[lit-ideas] The Seamy Side of Semiotics

  • From: "Julie Krueger" <juliereneb@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 26 May 2008 23:38:24 -0500


The seamy side of semiotics.

When was the last time you saw a person stop and think on television?

Thinking in public is just not done. When asked a question or given some
other verbal or visual cue, a panelist or interviewee will bark out an
instantaneous answer. Talking points will march out smartly, often backed up
by a fact or a figure to display a certain certitude.

But in a subjunctive mood, we can ask: What if a candidate, expert or pundit
were to lean back in the hot seat, look up at the ceiling, wrinkle the brow,
steeple the fingers — and say nothing for four or five seconds?

Unprepared! the audience expecting instant profundity would cry. The alien
thinker would be adjudged to be frozen stiff, startled into silence, exposed
as ignorant. Vast legions of impatient viewers would stab frantically at
their clickers; others listening on iPods or squinting at tiny hand-held
screens would frown and check their batteries. As eyeballs came unstuck and
ratings collapsed, advertisers would demand rebates, and the production's
booker would be fired. The sought-after savant caught momentarily marshaling
thoughts on camera would be transformed from a get to a geddoutahere.

Language is in its third phase of compression. Three centuries ago, we were
fed the short'nin' bread of contraction; won't, don't, I'm, you're made the
apostrophe the king of cant, which caused a 19th-century lexicographer to
denounce writers "carrying contraction to such an excess as to make their
writings unintelligible to all but the initiated."

Then came the period of portmanteau terms, named after the French suitcase
with hinged compartments: chuckle and snort blended into chortle; breakfastand
lunch fused into brunch; and, in our time, broadcast and the World
Wide Webmorphed into
webcast (still capitalized as "Webcast" by the New York Times copy czar).

Electronic communication has whisked us into a third phase of compression:
the Age of Shortspeak. As we listen and watch replays of multicasts to suit
our scheduling convenience, those above-mentioned interminable, bor-r-ing
four-second pauses are edited out. Humanizing uh, er, ah, um moments of
meaningless vamping are pitilessly erased; even the dramatist's "pregnant
pause" has been digitally aborted.

Why? Time is credit (formerly "Time is money"), and the drawl is dead. If
the panelist or debater cannot promptly hit the spittoon with a preconceived
reply unencumbered by grunts, an engineer posting the transmission that the
television couch potatoes and the Internet mash potatoes watch will squeeze
the speaker's speech down to fit. As a result, "live" talk — conversation
between warm-bodied humans in real time — seems ponderous, awkward, in need
of the smoothing talcum of speed.

The acceleration of shortspeak forces us to confront the seamy side of
semiotics, which is the study of nonverbal signs and symbols in semantics
and syntactics. I have no objection to time- and space-saving signals that
convey instant instruction: red and green lights are better than the words
"stop" and "go"; a skull and crossbones is a visual reminder not to drink
the iodine; a simple arrow beats "this way to the egress." (An icon of a
pair of pants on a lavatory door, however, is confusing to both slacks-clad
women and slack-jawed men.)

The trouble is that the stylized drawings of iconography (rooted in the
Greek eikenai, "to seem like," and graphein, "to write") are threatening to
take over the precise communication of words. Our computer "desktops" — a
word coined by Dashiell
1929 to mean "working surface of a desk," on which a private eye could
plonk his feet — changed in the '80s to describe the size of a computer. Now
a desktop is a computer's opening screen that displays icons representing
paths to actions like filing (a tiny file cabinet) and ejecting (a trash
pail) or access to a source of news (a Roman letter "T" for "Times"). The
symbolic picture takes up no less space than the descriptive word, but it's
lively to look at as it shortcuts the function of language.

Nowhere is this cheerful shortcutting better illustrated than in the
meteoric rise of the emoticon. (Meteors fall as well as rise, as politicians
know; put not all your faith in language's metaphoric pictures.) Though
Merriam-Webster has a 1987 citation by Jim Greenlee using the word to
discourage "emotional conversation," the coinage came to mean "the use of
keyboard symbols to draw pictures," as in Kevin Mackenzie's 1979 combination
— a dash followed by a closing parenthesis, like -), to stand for "tongue in
cheek." In 1982, Prof. Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon
up with what he called a "joke marker": this combination of colon for
eyes, dash for nose and closing parenthesis for mouth viewed sideways to
form :) that was the smiley; for millions, it replaced the language sentence
"I'm only kidding." ("Language sentence" is a retronym, like "biological
father.") Substitute a semicolon for the colon and open the parenthesis,
like ;-(, and you have a frownie with a raised eyebrow.

I have been nibbling around the edge of a big subject today. Those concerned
about the compression of our sped-up language are directed to "Linguistic
Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language," by Sali Tagliamonte and
Derek Denis, an article in the spring 2008 quarterly "American Speech" (
dukeupress.edu). My choice for most influential and seminal language book of
the year is "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World," by Naomi S.
Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in D.C. (Oxford
University Press, $30). She's a scholar who can write in real time with real

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