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2.2 Semiotics and paralanguage in literature

Linguists generally define paralanguage as features of language (particularly of speech) which are combined with words to create additional meaning, such as intonation, pitch, tempo and tone. In face-to-face conversation, or in a stage production, visual non-linguistic features such as gesture, facial expression or movement may also be included in paralanguage.

It might be assumed that paralinguistic features do not occur in written texts. But literature and poetry are in fact perfectly capable of utilising paralinguistic signs, and semiotics gives us a way of analysing these. Some authors play very creatively with letterforms, layout of words on the page, and different typefaces to creative effect, and such play can be highly motivated and meaningful.

Activity 4: Poetry and paralanguage

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Read the poem below, by e e cummings, about the experience of driving a new car, and think about:

  • how spatial layout is used as a semiotic device;

  • how punctuation and case (lower case versus capital letters) are used to create meaning (as signs);

  • how deviations from convention are used creatively.

Do you see any difference between what appears to be denoted, and connotations that are perhaps not immediately obvious?

she being Brand


-new;and you

know consequently a

little stiff i was

careful of her and(having


thoroughly oiled the universal

joint tested my gas felt of

her radiator made sure her springs were O.


K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her


up,slipped the

clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she

kicked what

the hell)next

minute i was back in neutral tried and


again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing (my


lev-er Right-

oh and her gears being in

A 1 shape passed

from low through

second-in-to-high like

greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity


avenue i touched the accelerator and give


her the juice,good



was the first ride and believe i we was

happy to see how nice she acted right up to

the last minute coming back down by the Public

Gardens i slammed on





brakes Bothatonce and


brought allof her tremB


to a:dead.





(cummings, 1960, p. 15–16)


There are no right or wrong responses to this activity. You may have perceived some of the following.

Firstly the overall layout of the poem seems to be highly connotative. It conveys through its iconic shape the juddering first minutes of a man trying out his new car The lines are arranged in short stanzas (apart from the stanza starting it was the first ride, which I took to be an indication that the car is actually running smoothly here, just before the brakes are slammed on). Words are split across both lines and stanzas, which disrupts a smooth reading and conveys the jerkiness of the driving experience.

The punctuation is, of course, highly non-standard and forces us to notice it, as it deviates from conventional grammatical functions. Punctuation here functions to slow us down and speed us up, interrupting us and jolting us about as we read. In that sense it puts us in the car to experience the jerky ride for ourselves. Words in this poem are also compressed into single units by the removal of spaces, to convey speed and abruptness (such as Bothatonce). In this way, the poem manages to simulate a third semiotic mode, movement.

A complete analysis would require an understanding of the contribution to the text's meaning(s) of the visual elements. Linguistically, we could note the instances of creative rule-breaking on the grammatical level (believe i we was) and the deliberate flouting of the rules of English capitalisation and punctuation, for example. The pronouns (i for the driver, she for the car), as well as the lexis, also hint at another possible interpretation of this poem – the driver's fumbling attempts at the seduction of a lover.

No two people are likely to have interpreted every element of the poem by cummings in exactly the same way, nor will everyone reading this course agree with my points above. I have already stated that meanings taken from a text vary culturally as well as individually. This points to a drawback of semiotic analysis, which is a risk when looking at verbal language but even more salient in the visual. The connotations of a sign are often multiple and unstable – as Cook puts it:

Paramount among the techniques for extending denotational meaning is the exploitation of connotation – the vague association which a word may have for a whole speech community or for groups or individuals within it. Connotations are both variable and imprecise. The connotations of ‘dog’ might include such different qualities as loyalty, dirtiness, inferiority, sexual promiscuity, friendliness; of ‘stallion’ such qualities as sexual potency, freedom, nobility.

(Cook, 2001, p. 105)

Semiotics is always influenced by subjective interpretation, so it must be remembered that like any analytical approach, it cannot provide answers to everything. Nor can semiotics escape the critique that it is impressionistic and non-verifiable. But it does give us a useful ‘way in’ to multimodal texts.

Playfulness with the visual possibilities of letters and words is not a new phenomenon, of course. I can , , or , even in this very straightforward (semiotically speaking) paragraph. These conventions – as well as innumerable icons and graphic devices for linking visual and verbal text – are widely exploited in cartoons and comic strips (Goodman, 1996) and logos and advertisements (Cook, 2001, van Leeuwen, 2005). They are also detectable in older forms of play with words and letterforms, such as the rebus – a visual/verbal word game traditionally written on paper, in which images are combined with words or morphemes, leaving the reader the task of deciphering the meaning.

In Figure 3, ‘mother’ is realised as a drawing of a moth, alongside the suffix – er. It is an example from an eighteenth-century historical document. These days we would be more likely to encounter the rebus in books of word games or on puzzle websites (Figure 4).

Figure 3
Figure 3 Rebus in a letter from ‘Brittania to her “daughter” America’ (Darly, 1778).

Figure 4
Figure 4 Rebus examples from puzzle websites.

The rebus frequently relies for its effect on a pun across modes. The visuals have to be read literally and the result transposed into words for the reader to make any sense of it. We can see a ‘return to the rebus’ evidenced in text messages on mobile phones, too, as in ‘CUL8R’ for ‘see you later’.


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