Meanings of this type are said to arise through social convention. A sign may have more than one denotational meaning. In cases when a person must choose one meaning from a number of options he or she looks to the context of the sign to make the decision. For example, when seen alone this icon usually denotes the human heart. But placed in thiscontext: , its denotation becomes that of "love" -- as in "I love you." Conventional meanings change over time. In fact the conventional meanings of signs in a society are under continual renegotiation as new possible meanings arise, are considered, and are accepted or rejected.

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Thus, each of the lines in the Semiotic Triangle

represents a two-way negotiation:

Perception -- the ongoing group of bodily processes by which human beings receive data about their environments, Experience -- the memory of previous perceptions and concepts, which is constantly being altered or "updated" by new experience, Convention -- the constantly changing, social "rules of meaning" that unify groups of people within their communication environments.

The semiotic model helps to explain how communication works as an interactive process. The following sections look more deeply into the complexities of semiotic theory.
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JAKSOBSON'S MODEL OF LANGUAGE FUNCTION In 1950 Roman Jakobson introduced a theory that considers the way that spoken language is put to use in human communication. This model of communication function consists of two layers of description -- one that describes the various elements of language use, and one that shows what humans do with the language when they use it. It is interesting to compare this model to the semiotic model. Although they both focus on how human communication becomes meaningful, their approaches are very different.

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A paradigm is a unique collection of signs. With the application of the appropriate rules, compound signs, or syntagms, can be constructed from the paradigm. The notions of paradigm and syntagm underlie many of the semiotics methods that are used in the study of human communication. A paradigm is a collection of signs. The next picture shows an example of a paradigm.

A Paradigm of Colored Lights

The elements of a paradigm do not necessarily have meaning in and of themselves. Most often they take on meaning as they are combined into more complex patterns of signs called syntagms. For example, here are three syntagms that might be formed from the paradigm of colored lights.

Syntagms Formed from the Paradigm

Syntagms can rather quickly become quite complex. In this example there are six elements in the paradigm -- three colors of lights each of which is either on or off. The particular set of syntagms shown above is only one of many that could be constructed from the paradigm. For example, here are three additional syntagms.

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More Syntagms Formed from the Same Paradigm

Many different types of rules can be used during the construction of a syntagm. Here the rules involve colors of light chosen (no more than one color is ever used), the positioning of the lights (in this case the lights are organized vertically), and the display of the lights (no more than one light is ever turned on at the same time). The rules that are used to construct a syntagm can only be applied to the elements of a paradigm. Elements that are not in the paradigm cannot be used. For example, this syntagm could not be constructed from the paradigm shown above.

Illegal Syntagm

This symbol, , is not part of the paradigm. Therefore, this syntagm, , cannot be formed from the paradigm, and neither can the light shown in the previous illustration. The concepts of paradigm and syntagm are central to semiotic theory. Various approaches to the analysis of communication texts by semiotic means begin by first identifying the paradigm and sytagms involved, and semiotic scholars study the way syntagms are formed and used as an approach to understanding how meaning arises during the communication process. paradigm and syntagm 1002
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[sample paradigmatic analysis] NARRATIVE

No matter how strictly a case is argued - scientifically, philosophically, or legally - it will always be a story, an interpretation of some aspect of the world that is historically and culturally grounded and shaped by human personality. - Walter Fisher

Human beings have a remarkable ability to shape information into the form that is known as the "story." Rather than organizing data in terms of facts and logical relationships, humans tend to organize their information in term of characters, plots, motivations and actions. This type of organization is called narrative. Perhaps no aspect of human language has been studied so diligently as narrative. These studies are much too extensive even to summarize adequately here, but most readers will have studied literature in high school, and so will have a basic understanding of narrative form. The syntagmatic analysis that follows is an example of the study of narrative. In this case the analysis applies a theory of narrative structure that was developed by
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Russian scholar Vladimir Propp. Propp discovered that Russion folk tales all had a similar structure. Today that structure is known as "Propp's Morphology." [Propp's Morphology: a sample syntagmatic analysis]

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ABSTRACTION The amount of data that pours in through the human senses is so large that we are forced to ignore much of it. In addition, we must organize the data that we do retain in ways that promote understanding at the expense of detail. In semiotic terms, the process by which human beings sift and organize their perceptual data is called abstraction. In some sense all signs are abstractions. Because a sign is not the object, but rather perceptual data that refers to the object, the perception of a sign does not provide all of the details that would have been provided by a perception of the object itself. Some signs are especially abstract. For example, consider this map of the street on which I live.

If I send this map to my coworkers whom I've invited to dinner next week, I can reasonably expect that they will be able to find their way to my front door. In fact, in constructing this particular abstraction I have made a very specific choice of data based on my assessment of the information that would be needed by the people I've invited. Notice that the map does not include the name of the town, or compass markings. Because I know that everyone involved lives in town, I know that they do not need that information. Context and convention are important when abstract signs are used in communication. For example, as a reader, what did you take this syntagm to mean ? That most people would interpret it as the street number of a house is an example of convention. Similarly, because the word #bank# is used on a map, and because it is enclosed within a rectangle, most readers would take it to refer to a kind of building rather than to the bank of a stream, a bank of lights, or other possible denotations of the term. Next, suppose that I was to redraw the map to be used by my relatives who will be driving into town, but who have never been here before. In this case I might choose

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a higher degree of abstraction -- that is, I might leave out even more details in order to widen the scope of the map.

