Shrek is one of my favorite animated movies. I think I still love it after ruminating on it as much as I have over the past few days. I looked at the scene in which Lord Farquaad interrogates the Gingerbread Man (Gingy), which involves conventional visual and linguistic sign systems.
In this scene, Farquaad and Gingy are talking to each other, and they use words, phrases, and sentences from a lexicon that is common to those who speak English. Most of these utterances follow syntactical rules. But the characters also employ defective lexical items, such as Gingy’s “pthuh” when he spits, which has semantics and phonology but doesn’t have syntax—although I’m not sure this example has meaning without the spitting visual. (I also wonder what a visual “defective lexical item” would be. Abstractions, maybe? It has semantics and “phonology,” but perhaps it does not have syntax.)
These lexical items “serve as interface rules,” as Jackendoff writes, that “correlate the parallel structures.” They are the bridges between the three major parts of the architecture of language—phonological, syntactic, and conceptual structures—which works in a nonlinear way. Interfaces seem very important, but how they actually work is unclear to me.
The interfaces and the parallel architecture as a whole help us make sense of what Gingy and Farquaad say. Our phonological structures somehow decipher the uttered lexical items according to learned rules; because of these rules, we know how the word “monster” is pronounced, for instance. Meanwhile, thanks to syntax, we understand the lexical items in the phrase “you’re a monster” to be instances of more general categories, such as contractions and nouns. That allows us to understand, for instance, more about what is being said because we know how these types are supposed to behave in English. And because of the semantic formation rules we know, we understand the negative implications of the word monster. In terms of sign functions, there’s more to this equation, but it seems that it boils down to the nature of a monster (the object, to use Peirce’s term) + the person of Farquaad (the representamen/sign vehicle) = Farquaad is being negatively described (the interpretant). I believe the resulting association of Farquaad with a monster is highly conventional, while Farquaad is less conventional in comparison (though I think both are symbolic signs).
Intersubjectivity and pragmatic context come into play quite a bit as well. Beyond the general Western fairy tale context, Gingy’s “eat me!” comment assumes the viewer understands that, though the directive could be taken quite literally in this case because he’s supposed to be made of gingerbread, he’s using the phrase as an expletive.
Something like a parallel architecture is potentially making sense of the visual side too. Our visual “phonogical” structures are perhaps decoding minimal visual units (pixels?) into something our brain understands. These units come together to form different patterns—of borders of shapes, light variation, textures, and so on. Something in our brains is capable of recognizing the patterns—the syntactical structures or the “phonological” structures, or some combination of both? The animators created these visual patterns according to syntactic rules that we can decipher thanks to shared understanding; something that is supposed to be like a human, for instance, shouldn’t have lips on its forehead. And semantic structures decode these images in different ways, such as Gingy’s eyebrow and mouth movements being understood to convey concern.
And then there are the previous experiences that influence our visual understanding of the scene. To use one example, anyone familiar with interrogation and torture visuals understands that this is a menacing situation without the characters even saying a word thanks to various (analogical?) signs, such as the lighting, Gingy’s placement on the table, the evidence of “milk boarding,” and other items. I can imagine a child unfamiliar with waterboarding asking why there was milk around Gingy’s head.
The visual interfaces here are a bit mysterious. I wonder if the patterns themselves could be interfaces; they seem as though they could correlate the various structures.
While much of the scene can be understood using just one of the sign systems, there are parts whose full meaning seems to depend on both visual and linguistic information. I wonder what kind of interfaces might bridge the divide between these two sign systems to bring all of the meaning together. Is it the same parallel architecture making sense of it all? Is there some interface that encompasses all sign systems? Now, I’m probably just be grasping for straws, or gumdrop buttons.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 28, 2016. Google Docs file. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eCZ1oAurTQL2Cd4175Evw-5Ns7c3zCxoxDKLgVE8fyc/.
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.