Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview

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Semiotic resources

Semiotic resources
Books about semiotics often start with the question 'What is semiotics?' I would like to ask the question differently: 'What kind of activity is semiotics?', 'What do semioticians do?' And my answer is that semioticians do three things:
1 collect, document and systematically catalogue semiotic resources - including their history
2 investigate how these resources are used in specific historical, cultural and institutional contexts, and how people talk about them in these contexts - plan them, teach them, justify them, critique them, etc.
3 contribute to the discovery and development of new semiotic resources and new uses of existing semiotic resources.

The first two of these activities will be discussed and exemplified in this chapter, the third in chapter 2, where I deal with semiotic innovation.

The term 'semiotic resource' is therefore a key term in social semiotics. It originated in the work of Halliday who argued that the grammar of a language is not a code, not a set of rules for producing correct sentences, but a 'resource for making meanings' (1978:192). In this book I extend this idea to the 'grammar' of other semiotic modes, and define semiotic resources as the actions and artefacts we use to communicate, whether they are produced physiologically - with our vocal apparatus; with the muscles we use to create facial expressions and gestures, etc. - or by means of technologies - with pen, ink and paper; with computer hardware and software; with fabrics, scissors and sewing machines, etc. Traditionally they were called 'signs'. For instance, a frown would be a sign of disapproval, the colour red a sign of danger, and so on. Signs were said to be the union of a signifier - an observable form such as a certain facial expression, or a certain colour - and a signified - a meaning such as disapproval or danger. The sign was considered the fundamental concept of semiotics. One of the most famous definitions of semiotics is that of Ferdinand de Saussure (1974 [1916]: 16) 'A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable … I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion, “sign”).' In social semiotics the term 'resource' is preferred, because it avoids the impression that 'what a sign stands for' is somehow pre-given, and not affected by its use. As Hodge and Kress (1988:18) have put it, in a discussion of the work of Vološinov - an important precursor of social semiotics - 'signs may not be divorced from the concrete forms of social intercourse

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Introducing Social Semiotics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vi
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Preface xi
  • Part I - Semiotic Principles 1
  • 1 - Semiotic Resources 3
  • 2 - Semiotic Change 26
  • 3 - Semiotic Rules 47
  • 4 - Semiotic Functions 69
  • Part II - Dimensions of Semiotic Analysis 91
  • 5 - Discourse 93
  • 6 - Genre 117
  • 7 - Style 139
  • 8 - Modality 160
  • Part III - Multimodal Cohesion 179
  • 9 - Rhythm 181
  • 10 - Composition 198
  • 11 - Information Linking 219
  • 12 - Dialogue 248
  • Recommended Reading 269
  • Glossary of Key Terms 273
  • References 289
  • Index 297
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