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Signs all the way home

Written By: daveski on December 19, 2008 7 Comments

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use this space to post pictures of signs and talk about them — no, not the worn-out diagrams of tree-sounds and tree-concepts, the signifiers and signifieds of Saussure’s universe (though those are plenty interesting too). I’m talking about the kind of signs that you and I see hundreds of times a day, but don’t usually take the time to think about very much, like the kind you see nailed to trees, painted on the ground, and wired to fences:

wired

(Does anyone know where this one’s from? 🙂

There have been a few posts on FIT in recent months that showcase signs: here and here are a few by Usree. And if you click around flickr for just a few minutes, you can find dozens of groups of pictures that people have made: Signs of the Times, Protest Signs, Graphic Signs, Bad Signs, Great Signs, Interesting Signs, Faded Signs, Dog Signs, and of course, Fun Industrial Safety Signs. And the list goes on and on.

So what’s so fascinating about signs? In a few weeks, a group of scholars from all over the globe will be going to a workshop in Siena, Italy to talk about this – what you can learn about multilingualism from signs, what they say about a country’s language policy, how they reflect the power relations among different groups of people, what clues they offer to the careful observer about the social, economic, and political trends in a place. I’m planning to join them, and to give a presentation about why it’s important how we classify signs, in my case for the purpose of designing and making a language learning website like this one.

Learning languages from signs might sound kind of cool. But classification? That’s not so exciting, and how many kinds can there be, anyway? You should be able to just make a quick list and be done with it. Stop signs, street signs, billboards, posters…

But actually, I think, that’s not the point. If signs are the way that we learn where we are when we go somewhere new; if they are one of the clues we have about who we are (as I think they are) when we see ourselves labeled as “violators”, “patrons”, and “citizens” on their surfaces; if they tell us what kind of society we live in, what kind of place we inhabit…and, extending this even further, if they are metaphors for how we find direction in our everyday activities and life…then maybe we ought to pay more attention to how they work.

So over the next few weeks I’m going to try to tell a personal story about signs, connecting lettered placards, metal sheets, and wood panels to a journey I took a few weeks ago, on Thanksgiving Day, from school in Berkeley to my hometown of Livermore. And, by the time I get there, hopefully I’ll be halfway to Italy…

picalbum

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7 Responses to “Signs all the way home”

  1. jfboy.shieh on: 19 December 2008 at 2:52 am

    diamond head is the name of some volcano in hawaii, so i assume that sign is from hawaii? it’s on the island of oahu. i don’t know if this is the answer you’re looking for though.

  2. Youki on: 19 December 2008 at 1:05 pm

    yes it’s from Diamond Head in Hawaii, I actually found a photo I took in August of last year:

    pretty obscured (it was crowded and I don’t have any better shots of the sign) but you can tell it’s the same exact sign; you can even see the stickers have faded and peeled off in my photo.

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 19 December 2008 at 5:50 pm

    OMG, these lines:

    If signs are the way that we learn where we are when we go somewhere new; if they are one of the clues we have about who we are (as I think they are) when we see ourselves labeled as “violators”, “patrons”, and “citizens” on their surfaces; if they tell us what kind of society we live in, what kind of place we inhabit…and, extending this even further, if they are metaphors for how we find direction in our everyday activities and life…then maybe we ought to pay more attention to how they work.”

    are sheer poetry. Poetry, Daveski! I have never seen signs and what they mean to us described so very beautifully and powerfully.

    So in the last two days, trapped in airports and planes, I was totally surrounded by signs…the transition was so interesting, from SFO airport commercial, security related and “directive” signs, to the ones in the BA planes, potentially life saving signs, to the language shift that happened as I landed in the Delhi airport…Hindi signs that were just the least bit jarring because I forgot to expect them. 🙂

    Great post, Daveski, loved it. I’ll be posting more signs as I recover from jetlag and rediscover India.

  4. katie_k on: 23 December 2008 at 1:17 pm

    There’s a sign on the road if you’re coming from Tilden towards Berkeley that says “Caution Wildlife” (sorry I don’t have a picture to show). But every time I see it, it makes me laugh. I know they really mean “Drivers, use caution, wildlife may cross the road” but it could also mean “Make sure to warn the wildlife around here that you’re driving”. So I can’t help but yell out the window: “OK wildlife, I’m cautioning you. Now you’ve been warned”. Especially when there are turkeys by the side of the road.

    Also, a funny note on one of the signs in your photos – “Working together to prevent wildfire”. A year or two ago somebody vandalized it and changed the “f” to an “l” and the “r” to an “f” so that it read “Working together to prevent wildlife”. The first time I saw it, I thought I had imagined it and just interchanged letters somehow. But someone had actually changed it. It was clever and funny, if you didn’t consider the poaching/extinction of animals aspect of the message. I don’t know if that fits into the idea of how signs reflect who we are, but it was an interesting way to change the message and the sign.

  5. Youki on: 23 December 2008 at 1:35 pm

    that reminds me of my first year as an undergrad at Berkeley, the dining commons had a sign that said “freakfest” (breakfast).

    or the various signs that say “free drug zone” (instead of drug free zone)

    and “stop driving” (on a stop sign) must be in every major city somewhere.

  6. katie_k on: 23 December 2008 at 1:44 pm

    The word “free” reminded me of the “Nuclear Free Zone” sign on College Avenue when you’re crossing into Berkeley. If you go the opposite direction, into Oakland, there’s a lovely “Welcome to the City of Oakland” sign with an oak tree on it. Such different messages. One welcoming people in, the other making sure that anyone who happens to have a nuclear missile in their back seat will know not to enter. The difference always strikes me as I head down College.

  7. daveski on: 23 December 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Youki, it’s amazing you have a picture with the same sign, from Diamond Head. Your picture is probably much more faithful to how most people experience the sign…that is, hardly at all, a tiny blip in a landscape that’s much more moving on its own

    Usree, I’m excited to see more of your signs from India…I always find that visiting other places (or coming back home) allows us to see our environments with fresh eyes, the perspective of at least half a stranger. For me it lasts maybe a week or two before all the little signs (written, acted, spoken, whatever), start to fade into the pale of the normal…

    Katie, Youki–totally, the ‘modifications’ to signs are so interesting and I think that’s what I’ll write about for the next post. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Any pictures of the “freakfast” sign? 🙂

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