The Skype “S”
Last week I had the opportunity to go and talk with the students in Claire Kramsch’s UGIS 120 class, the introductory course for the new Applied Language Studies minor being offered out of the College of Letters & Science. The topic of the day was medium, discourse, and multimodality, and while my presentation on a linguistic landscape research project from a few years ago ended up being, well, a little too presenter-ey, there were several interactive and thought-provoking moments that stand out.
One of these was when we were thinking about the different ways that signs relate to their objects, and I had the terms icon, index, and symbol on the screen. I remember hoping to spark discussion about the arbitrary nature of the symbol, something along the lines of the good ol’ Saussurian “tree” example—that there’s no a priori reason why a tree is called “tree” and not “arbol”, “namu”, or any other easily pronounceable assemblage of sounds. That it’s just social convention, and not the nature of trees and the other things of the world, that gives them their names.
But forget about words—how about letters? Those most arbitrary of shapes, the little squiggles on paper and screen that we somehow read transparently for the sounds they represent? I wrote the letter “S” on the board and asked the class what that was a sign for, thinking they would come up with something like “the letter ‘S’” or “the sound ssss”.
But then, something I couldn’t have predicted, though you’ve probably known where I’m going with this since the beginning. I heard more than one voice, and maybe even several, calling out the name of the popular application for online voice and video calls.
Skype, the logo of which I’ve, well, modified slightly in the image below the text of this post. A white capital letter “S”, with a sky blue background, seen regularly by many of the company’s 663 registered users worldwide. Skype, and not “the letter ‘S’” or “the sound ssss”. Skype, the tool that I, too, use just about every day in my private and professional life.
It was striking to me that the first example the students came up with was iconic, and not symbolic—my S, the S, any S, looks first and foremost like the logo of a company that has in-corporated and now to some degree owns the letter. And, only after that, does the symbolic function of representing a sound come to mind.
Of course, I may be over-reading this, having not yet outgrown my inclinations as yet another “under-age semiotician”. Maybe my “S” looked particularly like the Skype logo’s. Or, more likely, the fact that I was in the class to talk about the ‘tangible signs’ of the linguistic landscape (the stop signs, billboards, and posters of everyday urban experience) led them to think I was asking for something more ‘hands-on’ than a mere sound. In everyday parlance, the letter “S” is just that—a letter, and not a sign.
But still, it seems like there’s something going on there, something that goes a little bit deeper. In my own experience growing up, I’m pretty sure the capital “M” (at least the kind with round edges, and added points if it was yellow) in my mind belonged to McDonald’s. And even now I can’t help but think of Starbucks when I see that certain color of green, and T-Mobile when I see a certain tone of…well, you know. I wondered as I left the class: what do we have to do to recover the meaning potential of this most basic semiotic material? Is the arbitrariness of the forms of language, including our lifelong companions “M” and “S”, words like “friend” (is it Facebook’s?) and “genius” (Apple’s?), and even short phrases (can you hear “Can you hear me now?” when I write it?) in danger? (oh yeah, and speaking of fruit…)
Here’s where I leverage my own semio-genius and come up with a punchy finish, a clever twist, a thought-provoking conclusion. But, at the end of the day, my mind is just filled with