Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview

2

Semiotic change

Semiotic innovation
Social semioticians not only inventorize semiotic resources and investigate how semiotic resources are used in specific contexts, they also contribute to the discovery and development of new semiotic resources and new ways of using existing semiotic resources. In other words, semioticians can contribute to semiotic change. Until recently, semiotic change has not been high on the semiotic agenda. One reason lies in de Saussure's (1974 [1916]) distinction between 'synchronic' and 'diachronic' semiotics. A synchronic description is a description of a state of affairs as it is at a given moment in time, a kind of snapshot or freeze frame. A diachronic description is a historical description, a description of how things change and evolve. Reacting against the predominance of diachronic descriptions of language in his day, de Saussure made a plea for describing language synchronically, as a system. He did not want to see this replace diachronic description, merely to complement it. But subsequently the pendulum swung the other way. Systematic, synchronic semiotics took off. Historical, diachronic semiotics had to take a backseat and virtually ground to a halt. This is a pity because studying how things came into being is a key to understanding why they are the way they are, and unfortunately people have a tendency to forget this and reconstruct history so that things come to be seen as part of a natural order rather than as invented for specific reasons which may well no longer exist.Social semiotics attempts to combine the 'synchronic' system and the 'diachronic' narrative, as is hopefully evident from the way this book is written. Three aspects are singled out:
Social reasons for the change

As society changes, new semiotic resources and new ways of using existing semiotic resources may be needed. In this chapter I will discuss this by looking at a case study, typography. For a long time typography saw its role as one of transmitting the words of authors as clearly and legibly as possible, without adding anything of its own to the text. Today it is changing into a semiotic mode in its own right, and beginning to add its own, typographically realized meanings, alongside and simultaneously with those realized by the author's words. One aim of this chapter is to place this development in its social and historical context.

Resistance to change

Semiotic change often meets with resistance, because past ways of doing things may be 'hardwired' in technologies, or in the layout of buildings, or because people

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