What’s in an -ology?

What’s in an -ology?

I had a bash at the EFGS’s Handbook of Spatial Analysis yesterday evening. Got as far as page seven before I gave in over the 1.2.1 definition of cartographic semiology [sic]. It did make me chuckle, albeit from a slightly uncharitable language perspective.

According to the European Forum for Geography and Statistics’ seminal work (the aforementioned new Handbook), “cartographic semiology is the set of rules that make it possible to convey information as clearly as possible thanks to a cartographic image”.

In noddy-terms then (making cartographers everywhere cringe), they would have us believe that cartographic semiology is a set of guidelines that may ensure a map will make the most sense to most people. The trouble is, strictly speaking, the ‘-ology’ suffix is a word-forming element that indicates a branch of knowledge: it’s not a set of rules clarifying the application of that knowledge.

Get a life, Merryn

I would, but these things irritate me. If we do not champion linguistic clarity on which people can depend, when we’re setting out the basics, then we may as well all go home (and yes, I know there’s a Churchillian amount of irony in this sentence but only if you have a weird thing for geofencing your prepositions). It’s important to choose the right words when you’re explaining something complex. “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” – said Winston.

We first saw ‘-ologies’ widely circulated in the early 1800s as nonce formations, which aren’t what you think they are. The word ‘nonce’ is taken from the phrase, for þe naness, which in itself was a mis-spelling of the earlier phrase, for þan anes, which meant ‘for the one’. Nonce-words are words created for a particular purpose: adding the area of that purpose, as in, appending ‘geo’ to ‘ology’ and ‘bio’ to ‘ology’, simply narrows down that purpose and makes it clearer what’s on the blackboard (–graphies are different and don’t get me started).

The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand De Saussure, defined semiology at the turn of the last century, and the Encyclopedia Britannica has a fabulous treatise – side-tracked, moi? – hinting at the range of his work.

Semiology is the science or study of signs – conceptual objects, in themselves inferring a relationship between the signifier (the name of the sign) and what’s to be signified (the referred idea that appears in the mind). Saussure treated language as a sign-system (phonemes, individual letters, being the signs that we interpret to form language.) The goal of semiology is to work out what a relationship is – and why it occurs – between the signifier and what’s being signified. By doing that, by securing a stable datum, we can then influence the visualisation and interpretation of that signifier: no surprises here, some of that influence depends on the use of apposite language to define the signifier. I like Ferdi’s own definition: “it’s the life of signs within society…” but that’s a bit of a red herring. Better reel it in.

Semiotics, on the other hand, is an -otic, and -ologies and –otics are very different things. An ‘ic’ is something that embodies the Greek neuter plural of an adjective – hang in there, I’m nearly done – by whacking –ikos on the end of a word. -ikos meaning “pertaining to”. So, semiotics is not the study or science of signs – it’s the study of things relating to those signs. It’s the study of the tripartite relationship between the symbol itself, the object it represents, and the human interpretation that occurs when we interact with the sign. It’s the sign, what it’s representing, and what we understand that sign to infer. It’s the study of signs and symbols, giving special regard to their purpose and origin: a shift from linear thinking to three-dimensional study with intrinsic duplicity – this is all guaranteed to involve tequila at some point.

After all, if a sign exists and stands for or symbolises a specific object, to do so it needs somebody to have signified that intent. On the other side of the equation, there’s a specific object that’s going to be signified. Which also needs to have been interpreted. Not so much beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but true beauty has to be seen through various shades of rose-tinted glasses and what was that prescription again, Mr Magoo? Incidentally, the stem – semi – comes from the classic – semeiotikos – meaning significant or observant of signs and, yes, that’s all Greek to me too.

Tie that high horse to a tree, maybe?

Nope. Shan’t. We might say ‘symbol’ as a colloquialism, but, due to its subject and the inherent ambiguity in words like ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’, semioticians prefer to deploy the terms of their trade precisely. The HoSA goes on to compound the issue by stating that, “Cartographic semiology is a full-fledged [sic] language developed to facilitate communication, using graphic tools [sic] referred to as visual variables. When properly used, these variables reinforce the message while also making it clearer.”

What they’re talking about there is cartosemiotics, of course; the semiotic study of cartographic models – as neatly described in the semiotics encyclopedia, for, of course, there exists such a thing. Bedtime reading. De rigueur.

You might say I’m being uncharitable, as the HoSA isn’t a first-language work: it’s been written by a group of people who have different nationalities. But the reason I chuckled at the EFGS’s description, was that it contrasted so much with a linguist’s perspective. Come at the world from the other side if you will, starting with the study of semiotics instead of cartography. The semiotics encyclopedia does lurch violently if briefly into the world of cartography for a moment: “The aims of cartosemiotic research are intellectual enlightenment,” –  isn’t that sublime? “…as well as practical application. Mapmakers make signs: they structure information, they select and choose a means of expression, and (ideally) aspire to create a map that will be read as they intended.”

No rogue prepositions, but three parts to the puzzle then. The sign, its purpose, and the interpretation. That’s definitely semiotics, not semiology, which brings me back to the rationale for rolling my eyes. Semiology is the study of signs themselves and semiotics is the study of our relationships with signs. I am not a cartographer; neither am I a semiotician – although semotics is closely related to the field of linguistics. However, ‘cartographic semiology’ doesn’t means ‘the rules regarding the signs used in maps’. What I imagine the EFGS meant to say, I think, was this: cartographic semiotics is the semiotic study of cartographic models or cartographic representation forms, such as maps, globes, relief models, animations and others. Herr Schlichtmann agrees with me – and – if you’ve got this far and you really want to see irate when it comes to language and maps … try Matthew H. Edney‘s blog.

Okay. On to 1.2.2.

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