Indexicality in written language

In semiotics, the principle of indexicality refers to a token that refers to an object, not because it is visually similar to that object (as in iconicity) nor because it is analogous to that object (as in symbolism), but rather because the token is associated with the same general traits and connotations as its referent. A classic example of iconicity is the presence of smoke, which indicates fire. In this case, smoke is an index of fire.


Virtually any linguistic trait that is particular to a speech community can be indexical of that community. In her groundbreaking article Indexing Gender, Elinor Ochs systematized this sociolinguistic indexicality, which explains how certain aspects of speech (e.g., particular lexical items, syntactic complexity, hypercorrection and intonation) can be indices for the gender of the speaker. However, it is important to highlight Ochs’ caveat that indexicality is not static, rather it evolves across time and space. Thus, a trait that is indexical of a speech community at one time and place can be indexical of a different community at a different time and/or place.

Since Ochs’ work, it has been demonstrated that linguistic and paralinguistic features can be indices for far more than just gender. Alexandra Jaffe, for example, has done work demonstrating that a speaker’s nonstandard orthography can serve as an index for that person’s nonstandard speech. Beyond orthography, even the choice of writing system in itself can be indexical. To quote Robert King in his book Nehru and the Language Politics of India: “The Urdu script means Muslim, the Devanagari script means Hindu. The Urdu script as seen by an angry, inflamed Hindu mob summons up talismanic images from the present and the past.” Yet evidently the Urdu script does not stir up anger in everyone who reads it; the connections implicit in its iconicity depend on the culture, background and values of every particular interlocutor. To offer another example, Gothic script might indicate Germanness to some readers, Medievalness to others—and to others still, Nazism. As in speech pragmatics, the context in which a piece of writing is created (and read) is of vital importance to its meaning.

Still, it may be true that the majority of readers do not appreciate the differences between, for instance, Times and Garamond. As any typographer would assert, the use of one over the other plays a large role in the reader’s interpretation of the text, whether they notice it or not. In other words, indexicality may be subtle or even subconscious. Sometimes, though, we do confront salient paragraphemic features—such as the repeated used of italics—that we cannot help but notice. Nina Nørgaard examined a few examples of this phenomenon in novels and concluded that the use of marked typography (that is, when portions are clearly different from the majority of the text) can be indexical. For example, the inclusion of a handwritten excerpt in the middle of a novel functions as an index of the real-life existence of the character that wrote it.

Though this is a relatively understudied subject, sitting at the intersection of linguistics and information studies, it has seen renewed interest with respect to how writing systems are used in electronic communication. If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend checking out The Multilingual Internet, a brilliant book edited by Brenda Danet and Susan Herring.

Reading as transaction

It’s probably happened to you before: There was some article, poem or story that you really loved, and you told your friend to read it. They did, and maybe they said, “Yeah, it was good,” but they just didn’t seem affected by it like you were. How do we account for two people having vastly different experiences with the same piece of text?

Louise Rosenblatt was a researcher who wanted to understand how humans experienced literature. She proposed a model (based on the work of philosopher John Dewey in his famed Art As Experience) wherein both the reader and the text are active participants in the encounter we call reading. In her words:

Instead of two fixed entities acting on one another, the reader and the text are two aspects of a total dynamic situation. The “meaning” does not reside ready-made “in” the text or “in” the reader but happens or comes into being during the transaction between reader and text… “Meaning” is what happens during the transaction.

The act of reading, then, is the fusion of a person, along with their lifetime experiences, thought associations, current state of mind and interests, with the text.

According to Rosenblatt, these transactions result in experiences along the efferent–aesthetic continuum. Efferent experiences are characterized by intellectual analysis, focusing on information to be extracted from the encounter for later conscious, public use. Aesthetic experiences, on the other hand, are private. They are artistic and of-the-moment, incorporating the background, emotional state and thoughts of the beholder. Aesthetic experiences are moments of epiphany—almost spiritual. They are when a piece of writing, as we often say, strikes a chord with us.

Efferent–Aesthetic Continuum

Rosenblatt highlighted that, as we read, we are constantly navigating this continuum. Some parts of a text might strike us more aesthetically, and others more efferently. Even reading the driest of academic treatises might spark moments of aesthetic, just as reading the most beautiful poem might trigger efference.

Now, Rosenblatt focused on the experience with literary texts, but there is so much more to consider. In a recent article in the Journal of DocumentationKiersten Latham extended this model to describe experiences with museum objects, demonstrating its versatility in describing information behavior. But even in the world of text, there is so much more than just the text itself: There is the typography, the kind of paper (or screen!), the print quality… All these factors contribute to the reading experience, even though we don’t often think about it. (Granted, the growing pervasiveness of e-readers in recent years has actually caused many more of us to consider this than otherwise would have.) Latham notes, for example, that “many people talk about the handling of the paper as part of their reading experience.”

What is the point of theorizing here? I think questions of person–document experience are important in today’s archive environment. As we rush to digitize everything, are there aspects of the physical experience that we are depriving future generations of? What can we learn from the study of information experience to hedge these losses? Where should we direct our efforts as we develop new technologies (e.g., high-density displays, haptic response)?

Religion and information technology

Religion has always depended on information technology. Vital to the longevity of a religion is getting new followers, and in order for that to happen, the sacred texts, beliefs and rituals need to be spread and passed down. Central to this process, historically speaking, are books. We’ve talked before about the sacred origin of our reverence for the written word.

Of course, there were also times when information technology and religion have butt heads. The Catholic Church, for example, was famous for this. In its earliest days, it was against writing entirely. When printing came around, the Church was delighted by the ease with which they could print letters of indulgence and thereby raise money for their projects, but they were likewise horrified by the ease with which the general public could spread heretical ideas (see The Protestant Reformation).

Today, we’re very comfortable with the concept of finding sacred texts in books. But what does the next wave of innovations in information technology have to offer?

Buddhists are one group that has been quick to adopt new technology. Joyce Morgan wrote a wonderful article on the Huffington Post about why this might be. Indeed, historically speaking, Buddhists have always been on the cutting edge. Buddhists in Japan and in China were the first people to adopt wood block printing on a large scale in order to mass produce and disseminate their sacred texts. That was a huge innovation in a predominantly oral world. And today, some Buddhist communities are taking advantage of the Web and podcasts more than practitioners of many other religions. ZenWest, for example, is a Zen community in Canada that cultivates an e-sangha, where Buddhists from all over the world can take part in a religious community—which is especially helpful for those who do not live near a physical community. On their website, newcomers to Zen can even take online orientation courses and join in discussions. They even have a podcast with regular lectures.

In the Great Courses audio series on the Sacred Texts of the World, Professor Grant Hardy poses this wonderful question:

With the advent of the technological revolution knwon as the Internet, is there some religion that might be able to harness its power to their own spiritual ends? Are there certain kinds of religious practices that may be better suited to the Web than to codices? In some cases, for example in Sikhism, it’s easier to find their sacred texts online than in printed form. And for traditions such as Hinduism, in which the chanting or the singing or scriptures and ritual performances might take precedence over solitary study, YouTube is a marvelous resource. I’m sure that the Internet will transform religion in future generations. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how that affects different religious traditions, because one of the secrets to having a tradition that continues and expands is being able to take advantage of technological and also scholarly resources that come along.