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Review of  Signs in Use

Reviewer: Evie Malaia
Book Title: Signs in Use
Book Author: Jørgen Dines Johansen Svend Erik Larsen
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable
Issue Number: 14.586

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Date: Wed, 26 Feb 2003 08:28:31 +0300
From: Evguenia Malaia
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.

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

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
The indexical sign -- reagents vs. designators
Iconic signs
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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