Semiotic Exploration of the Inscriptions on Public Vehicle Walls

By Nyoni, Mika; Nyoni, Tsitsi | NAWA: Journal of Language and Communication, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Semiotic Exploration of the Inscriptions on Public Vehicle Walls


Nyoni, Mika, Nyoni, Tsitsi, NAWA: Journal of Language and Communication


Introduction and data-gathering process

The study focuses on what public vehicle owners decide to write on their vehicles. This is in addition to the mandatory number plate, speed specifications per road type and destination. Most operators have a brand name as well as a brand colour or combination of colours that easily identifies them. To identify the different vehicles they ascribe vehicle numbers such as 01 or 149.All these did not interest the researchers that much. What struck them were the other but creative 'signs' such as pictures of animals and messages on the vehicle wall. The focus of this study is to look at these 'signs', what forms they take and what they mean.

Vehicles can be seen as extensions of the owners' egos. Like cattle in the African setting they are given 'names' according to how they were acquired, their 'behaviour', their contribution to family welfare and reflect interpersonal relationships especially prior to their acquisition.

The research collected the data mainly in Masvingo town although some of it was collected from Gutu , Gweru, Bulawayo and Harare. The messages would be written down as well as the name of the transport operator. Focus was on public vehicles mainly buses. Some of the data was collected from pushcarts and scotch carts. All in all 150 were collected this included copying the messages in notebooks and jotting some notes on where they were sourced. The researchers also used a digital camera to capture fifty of the 'signs'. Some informal interviews were held with some of the people involved such as the 'scania' pushers, drivers, conductors and loaders on the genesis and advertising impact of such messages on the travellers and customers.

Conceptual framework

The term semiotics is from the Greek word 'semeion' which means 'sign'. Semiotics refers to the 'study of signs' (Chandler, 2007:1). Umberto Eco (1976) says that semiotics is concerned with anything that can be taken as a sign. As a study semiotics is associated with the 'pioneer thinkers' the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and later Charles William Morris who developed a behaviourist semiotics. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem01.html (Date accessed: 17-02-10). Some leading modern semiotic theorists include Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Julia Kristeva. Ferdinand de Saussure is associated with the term 'semiology' whilst 'semiotics' refers to the Peircean tradition, but nowadays the term 'semiotics' is more likely to be used as an umbrella term to embrace the whole field (Noth 1990, 14).

The two dominant contemporary models of what constitutes a sign are those of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

The Saussarean Model in brief

Saussure's model of the sign is in the dyadic tradition. Focusing on linguistic signs Saussure defined a sign as being composed of two aspects namely a signifier (the form that a sign takes) and a signified (the concept to which the sign refers).

Within the Saussurean model the sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified. The relationship between the signifier and the signified, which make up the sign, is referred to as 'signification'. A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The same signifier could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign). Similarly many signified could stand for a concept. Saussure focused on the linguistic sign and privileged the spoken word seeing writing as a separate, secondary, dependant but comparable sign-system. (Chandler, 2007).

The Peircean Model in brief

Peirce formulated his own model of the sign of 'semeiotic' and of the taxonomies of signs. Peirce offered a triadic model consisting of the representamen-the form of spoken/written words which the sign which is also referred by some theorists as the 'sign vehicle'; an interpretant, the sense made of the sign or a sign in the mind of the interpreter and an object, that is, something beyond the sign to which it refers (a referent). …

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