Iconicity in written language

Just as written text can be indexical, it can also be iconic. For example, a handwritten extract in a novel can be iconic in its capacity to convey the mental state of its writer at the moment of writing it. Similarly, the use of italics and capital letters can be iconic in that they represent a nuanced pronunciation.

The iconic capacity of the written word has its basis in metaphor. Just as the expression time is money demonstrates a mental association between the concepts of time and money, similar associations can be demonstrated by visual metaphors in written language; we tend to associate, for example, letter size with volume. Lewis Carroll famously took advantage of this with the beetle character in Through the Looking-Glass: The creature’s tiny voice is rendered in correspondingly tiny type.


Though the relationship between type size and spoken volume might be universal, Alexandra Jaffe warns that such paragraphemic iconicity may not always be so: “Becoming literate is not just the acquisition of orthographic decoding skills, but also involves the development of a (culturally conditioned) graphic sensibility.” In truth, all aspects of communication—as an endeavor that depends on symbolic, indexical and iconic associations in itself—depend on the cultural background of both interlocutors.

The same apparently goes for communication online: In a study on the localization of Wikipedia pages, the researchers concluded that the Web is, to some extent, culturally determined. They found diverse cultural markers that differentiated the appearance, organization and particular content of different localized websites. “Members of different cultural groups,” they say, “prefer different icons, colors, and site structures.”

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)?