Signs all the way home
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:
(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…