LINGUIST List 14.2416

Fri Sep 12 2003

Review: General Linguistics: Chandler (2002)

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  1. aide ma, Semiotics: The Basics

Message 1: Semiotics: The Basics

Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 11:28:59 +0000
From: aide ma <>
Subject: Semiotics: The Basics

Chandler, Daniel (2002) Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge.

Announced at

Edward McDonald, Chinese Central Television.

This is a textbook in the same Routledge series as Larry Trask¡¯s
Language: The Basics (now in its second edition), alongside other
texts on sociology, politics, philosophy, and archaeology. The writer
of a textbook on semiotics faces problems not encountered by writers
on these other disciplines in that, as the author notes in his opening
remarks, it is not ''widely institutionalized as an academic
discipline'' (p.2), and as he sums up in his closing chapter, it is
still ''a relatively loosely defined critical practice rather than a
unified, fully-fledged analytical method or theory'' (p.207). Other
recent similar introductory works have chosen different strategies to
deal with this looseness and lack of agreement about the aims and
content of the field. For example, Bronwen Martin's Dictionary of
Semiotics (2000) adopts an encyclopedic approach, not attempting to
forge a consensus out of the babel of competing voices, but rather
identifying the different key concepts used in the field; while the
Critical Dictionary of Linguistics and Semiotics edited by Paul Copley
(2001) adds an introductory section of ten essays on major figures and
issues alongside the dictionary proper. Such works of course have
their place, but they are perhaps less useful for the beginning
student in that they perform an essentially passive, referential
function in regard to existing works. Chandler attempts the more
ambitious aim of actually trying to ''offer a coherent account of some
key concepts'' in semiotics (p.xvi), not trying to represent it as a
single unified approach, but rather as a field with similar sets of
questions, and moreover to critique how well it achieves its goals. In
my opinion, he achieves that aim so well as to make his book
potentially one of the foundational works in a new unified conception
of the discipline, like the Language of Sapir (1921) or Bloomfield

Chandler divides his discussion into an introduction on the
definitions and uses of semiotics followed by 7 chapters: 1. Models of
the sign; 2. Signs and things; 3. Analysing structures;
4. Challenging the literal; 5. Codes; 6. Textual interactions; and
7. Limitations and strengths. He also provides suggestions for further
reading, Going further (pp 221-2), and a useful Glossary of key terms
(pp 223-246). Although each chapter can be read by itself, the book
has obviously been designed as a whole, and similar problems and
concepts are addressed from different angles in the separate
chapters. The Introduction (pp 1-15) humorously eases the reader into
the problem of defining the subject by imagining a scenario of someone
going into a bookshop and asking for a book on semiotics, being met at
first ''with a blank look'' (p.1), then trying to explain exactly what
the ''study of signs'' does *not* include, and ending up with the shop
assistant judging you as ''either eccentric or insane'' (p.2). He
moves quickly through the problem of definitions (though in a sense
the whole book is one long definition of semiotics), and then covers
in turn the Saussurean and Piercean traditions; some influential
methodologies; the relationship of semiotics to linguistics; the key
distinction between langue and parole; and finally why we would want
to learn about a discipline which, quoting one trenchant summing up,
''tells us things we already know in a language we will never
understand'' (p.14).
The first two chapters, Models of the Sign (pp 17-54) and Signs and
things (pp 55-78) provide one of the clearest and most illuminating
discussions of this difficult topic I have ever read. Chandler first
deals with the key features of the Saussurean sign as relational and
arbitrary, then the famous Piercean typology of icon, index and
symbol, in a way that explains the thinking of these theorists on
their own terms as well relating them to each other. He also covers
related topics such as the distinction between type and token, and
digital and analogue. He goes on in the second chapter to cover a
topic semiotics is often accused of ignoring, the vexed question of
the relationship between ''the word'' and the ''thing'', introducing
the further key concepts of referentiality and modality (in the sense
of ''perspectives on reality'', see Hodge & Kress 1988).
Chapter 3, Analysing structures (pp 79-122) is a long chapter dealing
with the many and varied ways in which texts, in the widest sense of
that term, have been analysed in different semiotic
traditions. Starting from the basic Saussurean axes of the syntagmatic
and paradigmatic, Chandler looks at different kinds of syntagmatic
relations: conceptual, spatial, and sequential. In the light of these
relations, and concentrating particularly on narrative, he briefly
introduces different kinds of analysis such as Propp¡¯s narrative
functions in fairytales, Levi-Strauss¡¯s fundamental structures of
myths, and Greimas¡¯s narrative syntagms. He then moves on to
notions of paradigmatic opposition, introducing the cultural binary
oppositions of Levi-Strauss, Jakobson¡¯s notion of weighted
oppositions or markedness, and Greimas¡¯s formalism of the semiotic
square as a way of capturing oppositional relations, finishing up with
a brief look at Derridean deconstruction.
In Chapter 4, Challenging the literal (pp 123-146), Chandler shows how
semiotics ''represents a challenge to 'the literal' because it rejects
the possibility that we can neutrally represent 'the way things are'''
(p. 123). He explains the realisation in recent scholarship that our
representation of reality is inescapably mediated by rhetorical tropes
and metaphors, and discusses the different kinds of metaphor broadly
understood, including metonymy and synecdoche, as well as the
difficulty of drawing a clear line between denotation and
connotation. Chapter 5, Codes (pp 147-174), looks at the social
dimension of semiotics, taking codes as providing a ''set of practices
familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural
framework'' (pp 147-8). The notion of code can be seen as deriving
from our basic perceptual modes, since perceptual distinctions like
that between figure and ground as identified by gestalt psychology,
already represent a codification or mediation of reality, rather than
a simple representation (p.150 ff). Chandler defines at least three
kinds of codes -- social, textual and interpretative -- and sees
them as corresponding to ''three key kinds of knowledge required by
interpreters of a text'', knowledge of the world, of the medium and
genre, and modality judgments of the relationship between world and
text (p. 150).
Chapter 6, Textual interactions (pp 175-206) looks at texts as
semiotic objects, which position text users as holders of different
subjectivities, playing various roles in semiotic interaction, and
which 'speak to' other texts through relations of
intertextuality. Chandler discusses different models of communication,
such as Jakobson's famous model of the situation of verbal
communication, and the six basic functions of language derived from
it. He covers such notions as perspective, modes of address, reading
positions, and the problematising of the classic notion of authorship
in such concepts as intertextuality (a text always derives from other
texts) and bricolage (a text is to a large extent made up of existing
fragments of other texts). The final chapter, 7, Limitations and
strengths (pp 207-220), deals briefly but cogently with the uses of
semiotic analysis, critiquing many analyses which are merely
impressionistic and subjective interpretations, and stressing that
interpretations of sign systems must be related to actual
interpretative practices in a community. Although openly critical of
the limitations of the discipline as it stands, Chandler is equally
firm about its centrality to all our lives, as he points out in his
final summing up (p.219): ''There is no escape from signs. Those who
cannot understand them and the systems of which they are a part are in
the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can. In short,
semiotics cannot be left to semioticians.''

