I tried to come up with a good lede that tied all of my thoughts together. But I think it’s better for me to just leave this as a stream of consciousness. So diving right in…
Language is a way to communicate your thoughts to others. From that basic description, it would seem as though a visual symbolic system might function in a way similar to a spoken language. Does it when you look at the details?
Take photography in particular, and the linguistic concepts of phonology, syntax, and semantics. In a spoken language, sounds (with which phonology is concerned) and meaning/concepts (semantics) have to be encoded in a certain way, and there needs to be a system to organize these ideas (syntax), to make sure a speaker’s brain and a receiver’s brain can understand the intended meaning. Like the ears take in sounds and meaning, the eyes process images. Those images and concepts then have to be encoded in a way that brains can understand them. Photography has a grammar, too. You can play with light using combinations of shutter speed and aperture to convey different meanings, as you can use various words to convey meaning, for instance. Similar to sentence structure, the rule of thirds in photography tells you where to place points of interest for maximum effect. (But of course, photographic license, like poetic license, is also allowed.) Ok. All of that seems relatively comparable between systems.
Photography also has a lexicon made up of units, like words in language, that are combined to form an infinite number of images (phrases and sentences). I think those minimal units would be pixels in digital photography, and photographers can use cameras and the ophthalmological (stealing from the eye docs) and syntactic tools at their disposal to manipulate and combine those pixels, conveying layers upon layers of meaning, much like in a spoken language.
But the bar seems to be lower for visual media, somehow. Photography, for instance, is capable of conveying meaning like a spoken/written language, but not in a way that is always as precise as a language (assuming that that language is spoken to others who understand it). So, if the photographer’s goal is just to reproduce something in a cut-and-dry iconic way, then it will be easy for the viewer to understand what is meant. Yet if the photographer instead seeks to convey some deeper commentary on society or the idea of love or some other sentiment through his work, the viewer enters murkier water. Those meanings can’t be precisely conveyed in a photograph. The meaning can easily be misinterpreted or interpreted differently by the viewer because the tools used aren’t as fine. To throw in some Kate Wong—today, we can uncover and view old cave paintings and other artifacts, but we can’t be sure of their intended meaning. Yet, the Rosetta stone unlocked worlds of precise understanding.
In another way, however, a visual language can be more effective than a spoken language. Photography, for example, can convey meaning across a range of cultures. It may not convey precise meaning, but a visual symbolic system can bridge communities in a way that many spoken languages cannot (English is, potentially, nearing exceptional status?).
Funny, when I started thinking through all this, I was convinced that visual media couldn’t possibly be a language. Now I think the opposite. I keep returning to Saussure’s arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning, for one. There seems to be something below all of this that remains constant regardless of changes in words spoken or aperture selected. And I think that somehow I’ve gotten back around to Merlin Donald’s and other’s ideas about the importance of the spoken/written word in spurring development. The basic idea is the same between the systems, but a spoken/written language is more effective.
(I have questions. Of course. But I’ve already taken up far too many words. I’ll save the rest for class.)
Donald, Merlin. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition, edited by Oscar Vilarroya and Francesc Forn i Argimon, 215-222. Amsterdam: Rodophi, 2007.
“Rule of Thirds in Photography.” Digital Photography School, May 2, 2006. http://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.
Wong, Kate. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.