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Signata 9 (2018) / Signatures. (Essays in) Semiotics of Writing

Jean-Marie Klinkenberg et Stéphane Polis

For a long time, writing has been at the center of numerous scholarly works. One can distinguish several trends. On the one hand, the values attached to writing (whether anthro­pological, social or religious) have been extensively studied. On the other hand, approaches to writing as a semiotic system are also numerous, but mostly diachronic — discussing the genesis, development and transmission of writing systems, or the evolution of the technical means used for writing. Furthermore, the focus of previous studies in this field of is most often language-specific (with questions such as ‘how does this writing system work for rendering this language?’) or system-specific (‘how does this specific writing system work?’).

In line with the aforementioned goals of Signata, this issue would rather favor global approaches to writing, i.e., approaches discussing features that are possibly common to most (if not all) writing systems. Writing is envisioned here in its generality, as a semiotic system that mediates between the linguistic and spatio-iconic realms. Indeed, based on detailed analyses of the semiotic functions fulfilled by graphemes, the aim of this issue is admittedly to identify criteria and principles that could be used for developing a typology of writing. As such, the volume ambitions to contribute to a ‘general scriptology’, a discipline already explored by pioneering works, such as the ones by Roy Harris or Anne-Marie Christin, to name but a few of the directions that this endeavor might pursue.

Accordingly, a number of topics are explicitly excluded, unless they directly contribute to understanding the broad semiotic questions that frame this volume: contributions dealing with socio-anthropological questions or with the genesis and historical development of writing; papers focusing on technical, cognitive or psychological questions; and studies dealing with the pedagogics of writing. Presentations and discussions of specific writing systems, on the other hand, are most welcome (see §4), but should strive to conform the spirit of the issue defined above by relating their observations to general issues pertaining to the description of writing systems.

More specifically, the editors would like the following topics to be dealt with by the contributors.

1. History of ideas on writing and writing systems

Ever since Antiquity — and the inescapable Aristotelian starting point — writing has been at the center of intense reflections and debates both in linguistics (e.g., with the antinomic conceptualizations of thinkers like Alexander von Humboldt, Ferdinand de Saussure and Émile Benveniste) and in philosophy (a field now profoundly marked by the “grammatology” of Jacques Derrida). Additionally, writing has been instrumental in the development of various formalisms, in particular (although not exclusively) formalisms of logic. Furthermore, one knows since Goody that the invention and the development of writing have a deep impact on cognitive processes.

The editors invite contributions that discuss the evolution of ideas concerning writing and writing systems in different fields. These studies, however, should abstract themselves from considerations that are specific to a given author: one should aim at highlighting epistemological questions that are shared by several scholars and, thereby, likely to shed some light on the dynamics of thought on writing in an entire field. Besides, it would be useful to take into account the fact that the development of thinking about writing might have been influenced (if not motivated) by broader theoretical or ideological options.

2. Relation between language and writing

One of these big questions is assuredly that of the relationship between language and writing: between two extreme positions, namely (1) writing envisioned as a ‘sémie substitutive’ of the spoken language and (2) the autonomist view that considers writing to be an independent semiotic system, one can observe a great diversity of theoretical positions in the literature.

However, this issue still deserves further attention: the analogy between the spoken and the written that operates in the modelization of writing for instance (phoneme ≈ grapheme, the principle of double articulation, etc.) could be investigated more deeply. Similarly, the types of relationships that can be identified between phonemograms and linguistic signifiers as well as those that one can posit between semograms and linguistic signifieds (either iconic, diagrammatic or symbolic) still await critical syntheses. In another vein, the role of punctuation marks and other structuring devices could be thought about in this perspective.

Finally, when envisioned in relation to languages, writing is at the same time the result and the instrument of linguistic analysis. This dialectic testifies of a metalinguistic awareness that should obviously be discussed in the present volume.

3. Writing and spatiality

One specific feature of writing systems is the fact that they exploit the potentialities offered by space: writing is a spatial semiotics.

This characteristic suggests that this issue of Signata should include studies both about formants (paradigmatic axis) and formats (syntagmatic axis). The first dimension has to do with the types of material actualization of the graphemes, while the second refers to the spatial organization of these formants: between linear and tabular logics, graphemes are actualized on more or less institutionalized spatial objects (books, rolls, flyers, jewels, graffiti, shopping lists, coins, screens or sand), each imposing specific constraints on writing (one can think here of the problems linked to the trans-semiocity that is internal to individual writing systems, e.g. what happens when a manuscript in transcribed on a digital support?). How is the space delimitated by these object structured (line, paragraphs, pages, columns, etc.), how is it conceived and used by writers and readers (browsing, unfolding, pointing, etc.)?

4. Hybridity of writing systems

The traditional descriptions of writing systems — which classify scripts in broad categories (alphabets, Abjads, syllabic scripts, logographic scripts, etc.) — necessarily simplify their richness and intrinsic hybridity.

In this volume, we would like contributors to take the opposing view and to propose structural descriptions of writing systems as varied as possible (e.g. runic alphabets, Brahmic scripts, cuneiform, hieroglyphic script, Chinese and Japanese script, Mayan scripts, etc. but also the ideographies or Begriffsschriften and shorthands, etc.). These descriptions should show and discuss the great diversity of glossic and non-glossic functions fulfilled by graphemes in each systems.

Similarly, we invite papers that deal with some specific functions of graphemes from a typological point of view. To give a single example, some hieroglyphs are labelled ‘graphe­mic classifiers’; their role is to give an idea of the semantic field to which a written word belongs. Is this function attested in other writing systems, under other labels? If so, are the marked semantic categories similar, etc.?

5. Pragmatics of writing

As any artifact with meaning that circulates in a society, the written objects can be studied from a pragmatic point of view: are the so-called “théories de l’énonciation” — which have been developed in the framework of linguistics and semiotics — able to apply to written objects or do they need to be emended? Are ‘written speech acts’ comparable to other types speech acts?

As long as they are discussed in the general perspective described above in the intro­duction (and avoid themes such as the writing process itself or the social stratification induced by writing), these questions can lead to more sociological considerations: how do the pragmatic potentialities of writing vary depending on text types and media? What does the normalization of writing bring about?

6. Transversal questions

Finally, the editors would like that some general methodological and theoretical problems be discussed.

One of them is linked to terminology. Indeed, a difficulty when working towards a general scriptology is that writing systems are most often described in metalangages that are specific to scripts, cultures, or scholarly traditions. The lack of explicitness regarding the definitions of terms within a single metalangage as well as the existence of conflicting terminologies make it difficult to compare how various writing systems actually work. Much like in linguistic typology, besides the system specific categories, comparative concepts are definitely needed.

To conclude, another transversal question could be that of deciphering. The goal here would obviously not be to narrate an historical event, but to discuss and compare various decipherments as a particular and an instructive instance of the general interpretative process at stake when facing any type of writing.

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