Chandler's book is innovative both in its approach and in its origins,
deriving from an original text developed for the internet. The fact
that it was written for undergraduate students, and no doubt trialled
many times with different groups of students since its initial airing
in 1994, goes some way towards explaining its clarity and
accessibility. However, the book is not simply a regurgitation of some
''broad consensus'', since, as I pointed out above, none exists in
this field, but reflects the personal experience of a researcher
tracking his own path through the complex thicket of semiotics, in
this case in relation to theories of writing (Chandler 1995).
As Chandler points out, ''no treatment of [semiotics] can claim to be
comprehensive'' and his own particular account of the field ''betrays
its European origins (in a British inflection), focussing on
Saussurean and post-Saussurean semiotics'', with key theorists
frequently drawn on including, besides Saussure, Pierce, Jakobson,
Hjelmslev, Barthes and Eco. In his suggestions for further reading,
Chandler remarks that it is wise to ''[consult] the foundational
theorists, Saussure and Pierce ... since they are frequently
misrepresented in popular texts '' (p.221) and he has obviously
followed his own advice, his readings of Saussure in particular being
both well-informed and fair. At the same time, in a field covering
such a wide scope, he has not been afraid to cull from secondary or
even tertiary sources, though perhaps he is only being more honest
than most academic writers in admitting that he has read a particular
theorist only in the context of another's work.
Having trekked my own way through writings on the semiotics of music,
among which Nattiez's work (1990) is a rare glimpse of clarity in a
fog of opacity, I feel I can appreciate the hard thinking and editing
that must have gone into Chandler's introduction. He has not been
afraid to do some fairly extensive 'mediating' himself, to make sense
of other's writings in his own, as well as in their terms, and thus
provide a pathway for his readers to develop their own
understandings. At the same time, he has a genuine respect for other
theorists, and is careful to present their work in context, and with a
sympathetic understanding of their aims. Finally he is not afraid to
evaluate concepts and theoretical suggestions, to critique, and to
point out possible gaps and inconsistencies. This book is not only a
model of an introductory textbook, but goes far beyond the limitations
of that genre to give us a genuinely new and consistent view of the
field. I would recommend it to anyone already researching in the
field, as a way of refreshing their understanding of the potential of
semiotic analysis, as well as a perfect guide for teaching students
from undergraduate level up.


Bloomfield, L. 1933. Language. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Chandler, Daniel (1995) The Act of Writing: a Media Theory Approach.
University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Copley, Paul (2001) Critical Dictionary of Semiotics and Linguistics.

Hodge, Robert & Gunther Kress (1988) Social Semiotics. Polity. 

Martin, Bronwen (2000) Dictionary of Semiotics. Cassell

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990) Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology
of Music. trans. Carolyn Abbate. Princeton University Press.

Sapir, Edward (1921) Language. Harcourt.

Edward McDonald has taught linguistics and semiotics at the National
University of Singapore and at Tsinghua University in Beijing; he is
currently working as an English editor at Chinese Central Television.
His research interests lie in the areas of the grammar and discourse
of modern Chinese, ideologies about language, and the semiotics of
language and music.
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