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Review of  From Sign to Signing

Reviewer: Margarita V. Balamakova
Book Title: From Sign to Signing
Book Author: Wolfgang G. Müller Olga Fischer
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Cognitive Science
Language Family(ies): Sign Language
Issue Number: 14.1735

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Date: Mon, 16 Jun 2003 22:57:43 +0400
From: Margarita Balamakova
Subject: From Sign to Signing: Iconicity in Language and Literature

Muller, Wolfgang G. and Fischer, Olga, ed. (2002) From Sign to
Signing: Iconicity in Language and Literature 3. John
Benjamins Publishing Co.

Reviewed by Margarita Balamakova, English Philology Department, Ivanovo
State University (Russia)


The volume under review concludes the three-part collection of
papers originally given at the Third Symposium on Iconicity in
Language and Literature held at Jena, March 29-31, 2001 by
joint efforts of the University of Jena, the University of
Amsterdam, and the University of Zurich. The research objects
cover a wide range of sign instances from an imagic to a
diagrammatic kind and far beyond, as it is stated in the
introduction "From Signing back to Signs", where the book
editors Olga Fischer and Wolfgang G. Muller trace the history
of signs-and-signing research back to when it started as a
theory (1960s), and overview its development up to the present
edition. The collection of works has 5 sections, each dealing
with a certain aspect of iconicity studies. Every research
presentation is supplemented with a list of reference works.

Part I. Auditory and visual signs and signing

"The influence of sign language iconicity on semantic
conceptualization" by Klaudia Grote and Erika Linz
investigates the role of iconicity in signed language
emphasizing the context's impact on sign interpretation, thus
creating another not-so-orthodox variant of linguistic

"What You See Is What You Get: Iconicity and metaphor in the
visual language of written and signed poetry: A cognitive
poetic approach" by William J. Herlofsky also presents an
experimental study of iconicity, now in Japanese sign
language, as viewed through metaphor analysis within a
cognitive approach to language.

"Spatial iconicity in two English verb classes" by Axel Hubler
is a result of his studies in gestures as used by speakers of
a spoken language: the strong connection between linguistic
signs and gestures is proved by a change in the former caused
by a loss of the latter, and vice versa, thus providing a
compensation for the missing element of one conceptual whole.

"What imitates birdcalls?: Two experiments on birdcalls and
their linguistic representations" by Keiko Masuda explores a
similar link between two sign groups of different physical
origin, namely, between oral signs of birdcalls as real-world
sounds and those imitated by us as linguistic signs.

Part II. Visual iconicity and iconic mapping

"Perspective in experimental shaped poetry: A semiotic
approach" by John J. White has resulted from a study of shaped
poetry (a 'cross-breed' between poetry and visual arts)
through semiotic approach to its typographical iconicity
exemplified in the evolution of perspective; it covers a broad
range of sources from Italian Futurists to the turn-of-the-
century "holopoems" in order to explore iconic signification
from the point of view of perceptual conventions and cultural

"Where reading peters out: Iconic images in the entropic text"
by Julian Moyle is a in-depth research paper exploring
creative outlook of a poet reflected in his works and
explicated in their visual representation: the iconic image of
a poem can reach far beyond what eye sees and mind perceives.

"Iconic representation of space and time in Vladimir Sorokin's
novel "The Queue" (Ochered')" by Andreas Ohme uncovers
expressive textual means and their two-dimensional analogs
seen on a book page: a queue of Soviet people to buy consumer
goods in its endless length and fuzzy communication is
visualized by typographic means, thus revealing the ideology
and reality of Soviet era through textual iconicity.

"Vision and Prayer": Dylan Thomas and the Power of X" by
Matthias Bauer explores yet another piece of shaped poetry
that is seemingly easy to understand; however, further
analysis accounts for the poem's mystical geometry, which has
no straight-forward connection with its content but requires
an in-depth exploration of the poet's self-expression.

"Diagrams in narrative: Visual strategies in contemporary
fiction" by Christina Ljungberg deals with postmodernist
fiction as empiric material for research in its visual
constituents and their iconic significance; explored is the
interaction of non-verbal phenomena like maps and photographs
with their all-verbal surrounding.

Part III. Structural iconicity

"The iconicity of Afrikaans reduplication" by C. Jac Conradie
studies a fairly recent phenomenon in Afrikaans -
reduplication - that preserved its clearly iconic nature since
it underwent little grammaticalization.

"Diagrammatic iconicity in the lexicon: Base and derivation in
the history of German verbal word-formation" by Volker Harm
diachronically approaches the history of German to expose the
iconic representation of a semantically marked meaning in a
morphologically marked form where the initial form (stem)
bears the initial (prototypical) meaning; traced is the
tendency for derivations as prefixed forms to acquire
peripheral meanings.

"Creative syntax: Iconic principles within the symbolic" by
Beate Hampe and Doris Schonefeld goes beyond word boundaries:
verb phrases can be combined with new, non-standard,
arguments, thus forming argument frames whose perception can
be achieved through comparing them with same-range frames of
more general verbs; this type of iconicity is similar to the
one of a metaphor.

"Aspects of grammatical iconicity in English" by Gunter
Rohdenburg is devoted to investigating grammatical variation
from the point of view of its form and factors determining it
in modern English: observed is the iconic effect of the
principles of quantity and of distance as they are applied to
the connection between grammatical form and its referential

"Beatrice: or The geometry of love" by Wilhelm Potters
'verifies harmony by algebra' (A. Pushkin): intertextual
relation between Dante's two famous works undergoes a
numerological and geometrical investigation of the iconicity
that relates them.

