REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links

M E A N I N G in L A N G U A G E

Language is an agreement among communicating individuals about how to use specific signs to communicate states of reality. Each living organism constructs and identifies its own reality, including labels for the surrounding objects which it uses in its activities. Advanced organisms can then produce signs that correspond to elements oft heir reality. Among human beings, written languages are ancient methods of capturing and preserving meaning.

A review of written language reveals a long history of devices and marks used to signify home to those who had been trained to interpret each particular set of signs. (Berghoff 12). In most early written systems, an early notation for shelter was one of the first marks identified, generally emerging immediately after the self-identifying marks for man and woman (Berger 80).

Visual Alphabets
Signs appear in organized codes such as alphabets: written ciphers which represent the spoken language of the writer. A system of writing is often classified by how precisely the underlying spoken language is represented by the marks (Cooke 299).

The earliest writing systems, referred to as proto-writing, usually contain a small number of signs which are interpreted broadly, implying that meanings for one sign can be numerous and subjective. Proto-writing is made up of generic representations which are seldom limited to a single meaning (although proto-writing signs for human houses are surprisingly uniform and recognizable.) The underlying spoken language is contained within proto-writing, but scholars believe these types of notation were developed more as memory aids and mnemonic devices than as literal alphabets (Ancient Languages and Scripts). Human alphabet writers quickly discovered the power of pictographs, drawings which resembled the physical object they were meant to symbolize. Several full systems of pictographs have been analyzed and interpreted in a generic sense, providing numerous signs for shelter as well as an interesting comparison between cultures. Examples of pictographs
As conveyance systems for meaning, human alphabets diverged in several ways. A trick which became common in alphabet creation involved the use of a rebus, a written mark acting as a visual pun, which sounds the same as another symbol when spoken, and would make sense when read later in a written “sentence” but contains no abstract meaning within the graphic mark itself. When the pictograph for “leaf” was preceded by the pictograph for the insect “bee” the writer could produce the sound and abstract meaning of the word “belief” without creating any non-pictographic characters (Knapp 22).

Such use of the rebus may have closely paralleled the development of ideographic symbols, characters representing an idea or a thing without expressing the pronunciation of the particular words. A square topped with a triangle represents the ideograph of shelter in many cultures. This sign is recognized even when the shelters within a particular culture are not even remotely based on squares with triangular roofs (Norberg-Schulz 63).

Ideographic symbols have constituted some of the most powerful and efficient signs used by human beings. For example, a stark graphic of two intersecting lines, one shorter than the other, creates a graphical sign representing intricate and abstract ideas to a practicing Christian. Religious groups were some of the earliest adopters of ideographic symbols, attaching both secret and sacred meaning to stars, crescent moons, fish, and various other generic markers (Campbell 50). Ideograph representing Signs of shelter are common in ideographic systems, ranging from obscure indicators of sanctuary to literal maps of doorways. Tents, caves, entryways, windows and walls can be drawn with a few lines, indicating many different levels of the abstract term “dwelling place.” The geometric art in many rock shelters may be ideographic in nature, as well as being frequently pictographic. Certainly humans have often mixed the graphical representations of home with more abstracts shapes to form both literal pictograms and highly abstract ideographics. Contemporary architectural drawing symbols are probably based on these ancient signs (Benenson 80).

Many of the written signs which have come to represent home among human cultures tend to be semiotic symbols, rather than icons or indices: in order to understand these messages, some level of interpretation must occur. The written mark stands for some more obscure, less obvious meaning than that contained in literal reproductions of a house or collections of objects related to a building. The magic of the alphabetic symbol connects the human receiver of the sign, the written code itself, and the powerful memory of home.


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, Fall 2004

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Last updated 07.15.04