A language of symbols

the red iceberg
Cartoonists have always relied on people’s understanding of cultural symbols to convey meaning. Some cartoons get repeated with new characters for modern audiences. From c1.staticflickr.com/4/3228/2984491606_f1077d64fb.jpg

My past posts have talked a lot about the words we use to frame our discussions about heritage; how it is defined, categorised, and approached. The language we use to describes our worlds has power to shape how we as individuals and as societies understand and share concepts. The abstract system of sounds which (once we are old enough) allows us to communicate ideas in a way that will be understood to some extent) by those around us – it conveys not only a simple dictionary definition of a term, but a whole host of associated understandings and judgments. This beautiful complexity is also the danger of language; how can we ever know for certain that our conception of the meaning of a word maps onto the meanings others associate with it?

But it is time to branch out: ‘language’ does not always have to mean words. Academics (mainly in the humanities) often refer to ‘texts’ to be ‘read’ when discussing many different things, from body language to buildings, outfits to artwork. This approach, known as ‘hermaneutics’, posits that words are not the only experience humans share, and that therefore meaning can be communicated through a whole variety of experiences and objects, which can then be interpreted or ‘read’.

Although it seems strange to talk about a building as if it were a book, the idea makes sense when you think about the importance of symbols to our understanding of the world. In a traditional heritage setting, the paintings in a museum or frescoes on a historic house’s ceiling are put there to be interpreted by the audience, communicating widely understood ideas just as deliberately as a written work. Grand buildings with sheets of expensive glass or neo-gothic towers were making statements of power and wealth that needed no words to be understood across the landscape.

Botticelli’s fifeenth-century The Birth of Venus: how many people know off the top of their heads why certain flowers were picked for the image? Or what the seashell represented? From Google Art Project.jpg, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22507491

I sometimes hear it being mourned that we have lost the shared language of imagery as literacy levels rose during the modern period. No-one these days can ‘read’ historic images as they were intended – at least without specialising in their study. Remember the days when a bouquet was put together with an understood code guiding the choice of each bloom? (No, me neither.)

So is the modern period bereft of a cultural heritage of shared symbols and semi-mythic knowledge? Is modern literacy – especially the widespread access to the boundless text of the internet – destroying the subtlety of understanding which was born of shared imagery?

The simplest response is – well, have you ever used an emoji?

Does this particular letter carry any cultural meaning for you?

Or (to make this less millenial) do you respond to the instructions of a road sign? Do you recognise the flag for your country, with its implied years of nationalism, shared community, and mediaeval heraldic symbolism? If (to hark back to my pre-holiday post) I were to show you a Christmas tree, would you understand why I had a lot of greenery covered with lights and shiny stuff in my living room? Have you ever seen anyone, in fact, wearing a tshirt with a logo or quotation from their favourite band, tv show, book series or film?

I think you get the point. So why am I banging on about it? Because understanding the nuances of words, images, gestures, and other non-verbal language is what makes us part of a community. Whether logical or otherwise, our brains understand these cultural symbols on a deeper level than we realise day to day. Symbols, embodied in various ways, are ingrained in our understanding of the world as shaped by human society from our earliest days – an inheritance from our ancestors, individually and collectively. While some symbols no longer have the understood meaning they once did, we have replaced them with new cultural memes for modern life, that describe and shape our shared experiences.

In a few centuries, will heritage scholars be looking back and sighing that none of the kids these days understand the complex and fascinating cultural norms of the gifs we used to know?

3 thoughts on “A language of symbols

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