Language locations in the material world
Human beings are the only animal species that use a language for
communication. Although some higher animals make sounds and gestures to
express their needs, demands and desires, these systems are not
imaginative, creative and elaborate apart from being flexible, diverse,
effective and efficient. There are several definitions of language.
However the definition by Bernard Bloch and George L Trager in 1942
is well accepted by many linguists. It states that language is a system
of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.
Crystal has defined it as the systemic, conventional use of sounds,
signs or written symbols in a human society for communication and self
expression (Cristal, 1998).
In a given situation or a context a person's art of speaking, writing
or using signs is referred to as language in performance (parole in
French) while the linguistic system lying underneath is called
competence. (Langue in French). Of the several distinguishing features
of a language in use its creativity or productivity is quite inspiring,
significant and relevant for effective communication as well as for
imaginative practical use.
In particular the spoken form is very versatile, flexible and its
creative potential is very high. Almost anything under the sun can be
expressed at any time to any one who shares a particular language or a
dialogue. Language is looked upon as a system of signs. Language is a
part of genetic endowment. A language has a three tier structure:a
phonological structure, a syntactic structure and a semantic structure.
Language is rule governed. Chomsky was particular on the grammatical use
of the language when he wrote about the deep and superficial structural
formats of any language. According to Chomsky universal grammar is an
innate component of the human mind and in his small book Syntactic
Structures (1957). he emphasized the introduction of mentalist concepts
into linguistic theories and severely criticized the behaviourist theory
of B.f Skinner. According to Chomsky the human subject has an innate
ability to create new sentences-sentences that he has never used before
and has an internalized system of rules that relate sound and meaning in
a particular way. Hymes was particular about speech communities and
communicative competence of speakers. Whenever we use language we make
our speech acts and speech events context sensitive. Language use cannot
exist in isolation without being context sensitive.
Relationship of a word
Crystal (1998) has given two explanations for the word context in
linguistics. In one he relates it to the focus of attention which is the
environment. Without knowing about the context the meaning of a word
becomes ambiguous. Providing this context is called contextualization.
In most instances words, phraces, clauses and sentences' are context
sensitive and not context free. In a context sensitive grammar the rules
apply in particular contexts. The other explanation of context is the
relationship of a word in relation to another word in a linguistic
environment (situation context). Usually in English the noun comes
before the verb.
There are also relationships of words with history, geography and
human ethnicity etc. Social contexts identify a word in relation to age,
sex, occupation and status of the speaker. But the use of language by
way of signs in relation to specific locations is becoming very popular
and is almost ubiquitous phenomenon in all parts of the world.
This field is Geosoemiotics-the study of the meaning systems by which
language is located in the material world (Scollon, 2003). It is a
global phenomenon; the best example is expressed by the numerous trade
advertisements that appear in urban environments throughout the year. In
the semiotic theory, there are three specific ways where a sign such as
a word, a sentence, a picture, a graph, or a gesture can convey some
meaning. An icon, a symbol and an index are these three forms of signs.
One knowingly or unknowingly observes or sees these signs whenever one
takes a walk along public roads day and night even in the middle of busy
cross roads (Traffic islands) these signs are visible. The picture of a
pretty baby in an advertisement for some brand of artificial milk is a
The colour lights at cross roads are symbols and an arrow drawn on a
white board displayed at a road bifurcation, indicating a direction for
motorists to follow, is an index. Economic and health indices are being
used by most countries to demonstrate their respective socio-economic
development. But in all these three signs an indexation is inherent as
all three indicate or represent some situation or a context.
But the most important fact is that if these signs are displayed out
of place these will not carry meanings. If the road colour lights are
displayed in a house or a classroom rather than at a traffic junction it
lacks meaning and is not instructive. Thus language (as it is a system
of signs) used out of place (context) lacks meaning and relevance. The
use of context free language has become disfavour over the years for
These signs in the form of icons, symbols and indexes either in
isolation or in combination and sometimes together with verbal signs
promote communication and discourse among the various observers who view
these. The first display of a new icon would attract the attention of
the public and stimulate them to guess the content meaning.
A few days later the same icon would be displayed with some verbal
message so as to clear the doubts created by the first icon. This is the
strategy adopted for advertising new services and new consumer products.
The advertising of modern mobile telephone facilities segregated into
different brand types has been operating on a competitive basis over the
years fortified with numerous attractive incentive packages.
In the world of advertisements it is not necessary always to explain
issues, matters and thoughts by way of writing lengthy explanations or
by way of making grand speeches. Indexicality can be impressively
carried out through icons, indexes and symbols.
A sign can resemble an object (icon), it can point to or attached to
the object (index) or it can conventionally or arbitrarily associated
with the object (symbol). Icons are largely in pictorial form. At
railway stations and bus halts there are pictorial presentations to
assist the passengers on various aspects of travel. These are in
pictorial forms. Sometimes small maps are displayed for the passengers
to identify their spatial locations.
The road map is a powerful icon where one can locate ones position on
the roads. A casual walk along the city streets would open opportunities
for viewing the numerous advertisements, notices, posters and bill
boards and cut outs which are attractively displayed. Some are
All these are rich in signs (icons, symbols and indices). Firstly
they impart messages for communication and observer interaction. Some of
these provide information about the socio-economic and health situation
of the country. The death notices inform the public about some one's
death. Consumer products are well advertised.
The incentive schemes offered by trade organizations and banks too
are prominently advertised. Advertisements indicating joyous situations
such as musical shows, dramas and films as well as political meetings
are not uncommon.
Large icons of political heroes adorn even nearby traffic junctions.
Sometimes these posters provide amusement even to a morose person. When
a nasty or a foolish comment by a politician is dissected or humorously
criticized or turned into a cartoon the viewers are entertained free of
financial charges. The existence of religious institutions and
educational institutions and signs pertaining to their activities
epitomize the prevalence of good virtues in the society amidst an
indolent consumer oriented society which is highly volatile in political
flavour and charge.
The other important observation is that the society is perpetually in
a state flux and change as exemplified by the constant and repeated
change in the nature, design and visibility aspects of these signs. As
the famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure observed “Time changes
all things: there is no reason why language should escape this universal
law” (Saussure, 1959). Another aspect denoted by these commercial
advertisements is the fact of social evolution and survival of the
fittest in competitive social and commercial activities.
The spirit of competition in an open economic milieu is clearly
indexed by the eposidic, repetitive and ever surging different types of
commercial advertisements that enliven the social environments.
Occasionally it is possible to observe some advertisements abruptly or
slowly leaving out the street walls and notice boards.
Sometimes the audience come to know that some profit making
commercial enterprises have dissolved away because they are unable to
make ends meet or because they have completely lost in crisis
These accounts are at times revealed through the print and the
electronic media. For private enterprises, competition among them is
perhaps the greatest challenge for their survival and evolving to a more
efficient state. In such a situation the sudden or gradual disappearing
of relevant icons, symbols and indexes become obvious.