Labels as Ideograms.

Another interesting passage from Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus (see this post):

Turning to the name-labels on portraits [in a Kiev church], we find that the significance of the pictorial, of the visual, is if anything even more pronounced. The first impression is of a kind of linguistic anarchy. The names themselves were written in Greek, or in Slavonic, or in their Greek forms using Cyrillic letters, or in any number of hybrid combinations. The reasons vary from object to object, and may include ignorance, miscopying, hypercorrection, perhaps mere aesthetic preference, but the variability of forms is not necessarily a barrier to the verbal reading of the labels. The more revealing elements, paradoxically, are those which are relatively stable: the standard abbreviations labelling Christ and the Mother of God, the epithet for ‘saint’ or ‘holy’, the legend ‘Jesus Christ is victorious’ which accompanies the image of the Cross. Even where the standard language of the graphic environment is Slavonic, these standard forms remain consistently Greek: (ΙϹ ΧϹ; ΜΡ ΘΥ; Ο ΑΓΙΟϹ or the monogram of an alpha within an omicron; ΝΙ ΚΑ). Thus the most common of all image-labels retain their nonnative forms. By verbal logic the words signified by these abbreviations ought to have been appropriated into native usage, along with large numbers of other words and terms specific to the imported faith. Instead, these graphic formulae in effect cease to function as alphabetic script and turn into ideograms. A wholly unscientific survey in a modern church shows that a large proportion of viewers have no difficulty affirming that the graphic sign ΜΡ ΘΥ ‘means’ Mother of God, but that very few could decode it as an abbreviation of the Greek Meter Theou. Familiarity cancels out difficulty. Images of Christ and the Mother of God were familiar enough to be recognised along with their appropriate graphic emblems of identity, and the gap in perception between our notional ‘lettered’ and ‘unlettered’ viewers is diminished almost to nothing, since both might ‘read’ these inscriptions in the same way. The correct writing is that which is correct as part of the picture, not necessarily that which gives the ‘correct’ letters for the words as articulated in the native language.

I’m fascinated by these situations on the margins of literacy, and how people interpret signs in different ways.

Comments

  1. J. W. Brewer says:

    Is this really any different than the way in which, for example, modern Anglophones know that “e.g.” means “for example,” even if they have never studied Latin and couldn’t tell you the Latin words the initials originally represented? (And here, of course, most Russian churchgoers and icon-venerators were until the last century or so typically no more literate in any Slavic tongue than they were in Greek.)

  2. No, not really, but it’s an interesting example of the phenomenon.

  3. It’s also reminiscent of the way that big companies with initialized names will often abandon the original words – AOL became simply AOL, to help its overseas marketing; KFC became simply KFC, so as not to have to pay a usage fee to the Commonwealth of Kentucky (though apparently they readopted their full name back in 2006); BP became simply BP, coinciding with their use of the disingenuous motto “beyond petroleum”; and the networks A&E, TLC and MTV have all dropped their original names in consequence of their descent into trashiness.

  4. CuConnacht says:

    Paintings of the crucifixion in the Catholic churches I attended in my youth would have the label INRI at the top of the cross, for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (see John 19:20). I knew what it meant in English from an early age, without knowing the Latin. (But Joyce’s Leopold Bloom was told by his wife Molly that it meant Iron Nails Ran In.)

  5. Probably just what Nora Joyce told her husband.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    KFC became simply KFC, so as not to have to pay a usage fee to the Commonwealth of Kentucky (though apparently they readopted their full name back in 2006)

    In China it sort of went the other way and became the very aspirated Kentaqi (I don’t know the tones). A pun on “chicken”, , could be intended, but I can’t tell.

  7. It’s 肯德基 kěndéjī, and the final indeed does have the same pronunciation as 鸡 ‘chicken’.

  8. In Renaissance art you very often find the INRI expanded fully, often with what’s supposed to be some variation on the Hebrew, ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’. The letter shapes are very often mangled, and often the text as well. My favorites are those where מלך ‘king’ is misspelled with a non-final kaf, מלכ, and the letter shapes are so ill-drawn as to make the word look very much like כלב ‘dog’.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    kěndéjī

    Interesting. Is -ta- perhaps an obsolete Taiwanese version? (That would make sense given my source.)

    Thanks for setting me straight on the tone of 鸡 . I don’t find the tones hard to pronounce or even that hard to hear, but after the character the tone is always the first thing I forget about a syllable. 🙁

  10. I don’t think one could construe markings like INRI or IC XC as truly “graphic” because they must be verbalized, and spelled out, as sets of letters / essentially words?
    Which makes me ask a question, how are graffiti tags memorized / verbally described / voiced? Do the taggers just describe them as “whole things” or break them into letters and symbols?
    For example, the Moscow State’s Physics Dept. tag from my childhood times was voiced as “Root of factorial” (and denigrated by the administration as a symbol “mathematically absurd and devoid of physical meaning and ideological content”, doh!)

  11. (BTW thanks for the comment editing function! I just experienced a repeat of the weird problem where one’s comment disappears into a black hole without an error message of any kind. Before I would have needed Languagehat to intervene; but now I just created a placeholder message and edited it right away)

  12. Well done! But you still need a link for “Root of factorial”; tell me the URL and I’ll add it.

  13. Jim (another one) says:

    Y,

    “My favorites are those where מלך ‘king’ is misspelled with a non-final kaf, מלכ, and the letter shapes are so ill-drawn as to make the word look very much like כלב ‘dog’.”

    That sounds almost like plausible denialbility – I can very easily see some anti-Semite in the Middle Ages talking about “King of the Dogs”. But no, you are almost certainly right that it was simple ignorance.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    Wait, is that the misreading, or is it “dog of the Jews”? Which would be problematic in sort of a different direction.

  15. “Dog of the Jews”, kelev hayehudim, vs. “King of the Jews” melekh hayehudim.

  16. There’s a story about a French stroke patient (left hemisphere) who couldn’t read any more, including of course the words République Française, but when shown the letters RF in a circle, immediately said, “République Française!” Or is this part of that myth about ideograms?

  17. Is -ta- perhaps an obsolete Taiwanese version?

    I’ve never seen it, but that doesn’t mean a lot.

    肯塔基州 kěntǎjī-zhōu is the name of the State of Kentucky.

  18. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    @Dmitry Pruss: perhaps the Chrismon ☧ is closest to being graphic, especially in its common form with surrounding wreath. Yes, it should be read chi rho and it has been read as P X too (with convenient overtones of pax), but it also seems sufficiently cruciform to combine ideogrammatic with monogrammatic Christological symbolism.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    肯塔基州 kěntǎjī-zhōu is the name of the State of Kentucky.

    Ah, that most likely explains it!

  20. I think Root of Factorial may be Charlie Chaplin.

  21. Ha, that’s great!

  22. the tone is always the first thing I forget about a syllable

    Exactly the purpose of tonal spelling: it’s easy to forget which of four diacritics is wanted, much harder to leave off or garble actual letters.

Speak Your Mind

*