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Ministry of Education.

Visual Language: Semiotics

The study of visual language, which draws on semiotics, provides an understanding of the ways in which visual and verbal elements are combined to produce particular meanings and effects. It involves the interpretation of dramatic conventions, signs, symbols and symbolic elements of visual language.

English in the New Zealand Curriculum, page 39

Underlying the study of visual language is the study of semiotics. The glossary of English in the New Zealand Curriculum defines semiotics as:

The study of signs and symbols and their use in human communication, referring not only to language, but also to cultural and social elements such as clothing.

In other words, semiotics extends the concept of language to include not only words but many systems of communication. This concept can involve different ways of communicating - sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch - and it can cover all contexts, including clothing, politics, eating, or housing. Semiotics is a vast area of enquiry covering the ways we create and interpret patterns in all aspects of social and cultural behaviour. This is obviously far too big an area to investigate in a curriculum where the "language"to be explored is restricted to the three strands of oral, written, and visual language. The term "semiotics"is introduced here, though, because it is an especially useful concept when looking at visual language.

The basic unit in semiotics is the sign. In English in the New Zealand Curriculum, a sign is defined as:

... any symbol or form that has a conventional meaning within a particular community. "Sign"is a broad term that includes visual symbols, conventional gestures, and other types of non-verbal communication, as well as words. When we recognise a sign - by eye or ear - we recognise both its pattern and its meaning.

The term "sign"was introduced around 1900 by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who is sometimes called "the father of modern linguistics". Using a word as an example of a sign, De Saussure showed that a word had two parts - a concept and a sound image. For instance, in the human mind, the word "tree" is connected to a concept of a tree.

The two must go together: we cannot talk about the concept without the word, and the word without the concept would just be a sound without meaning. De Saussure referred to the concept part of the meaning as the signified and called the sound image part the signifier. The two together make up the sign, and like two sides of a coin, the concept and word cannot be separated. These terms - sign, signified, and signifier - are important in semiotics.

The notion of the sign is particularly useful for visual language. Obvious examples of signs other than words are road signs, signs at airports, or signs on car dashboards. These can all be understood by people who do not share a common language but who do share an agreed understanding of what these visual signs or signifiers mean.

A sign may be a word, like "tree". It can be a gesture, like a nod or a shake of the head or a handshake. It can be a pattern of sound, like booing or cheering. The important thing is that there is an agreed understanding of the meaning of the sign within a certain social group.

Visual signs can have denotations and connotations of meaning in the same ways as words do. See The Grammar Toolbox on pages 40-1. For example, the Air New Zealand koru sign, in combination with the airline's name, makes up the distinctive brand signature used by Air New Zealand. This koru has a definable denotation, signifying a well known airline. But it also has other connotations. It has come to symbolise not only the airline but also the region within which Air New Zealand is based, the Pacific. As used by Air New Zealand as a marketing tool, this koru sign has further connotations of travel, relaxation, discovery, and freedom. In wider terms, Maori view genetic koru designs as symbolising energy. Some iwi also view koru designs as a frond of manaia that refers to the ancestral homeland. It is clear then that the connotations attached to the koru are extensive and profound for many people.

The red logo carrying the words "Coca Cola"may simply denote a beverage, but in its advertising, the lettering style and the related visual images of young people at a sunlit beach provide connotations of youth, freedom, vitality, happiness, and the United States of America. The television advertisement, which adds a lively soundtrack and moving images, not only denotes the product, Coca-Cola, but also extends the positive connotations of energy and pleasure, "signified"by specific "signifiers."

The meanings of signs can vary from culture to culture. Several examples of the significance of different gestures in New Zealand and Samoa are described in the Oral Language section of this book. The meaning of signs can also change over time. Dungarees, denim shirts, and working men’s boots once signalled a working-class labourer, but today these clothes have become trendy and expensive, worn by well-to-do young people.

Summary of Terms

semiotics signifier
sign signified

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009