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

S E M I O T I C S and M E A N I N G

The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.
- Jorge Luis Borges

Because all humans need shelter, our dwelling places tend to generate and retain endless layers of cultural meaning.

Architectural relics from burial mounds, hidden caverns and abandoned caves all seem to contain messages from older cultures, some clear and others indecipherable. Fossilized campfire pits allow archeologists to recreate religious rituals. Ancient rock shelter paintings give historians clues to extinct societies. Meaning is left behind almost everywhere people have lived.

One interesting way to examine the cultural meaning of human dwelling places is through the semiotic signs related to the concept of home.

Defining Signs
The study of semiotics is derived from linguistics, and tries to explain how meaning in human cultures is produced. Semiosis is described as the production of meaning, and usually includes semiotic signs as the vehicles for delivering this meaning.

Essentially, a semiotic sign is something which stands for something else. Human culture has evolved by adapting many such layers of meanings and signs. The most common semiotic signs are usually spoken or written words in a language, but nonverbal visual markers such as gestures, costumes, graphic marks and colors are also widespread and useful representations of meaning.

It is important to note that semiotic signs are not limited only to visual graphic symbols, but can encompass other information sources, including many architectural forms themselves. If a human sees something and recognizes that object as representing something else, semiotic signification has taken place. When a traveler spots a seemingly familiar landmark in a new landscape, whether it be the onion dome of a mosque or the stained glass window of a cathedral, many layers of meaning are communicated, from the initial message of the architect through the internal interpretations of the traveler. Semiotic signs can be scents, sounds and activities with complicated combinations of sensory signals, but they are not limited only to visual graphics.

While signs are often deconstructed as part of a larger human communication system, they are distinct from interrelated arrangements of sound (like spoken language) and more complex than simple, predefined graphics (such as single characters within a written alphabet.) Signs are capable of carrying powerful and complex meanings while defying exact definition.

The importance of examining human signs related to dwelling places lies in the unifying impetus behind such signs: in addition to the purely instinctive drives to survive, obtain food and reproduce, human beings long for safety, both physical and psychological. The roots of home, of the safe shelter one associates with comfort, family or tradition are entwined with the desire to remember, to commemorate, to relate to others the essence of such a home. Eventually, we all want to find a safe home.

Symbols, Indices and Icons
Ferdinand de Saussure highlighted the difference between the signifier (the gesture, word, costume or other sign which carries meaning) and the signified (the message itself.) Saussure believed there is no required, essential relationship between the signifier and the signified (Koerner 196).

This suggests that signs and their meanings can be arbitrary, and do not have to share any obvious connection. A powerful sign may have absolutely nothing in common with the message it contains, at least in a visual sense. A purely Saussurian sign for home may consist of a hand-drawn semi-circle scratched with charcoal on a cave wall. Such a graphical mark does not literally describe the memory it represents. Signifiers of home in this category could include any abstract graphic used to represent the idea of home which do not literally reproduce the appearance of any given place.

For example, the spiral began appearing in the Euphrates-Tigris river valley cultures around 2000 B.C. The symbolic essence of this graphic is the evocation of home, the place to which one returns, even though the physical mark of the spiral itself is abstract and does not necessarily reproduce any tangible memory of a given building or location (Helfman 298).

A differing semiotic approach to defining meaning was proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce, in an attempt to distinguish three types of signs: icons (which do literally resemble their actual meaning), indices ( a collection of related cause and effects which explain otherwise unclear associations) and symbols (things which over time have acquired a particular meaning, even though the actual resemblance or connection is not clear.)

Peirce also viewed a sign as a triadic relationship between a sign vehicle (representamen), an object, and an interpretant (a representation of the object in the human mind invoked by the sign vehicle.) This approach, in contrast to de Saussure's theories, places the receiver of the message in the equation equally with the vehicle and the object, implying that the audience is necessary for genuine signification (Houser 12).

Under Peircian thought, an icon of home usually recreates a specific recognizable scene, such as a constellation, a mountain range or a body of water. Often an icon is tied to a specific building and may represent an architectural element such as a roof gable, a stairway or a column, which reproduces an actual physical resemblance. Maps are also considered icons of the territory displayed, since they “recreate” a tangible area. Icons are often the most personal and the most specific reminders of home.

An index of home illustrates a causal relation between the sign and the idea of home. Smoke is an index of fire, but the causal connections in a semiotic index do not have to be this obvious. Semiotic indices of home might include seeds from a flower bed, a ring of keys or stones from a nearby river. Indices could also involve more complicated, community-based communication merging specifically local ingredients, activities and participants, but do not necessarily reproduce only one message. Indices are generally “collections” of information which reflect more than one aspect of the signified meaning. Ancestral house posts, totem poles, ceremonial house painting and even the rituals observed by a group when moving to a new house are all examples of semiotic indexes of home, and are discussed in detail in this project.

A symbol of home based on Peirce's definition relies on an interpretation to create a meaningful connection. Scents and sounds are remarkably powerful home symbols in Peircian theory, crossing through all human cultures (Preziosi 48). Symbols are not literal reproductions of a scene or building, nor are they directly associated with a specific shelter (for example, in the obvous way a set of door keys would be.) In fact, a Peircian symbol usually has no clear visual association with the place it represents at all. For example, according to Peirce, humans who are born near the sea find the scent of salt air often acts as a symbol of home, even when breathed far from the ocean itself. Many of the signs discussed in this project are symbolic: a light in a window, a colored pattern in a rug, a protective mark on a doorway are all abstract in that they can be interpreted in various ways, but are all highly symbolic of specific messages of home in certain cultures.


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(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

IMAGE CREDITS:
"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
"An Indian Corn Morning" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 48" - Oil on Masonite
"Japanese Juniper" by Marney Johnson: [central triptych panel] 34" x 36" - Oil on Masonite
All images courtesy of Marnie Johnson: Visit her work here:

Last updated 07.15.04