Introducing Social Semiotics

By Theo Van Leeuwen | Go to book overview

8

Modality

The concept of modality

'Modality' is the social semiotic approach to the question of truth. It relates both to issues of representation - fact versus fiction, reality versus fantasy, real versus artificial, authentic versus fake - and to questions of social interaction, because the question of truth is also a social question - what is regarded as true in one social context is not necessarily regarded as true in others, with all the consequences that brings. Linguists and semioticians therefore do not ask 'How true is this?' but 'As how true is it represented?' They are concerned not with the absolute truth but with the truth as speakers and writers and other sign producers see it, and with the semiotic resources they use to express it. The two do not necessarily coincide. It is perfectly possible to represent something that does not exist as though it does. Realist fiction thrives on this. And it is equally possible to represent something that actually exists or has existed, as though its existence is in doubt - think for instance of Holocaust-denying 'historians'.

The text below comes from the ENCARTA interactive multimedia encyclopaedia (Microsoft, 1995). It deals with the religious beliefs of Native Americans, hence with what, according to Native Americans, the world is really like. It contains three different voices: the voice of the Native Americans, that of 'the Europeans' and that of the writer of the article. The question I am asking here is: As how true are the truths of these different voices represented? I have italicized the words and phrases that seem relevant to answering this question.

Most Native Americans believe that in the universe there exists a spiritual force that is the source of all life. The Almighty of Native American belief is not pictured as a man in the sky; rather it is believed to be formless and to exist throughout the universe. The sun is viewed as a manifestation of the power of the Almighty, and the Europeans often thought Native Americans were worshipping the sun, when, in fact, they were addressing prayers to the Almighty, of which the sun was a sign and symbol.

As how true is the voice of the Native Americans represented here? First of all, their version of reality -'there exists a spiritual force that is the source of all life', 'the sun manifests the power of the Almighty'-is called a belief and a view. Ever since science has taken over from theology and philosophy as the main arbiter of truth, 'belief' has been opposed to proven fact and the dominant truths of Western societies have had to be grounded in science. The cultures of native peoples do not have such a division between science and theology, and this, in our eyes, makes their truths less true than

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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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