Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Semantics of Line Drawings XIV, Grylloi and Visual Linguistics

[ The Semantics of Line Drawings XIII, Why is Reading so Easy? | The Semantics of Line Drawings XV, The Difference a Jacket Makes ]

In my last post, I referred to Mark Changizi's book The Vision Revolution and his online article "The Topography Of Language". In the latter, he says:

Amongst both non-linguistic and linguistic signs, some visual signs are representations of the world­ e.g., cave paintings and pictograms, respectively and it is, of course, not surprising that these visual signs look like nature. It would be surprising, however, to find that non-pictorial visual signs look, despite first appearances, like nature. Although writing began with pictograms, there have been so many mutations to writing over the millenia that if writing still looks like nature, it must be because this property has been selectively maintained.

Why has this property been maintained? Because the visual system could use its object-recognition software for reading writing that was shaped like nature. Writing that wasn't thus shaped would be harder to read, so fall out of use. This kind of answer, Changizi says, beongs to a new discipline, "visual linguistics":

Because culture is capable of designing for the eye, the visual signs of our culture are a fingerprint of what our visual systems like. Akin to the linguistic study of the auditory productions humans make, the “visual linguistic” study of the visual productions people make is a currently under-utilized tool for vision research.

In other words, visual linguistics studies our visual "utterances". The subject has hardly begun, which is why in this table from the chapter on reading in The Vision Revolution, the appropriate cell in the table below is marked with a question mark (and with a shaky font which I can't reproduce here):

Laboratory experimentsHuman "utterances"
CognitionCognitive psychology,
cognitive neuroscience
VisionVisual psychophysics?
Visual Linguistics

So here's another question for visual linguistics. Why are grylloi so popular? They're easy to draw, but maybe that's not the only reason. I suspect that to our visual system, they look much more like people than they "ought" to. The semantic distance between human and gryllos, one might say, is much less than the geometric distance.

"Scotch Egg" by me

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