Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview

3

Semiotic rules

Semiotic rules

In traditional semiotics the concept of 'rule' plays an important role. The idea is that, just as people can only play a game together once they have mastered its rules, so people can only communicate, only understand one another, once they have mastered the rules of the game of language - and/or other semiotic modes. As a result, the 'rule book' or 'code' became the key to doing semiotics, the key to understanding how people make and communicate meaning. The rules of this 'rule book' were of two kinds. There were first the rules of the 'lexicon', the rules that stipulate what observable forms (signifiers) will be used to signify what meanings (signifieds), and second the rules of 'grammar', the rules that stipulate how signs (signifiers coupled with signifieds) go together to make messages, for example, the rule that in series of adjectives the numeratives come first, so that the three brown bears is correct, but the brown three bears is not, or the rules of colour harmony, that say that yellow and blue go well together, but magenta and blue less so. De Saussure used the term langue for the rule book, and parole for its actual use in producing speech. Langue, he said, exists:

… in the form of a sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each member of a community, almost like a dictionary of which identical copies have been distributed to each individual' so that ' language exists in each individual, yet is common to all, and … not affected by the will of the depositaries.

(de Saussure, 1974 [1916]: 19)

Again, in Roland Barthes' words:

[Langue] is the social part of language, the individual cannot by himself either create or modify it; it is essentially a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. Moreover, this social product is autonomous, like a game with its own rules, for it can be handled only after a period of learning.

(Barthes, 1967b: 14)

In this kind of formulation rules rule people, not people rules. Social semiotics sees it a little differently. It suggests that rules, whether written or unwritten, are made by people, and can therefore be changed by people. To represent them as if they can not be changed - or not changed at will - is to represent human-made rules as though they are laws of nature. On the other hand, two provisos need to be made. First, not everybody can change

-47-

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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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