To have more abstraction means to have fewer details. In this case the area around my house, which was shown in detail in the first map, has vanished. But this map is more informative to my out-of-town relatives than the first map would have been because the first map would not have showed them how my house is situated relative to the main highway. Finally, imagine that an air-conditioning service representative is coming to fix my heat-pump while I am away, and I need to send the company a map to show the representative how to find the machinery. In this case my map will be more detailed and less abstract.

As I add detail, the map becomes less symbolic and more iconic -- that is it comes more and more to be a picture instead of a set of symbols. In fact, many people might not call this last drawing a map at all. This ability to reduce or increase detail in order to arrive at a level of abstraction that is appropriate to the information required is an essential characteristic of human communication. The next three sections will present three special categories of abstraction: metaphor, metonymy and myth.
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METAPHOR An interesting semiotic process occurs when two or more signs are perceived simultaneously and are in conflict with one another. For example, consider this statement: "With the 'A+' on her math exam clutched in her hand, she flew across the room to tell her friends." But did she fly? Really? In our experience, people don't fly, yet most readers will accept this sentence as making good sense. How does that come about? In semiotic terms, this situation is known as metaphor, and it occurs when signs with conflicting concepts overlap in a way that lets the reader accept them as simultaneously true. In this case the string of symbols that makes up the sentence invokes the concepts of women, of flying and of rooms.

But what is the resulting final concept? Because the reader probably has had no prior experience with flying women (at least indoors), when his or her mind settles on a concept, it will be an imaginary one. In other words, the sign will be interpreted as referring to an unreal object. Thus, in semiotic terms, it is metaphor that opens up to humans the possibility of imagination.
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Metaphors work paradigmatically. That is, a metaphor consists of a set of signs which point to objects that are not usually associated with one another. The person experiencing the metaphor must create a syntagm that brings to mind a concept compatible with the individual's prior experience. It is this act of uncertain creativity that gives the metaphor its imaginative power.


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A metonymic sign is one which, when perceived, brings to mind a concept associated with an object other than the one to which the sign refers. For example, in this sentence: "Today the White House announced that the President would soon take a trip to the Middle East," the sign #White House# would normally denote the large, white, house in which the President of the United States resides. However, for a reader to accept the phrase "the White House announced" literally, he or she would have to take it for granted that houses can talk, and most readers would find this unacceptable. Instead, most U.S. readers will interpret the sign #White House# in this context as referring to the administrative apparatus of the United States government, and would make the assumption that the announcement was delivered by an administrative staff member speaking in the name of the President. Thus, the sign #White House# is taken to refer not to the house itself, but to the procedure by which official administrative announcements are made within the U.S. government. Metonymy is particularly important in the semiotic study of mass communication. A television news show, for example, might present an image of new houses being built in one location to stand for a wholesale improvement in the national economy. Or, a newspaper photograph of a traffic accident might be used to represent the problem of "drunk driving."

When metonyms are used in this fashion, they act syntagmatically to produce an entire narrative from a single piece of the story. Confronted with an image of a smashed car, for example, the reader may construct the story of a driver who stopped at a bar after work for a drink, had too much to drink, failed to heed the warnings of friends, strayed across the center line of the highway and struck an oncoming vehicle. Of course, the story that the reader constructs may not be true to the particular accident being reported, but it will probably be similar, and it will seem true to the reader. Thus, when metonym is used as a shorthand method for evoking a narrative, it becomes a valuable tool in the construction of mass communication messages 1030

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MYTH In the same sense that the term "connotation" refers refers to the personal meaning that a person makes from his or her encounter with a sign, the term "myth" refers to the unconscious, collective meaning that a society makes from a semiotic process. This definition of myth is credited to scholar Roland Barthes, is larger in scope than the common meaning of a myth as a widely know story. The semiotic triangle shows the interaction among sign, concept and object as they relate to individuals.

In Barthes' approach a myth is a chain of semiotic events which are encountered by the members of a society and which carry a meaning that, while shared, lies below the level of conscious understanding. Thus, the semiotic process itself becomes the sign in a "second order" process that operates simultaneously within the entire group.

Myth as a Semiotic Process

As an example, consider the following signs that might be encountered while driving to work: a US interstate highway sign, a large tank truck with the Exxon logo on its side, a sign above a Domino's pizza store, a US Postal Service mail box.

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In US society each of these signs has a common, denotational meaning. Barthes' theory of semiotic myth suggests that the process by which these meanings are established is itself a sign whose meaning is shared among all of the members of the society, and which is likely to be subconscious.

In this case the presence of the colors red, white and blue in each of the signs carries a cultural connotation of "United-Statesness." This connotation may not rise to the consciousness of any particular individual while he or she is encountering the mailbox, pizza store, and so on, but across the breadth of the society, it gives rise to shared meanings that may include notions of individuality, freedom, oppression, consumerism and the like. The uncertainty as to the object of a mythical sign arises from the fact that the construction of the sign is ongoing. Societies constantly renegotiate their myths, and in fact, different subgroups of the same society may make very different mythical meanings from similar semiotic processes.

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