1. Language exists outside of us

I watched this video (see below) last night and was really excited to learn that one of the points in Saussure’s model places language outside of us.  Professor Paul Fry explains that language is not inside of us. It is a system of signs, conventions and codes which exists outside and to which we adhere in order to express something.

This shift in thinking about where language exists has been crucial for me and I can really begin to understand our relationship with language in a way I hadn’t before. I had always thought of the words coming out of us – as an eruption or manifestation of something going on inside, which it is, but it’s not the language that goes on inside. At the very least not until we’ve developed the capacity to use language. After we have done,  and once we have begun to internalise the external system, it probably becomes harder to separate out. But langauge was not inside to begin with, even if by now in our evolutionary path we are genetically coded to learn language very quickly. Even then what we are learning is how to use the system that exists outside of us.

From my previous point of view, thinking about language as something inside rather than outside doesn’t account for the mismatch that often occurs between what a person says and what they might be trying to say or trying not to say. Also it is true that some people in society have greater access to language, and to more of the many languages available to us in our culture, like theatre, film, dance, art – along with any rules, codes and conventions – and so are able to express themselves more elegantly for instance, or more eloquently. And perhaps also think more widely too. They are not born that way though. The nature/nurture debate of course will come into play but I am fast becoming someone who believes that the landscape into which one is born has the greatest impact on a person’s inner existence rather than the other way round. To think not seems bizarre in fact. The more language one has access to the greater a person’s potential repertoire for being able to express themselves accurately.  Not only that, thinking about langauge as being outside of us helps me to see more clearly how language structures have an impact on how a person thinks and behaves, and ergo the greater access one has to language the broader that person’s horizons might be. Which is part of why reading to children regularly is such a worthwhile thing to do.

I have thought about acting and rehearsing, about finding ways to own the language provided in the text. Thinking about language being outside of us should not be so alien to me because of my work history. In that scenario actors are given langauge and must find ways to conjure up the intentions within themselves and their group that might lead to those words being expressed in that situation. I used to think of words erupting out of us but now I think I can see that intentions erupt out of us and we reach for langauge to express those intentions or drives. Langauge, and by now I am talking about signs of all descriptions, so using langauge in the broadest terms possible, allows our inner existence a means to operate externally and to connect with our group in some way.


2. Code

With relation to photographs Barthes stated, “The photographic message is a message without a code” (Chandler, Loc 2799). Chandler goes on to say that pure photographs at the time of Barthes’ writing probably did not possess semiotic code in the same way a book or advert might. John Berger said “photographs are automatic ‘records of things seen’ (Berger, 1968; 179, 181)” (Chander, loc 2771)

Codes are far too complex to discuss properly here in these brief notes and I’m still getting my head round the subject but, “A code is a set of practises familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework” (Chandler, Loc 2539) Chandler goes on to quote Stuart Hall, “there is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a code. (Hall, 1973; 131)” Perhaps the most systematic code is human language. There are a myriad of other codes too, from what we wear, to what we listen to, to what we eat, to how we perceive.

But in relation to photographs, I think photographs nowadays are coded as well as possessing signs and signification. I think social media and the ubiquitous use of photographs, along with the ease with which people can edit using filters makes this so. Follow any number of photographers on Instagram and soon you can begin to categorise them. For example and this is very limited : B&W unfiltered, B&W Nior (heavy use of vignetting, contrasty, dark) Colour, (vibrant), Colour & contrast (Deep shadows, highly saturated) Unfiltered, Selfies, Glossy look.  All these categories and the techniques used in each category are codes which appeal to some and not others. The codes might be saying, I am like you, or I am not like you, for instance. I think one can no longer say with certainty that photography is a message without a code

Image (c)SJField 2015 (Edited in such a way as to contain a code)


Professor Paul Fry, Linguistics and Literature, user generated content, Yale, Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxnqHukr-Oc (accessed 1 August 2016)

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics. London: Routledge.



2 thoughts on “Notes: Semiotics

  1. I haven’t looked at the video yet but your writing makes sense to me. This point about the difference between the intention and the way it’s expressed in language is really interesting. I think it explains why some people find it so much easier to express themselves in images because they just can’t find the words to express what’s going on for them.


    1. It’s not a short video so don’t feel compelled unless you’re especially interested. It was good to watch in conjunction with getting through Chandler’s book. I wish I still had my copy of The Raw and the Cooked. It would be useful! Mind you, if I think Chandler’s book is hard…

      As for images, they are pre-verbal, aren’t they? I wonder if they are potentially less systematised than verbal language, also potentially less refined, not less complex, but less able to communicate in tiny units with precision. Saying that, they can be all of those things too but I suspect it is more challenging. It’s interesting we are using images so much more nowadays.

      07581 694934 http://www.sarahjanefield.co.uk @fieldsarahjane



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