LINGUIST List 14.586

Fri Feb 28 2003

Review: Semantics: Johansen and Larsen (2002)

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  1. Evguenia Malaia, Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Message 1: Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Date: Fri, 28 Feb 2003 09:19:54 +0000
From: Evguenia Malaia <evie1706hotmail.com>
Subject: Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Johansen, Jorgen D. and Svend E. Larsen (2002) Signs in Use: An
Introduction to Semiotics. Routledge, paperback ISBN: 0-415-26204-6,
256pp, $25.95.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-1511.html


Evguenia Malaia, Department of Linguistics, Purdue University

Signs in Use is a textbook for the students of semiotics. It satisfies
three main goals of an introductory course: to explain the process of
creation and exchange of meaning through signs, to introduce the
concepts for analysis of sign systems, and to show how semiotics works
as a theory and practice of understanding culture. The book organizes
the concepts from simple to difficult (Chapter 2 -- code; Chapter 3 --
signs; Chapter 4 -- discourse; Chapter 5 -- action; Chapter 6 -- text;
Chapter 7 -- culture), and it moves through them smoothly, introducing
relevant theories and illustrating them along the way. The examples
are abundant, and appropriately accompanied by schemas, figures, and
pictures.

The book ''Signs in Use'' is addressed both to students of semiotics
and to general public, interested in the science. Its main purpose is
to provide a beginner with solid theoretical basis in semiotics,
knowledge of key concepts and relevant terminology. It also strives to
discuss different approaches in the study of semiotics. The book
introduces different schools of thought and poses problems encountered
by them, generally stimulating discussion of relevant issues in
semiotics. The succinct biographies of influential personas at the end
of the book provide a good overview of the development of science as
well. Though the book does not require any previous knowledge of the
field, it nevertheless explores the subject very thoroughly, in a very
reader-friendly style, with many examples from daily life.

This book is characterized a by specific structure: it follows the
path of treating increasingly complex phenomena and widening the
perspective of the treatment of signs, as chapters move from code
through sign, discourse, action, text and, finally, to culture. This
layout is justified by the purpose of the book to make an accessible
introduction to the science. The definite benefit of this approach is
that the concepts are acquired by the reader in order of their
complexity and all relevant terminology is introduced in due course as
the chapters unfold. The glossary and index provided by authors also
allow the reader to study the chapters separately if so desired.

All chapters in the book have very clear, transparent structure. Each
one is divided into subchapters ordered from simple to more complex
dealing with different aspects of the chapter's subject; e.g. Chapter
3 ''Signs'' deals with the notion of representation first, then with
the actual concept of sign, following up with sign systems, and
semiosis -- the sign-process. Both chapters and subchapters are
referenced in the contents.

Short biographies of influential personalities in semiotics, and a
thorough glossary at the end of the book make it an excellent
reference source for everyone interested in semiotics. The
bibliography at the end of the book also allows interested readers to
pursue particular topics of interest which might not have been covered
exhaustively even in such a comprehensive survey of the area.

The authors also included an extensive index of the topics covered in
the book. Some of the entries in the index are conveniently broken
down so that a reader can easily find information on, for example,
different kinds of interpretants - dynamical, final, or immediate.

The authors start the book with a short statement of its purpose and
content: to introduce the reader to the arguments and concepts uniting
the field of semiotics, rather than go into details regarding specific
fields, methods, and schools. The authors present semiotic arguments,
integrating European and American schools of thought (based on
theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce,
respectively) to the extent that they make the argument clear. I find
this goal-oriented approach to be of great advantage to the reader.

The book has several limitations, which the authors explain in the
introduction. It is not meant to be a historical or methodological
survey of semiotics, but rather a reader-friendly explanation on the
way of working with signs of various scopes.

The book meets its goals of being accessible, reader-friendly, and a
structurally coherent introduction to the field with argumentation on
various levels of sign-treatment. It is actually a good reading in its
own right, even though the examples at times venture somewhat far
afield.

As a suggestion for improvement, it would have been useful to provide
a more in-depth contents of the book. For instance, a sub-chapter of
chapter 3, ''How does the sign represent something?'' has a two-level
structure of its own:

The indexical sign -- reagents vs. designators
Iconic signs
 Images
 Diagrams
 Metaphors
Symbolic signs

This thorough treatment is not evident from the content, even though
sub-entries are still easily found through the index.

To summarize the book's merits, it gives a good survey of the field's
development and approaches (as the authors themselves put it, ''the
present book is situated in an already existing semiotic
landscape''). Although there are quite a number of books treating
particular aspects of the subject of semiotics in a more comprehensive
and detailed manner, this particular book is notable for the
accessibility in its treatment of the subject and for its particularly
practical approach. It is addressed not only to specialists in
language, literature, and culture, but also to wider audiences,
interested in human interaction with signs.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Evguenia Malaia is a Ph.D. student at Purdue University. Her main
interests include computational linguistics, ontological semantics,
psycholinguistics, and semiotics. She has graduated from Chuvash State
Pedagogical University, Russia, with a degree in Applied Linguistics
in 2001.
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