Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World

Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World

Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World

Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World


Discourses in Place is essential reading for anyone with an interest in language and the way we communicate. Written by leaders in the field, this text argues that we can only interpret the meaning of public texts like road signs, notices and brand logos by considering the social and physical world that surrounds them. Drawing on a wide range of real examples, from signs in the Chinese mountains, to urban centres in Austria, Italy, North America and Hong Kong, this textbook equips students with the methodology and models they need to undertake their own research in 'geosemiotics', the key interface between semiotics and the physical world. Discourses in Place is highly illustrated, containing real examples of language in the material world, including a 'how to use this book' section, group and individual activities, and a glossary of key terms.


In their book The Social Life of Information (2002) John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Paul Duguid of the University of California, Berkeley argue that in our enthusiasm for the massive increase in information in today's world we have neglected to understand that, as they put it, 'information and individuals are inevitably and always part of rich social networks' (p. xxv). Their thesis is that information only becomes knowledge when it is grounded quite concretely in the social, material world.

There are just three ways a sign such as a word, a sentence, a picture, a graph or a gesture can have meaning in semiotic theory. It can be a picture of the thing in the world. In that case we call it an icon. The little picture of a happy face made by email users out of a colon and the right parenthesis ( :)) is an icon. It shows us a schematic picture of a smiling face. A sign can also be a completely arbitrary representation of the thing in the world. In that case we call it a symbol. A green traffic light means we can continue driving. There is nothing inherent in the color green that 'means' move ahead or keep going. It is an arbitrary association. Finally, a sign means something because of where and when it is located in the world. In this case it is called an index. An arrow pointing one direction down a street is an index which shows the exact direction in which traffic should go.

There is a difference among these three types of signs, though. Icons and symbols can exist independently and can encode independent although entirely abstract meanings. The property of indexicality, however, is a property of all signs. Icons, symbols, and indexes are all three of them also indexes. This difference between indexes and the other two categories is the substance of this book Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World.

All signs, whether they are icons or symbols are also indexes. That is because all signs must be located in the material world to exist. Information and knowledge must be represented by a system of signs - icons, symbols, and indexes; information and knowledge cannot have any independent existence. The familiar stop sign on the street corner is a symbol in several ways: The letters 'S', 'T', 'O', and

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