Reading Shopfront Signs: A Multimodal (Social) Semiotic Approach to Text Analysis

Author: Arif Chowdhury (University of Creative Technology, Chittagong, Bangladesh)
Speaker: Arif Chowdhury
Topic: Semiotics and Semiology
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Shopfront signs in multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, global city of London streets seem to serve as vehicle for keeping unity in linguistic diversity. Different ethno-linguistic diasporas are represented themselves through a unique bi/multi lingual display of multimodal shopfronts signs in culmination with English language. Language used in those shopfront signs as text can take shape in forms and functions to cater itself according to the needs of society at large, linguistic communities, and create group identity, or reshape our outlook.

This paper focuses on the complex communicativeness of language as a social semiotic (Haliday, 1978), as multimodal semiotic resources of mode (Jewitt, 2005) and also as a manipulative-representative text within the bigger multilingual society. Such nature of language beyond usual, in fact, how it is used; how we make sense of language in socio-cultural context, intrigued me to take an ethnographic (linguistic) field work along the Bengali dominated streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane in London in reading shop signs. Being a native Bengali, my intention was to figure out how multilingual and multimodal ‘texts’, if any, embedded in shop signs could play a pivotal role in processing meanings (Kress, 2004) which eventually help raise diverse communicative awareness and socio-cultural identity. To find out the meaning out of those images and writings in shop signs, I took photos of some shop signs as research data. The photographs were not randomly selected but consciously selected and categorised on the basis of my reaction to particular shop signs.

Taking a multimodal (social) semiotic approach to text analysis of each photograph of shop signs, this paper then attempts to answer: (1) Is there any role of my prior linguistic knowledge (both Bengali and English), awareness of semiotic resources, their multimodal use; attitude and interest (Collins & Slembrouck, 2004) in singling out the meaning in particular shop signs, sidelining all others? (2) Why do some shop signs carry the meaning which makes ‘sense’ to me straightforward while others do not? (3) How does the Bengali language potentially represent through multimodality? (4) What do Arabic and some Indian sub-continent languages in tandem with English language contextualise?

This paper finally shows how my prior linguistic knowledge; awareness of semiotic resources and their multimodal use help me raise questions on Bengali linguistic identity within a multilingual, global London society and find answers through reacting, recreating, and reviewing how language can be viewed in contexts.

Keywords: Shopfront Signs, Multimodal Analysis, Social Semiotics, Semiotic Resources