"How metaphor and iconicity are entwined in poetry: A case in
Haiku" by Masako K. Hiraga also exposes the iconicity of
poetry, though at a different angle; the author views metaphor
in a haiku in the context of structure-and-meaning

Part IV. Intermedial iconicity

"Intermedial iconicity in fiction: Tema con variazioni" by
Werner Wolf discusses 'pictorialization', 'filmicization', and
'musicalization' of fiction as instances of literature
functioning as if through a different medium while using its
borrowed expressive means.

"Iconicity and literary translation" by Elzbieta Tabakowska
focuses on the translator's duty to preserve the original
iconicity of the source text in the translation text being
created: she explores theoretical grounds for translator's
choices to be made.

Part V. New applications of sign theory

"Iconizing literature" by Jorgen Dines Johansen is a
theoretical study of iconicity from a reader's perspective:
not only the author works on the text while creating its
iconic image but the reader as well - in the process of
perception - decoding the text iconicity by his/her own means
and to his/her understanding.

"From signal to symbol: Towards a systems typology of
linguistic signs" by Piotr Sadowski is an attempt to classify
linguistic signs into emotive, indexical, iconic, and
arbitrary ones. The approach is based on 'systems theory of
information: information is segmented into 1) information
proper and 2) para-information, the former being treated as
physical facts and the latter - as processing signals, i.e.
turning them into signs.

The volume contains useful tools for prompt orientation in its
424 text pages: Author Index and Subject Index, both
alphabetically organized.

Author Index (P. 425) contains 409 entries and provides quick
access to all proper names mentioned.

Subject Index (P. 433) is structured into 328 reference
entries (some having further subdivision) providing page
numbers for the terms used.


What's in a sign? Anything that stands for something else -
i.e. a sign stands for an object or concept: the meaning is
created both through encoding (by the source) and decoding (by
the receiver, or reader - in semiotic analysis). F. de
Saussure developed a construct: a sound or image (a signifier)
and the concept for which it stands (the signified); being a
linguist, Saussure saw the relationship between these two as
arbitrary (understood by convention) while C. S. Peirce being
a cognitive philosopher defined signs in a broader way than
language and focused on their links to the objects: signs are
of three types - icons, indexes, and symbols (Hoopes 1991:
239). Symbols are arbitrary, but icons and indexes are
motivated. Peirce defines an icon as similar to its subject -
a representation where likeness or resemblance is a
determining characteristic. Another important element is the
notion of code (sign system) that functions as a system of
rules: semiotic code is broader than just language, it various
sign systems as kinesics, sign language, fan language of
medieval Europe, etc. Nature can be seen as a system of coded
signs: Eco argues that the roots of semiotic interpretation
are rooted in times when hunters and trackers could read the
signs of nature. Also important is the notion of the
interpretant: out of the initial dyad Peirce created a triadic
construct of sign-object-interpretant where by interpretant he
meant the idea contained in the concept as it is decoded or a
subsequent thought to which the sign gives rise (Hoopes 1991:

Thus, a thought is a sign interpretation, an idea which
provides the link between cognition and communication; the
meaning process (finding the signified) is an infinite process
of interpretation - to interpret means to define a
relationship (Eco 1986: 44). Some iconicity studies are
primarily focused on literature and language, and, as Deely
notes language has a privileged role in semiotics (1990: 27):
Saussure was a linguist and although he admitted that signs
could be other than words, his work privileged language as the
most important sign system. Likewise, the Moscow-Tartu school
of semiotics (Ivanov, Lotman, Toporov et al.) calls language a
primary modeling system because it uses natural language as
its base, and all other sign systems as secondary; natural
language is often viewed as the primary substructure for all
other sign systems (Sebeok 1991: 50).

Considering the above-said, it looks quite natural that
iconicity is studied in language and literature: the book
under review contains careful case study analyses and in-depth
philosophical explorations of the boundaries of iconicity in
the twenty-first century. The book representing the whole
series is a crucial resource for anyone studying signs and
signing today as it explores various technologies of signing,
starts new directions in philological research and creates
unusual intersections of critical thought in contemporary
culture. The collection of works facilitates cross-
disciplinary dialogues: certainties and assumptions about
signs and signing undergo critical exploration in a variety of
objects from everyday life artifacts to most complicated
mental constructs.

This kind of a book has been needed to give the now
flourishing field of iconicity studies a sense of its scope
and direction and to make a significant contribution to
understanding the aesthetic and ethical implications of the
changing world. That is why those lucky to have attended the
Third Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature (2001)
at Jena will now virtually grow in numbers thanks to the
current edition - collection of its works - as they will find
it an invaluable resource for further research. Yet, I wish I
had been there.


1. Deely, J. 1990. Basics of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
2. Eco, U. 1986. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Midland Book Edition.
3. Hoopes, J. Peirce on Signs. 1991. Chapel Hill NC: The
University of North Carolina Press.
4. Sebeok, Th. A. 1991. A Sign is Just a Sign. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.

Margarita Balamakova is an associate professor, PhD, at the Department of English Philology, Ivanovo State University (Russia) currently teaching English and new information technologies in linguistics to future language professionals and current language teachers. She is the Director of IvSU Linguistic Center. Language application spheres of top interest are cross-cultural communication and translation; recent research projects deal with text production and perception in the Internet.