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In Chapter 8: How Language Works Hinton digs into the semantics and structure of language. The way speech can be used is important for future chapters that explore its context in a digital environment, so Hilton looks closely at its ability to manipulate using historic examples such as propaganda. He then goes into detail on how people use language (through signs and symbols) to place meaning on words and objects. This subtle symbolic or expressive ability of language is highlighted with references to everyday icons that humans digest efficiently without second thought.

Looking at Language Edit

In this section, Hinton starts at the root concept of language. He breaks down the study of language in to layers, displaying a diagram of concentric circles. From the outermost circle to the innermost, the layers of study explored in linguistics are as follows:

  • Pragmatics - meaning in the context of discourse.  
  • Semantics - literal meaning of phrases and sentences  
  • Syntax - phrases and sentences  
  • Morphology - words  
  • Phonology - phonemes  
  • Phonetics - speech sounds

[1]

Meaning arises from the densely webbed systems of communication that have grown over time, built up in layers like the concentric circles of the diagram [1]. When studying language, it is important to remember to remove any preconceived understanding of language and look at it objectively, layer by layer.

At the end, Hinton emphasizes that for design, all these layers of language are important for “making understandable environments,” but it is the “pragmatics of linguistic meaning that often brings the biggest challenges” [2]. Using language requires knowledge and foresight, so designing for how other people understand and use language can be a challenge.

Signs: Icons, Indexes, and Symbols Edit

In this section, Hinton begins by defining sign as “something that can be interpreted as having a meaning other than its own form” [2]. He differentiates information as either semantic information (having dependency on references between a thing and what that thing means) or physical information (having an intrinsic meaning). The signs are categorized in various ways. ”There are three modes for signification—three ways in which human expression means what it means” [2]. Each mode is distinct in how it communicates and each has its advantage depending on what needs to be communicated.

  • Icons - Signifier generally looks like the referent. The simplification of a stairway communicates the idea of where to go even if the power is out.
  • Indexes - Indicator that involves a connection between signifier and referent. A fuel gauge gives its information in context to its position in between the Empty and Full Abbreviations.
  • Symbols - Signifier that has specific meaning to a given culture because of how it is used, but can mean something else to another culture. Symbols' abstract nature gives them a broad interpretation value. For example, a heart is understood as the symbol for liking someone.

An icon’s level of detail can vary based on need, as long as it looks or behaves as portrayed as the actual object. To remember what indexes are Hinton suggests thinking of how people use their index finger to point out and direct attention to something, thus “indicating.” Hinton then explains, “the essence of a symbolic sign is that the signifier is essentially arbitrary” [3]. People can indicate where stairs are or see it as a picture representation and take meaning, but simply saying “stairs” has no “uniquely bound connection other than though general agreement” [4]. Any other combination of sounds could have ended up as the term for stairs. Verbal language is not generated entirely randomly and has some onomatopoeic origins. However, most symbolic (written) languages do not have a fixed origin or logic.

The Superpowers of Symbols Edit

Hinton reveals that symbols are “what [makes] language so terrifically powerful: they can be variables that we can use with great flexibility to created new sorts of meaning” [5].

Hinton gives three of the superpowers that symbols give us:

  • Evocative expression - Allows the capability to use words in evocative, novel ways as similes and metaphors.  
  • Categories - Reference without need for specific examples. It allows people to combine concepts with other concepts.  
  • Concepts -New contexts that exist only in the realm of language and ideas.  

[6]

Evocative expression makes language more efficient and descriptive in getting the point across. One can describe another as a “busy bee” and not mean it in the literal sense, but metaphorically. Categories allow people to relate with other things. Hinton uses the example of the word “mango” meaning a type of fruit instead of the specific mango being held in someone’s hand. With concepts, “people can create whole new environments of language-based things that people can use to solve problems, imagine new possibilities, and establish social agreements, boundaries, and expectations” [6]. This power to do all these things gives reason to why concepts are stressed as the most important of the superpowers.

Hinton adds a subsection talking about reification. When reifying, an abstraction is taken and is treated as if it were singular and concrete (p. 135). For example, the economy, the media, the government is usually reified. Reifying can be a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it allows people to use the word without having to thing about the little pieces that are a part of it. On the other hand, people can forget that “the economy” is actually made up of many parts that affect it. Reification is unavoidable. The key is to “pay attention to where it happens and ensure that it’s establishing meaning in the way [designers] need it to” [7]. One must understand what people usually rectify and make sure to design the rectification in such a way that the user understands whether to see it as a whole or made of pieces.

Signification Conflation Edit

Hinton opens this section explaining “modes of signification help us understand how the artifacts we design can mean something to users. But in everyday life, we and our users conflate these modes all the time . . . we tend to use symbolic signs as if they were indexical or iconic” [7]. For example, people will focus on the red X on the screen to close. Using too many red X’s with different placements on the screen will confuse the user as to which one is the correct one to close.

Hinton explains that people “tend to reify symbols as real things because it’s quicker and easier . . . this is crucial to remember when we think about how we experience context: people make do in the world by satisficing” [7]. Humans use an observation-action approach when looking at symbols, this immediacy can get them caught in a loop of least resistance. It is the designer’s responsibility to understand that this how humans functions and design in a way that lets users get away with doing the easiest thing, even if it is not the most objectively correct. Users reach for whatever tool, object, method, or mode of understanding to finish the task with the least effort, like a red X to close. Hinton also gives the example of designers wanting users to be able to say “sunrise,” even though it is actually the Earth rotating around the sun.

Language is Contextual Edit

There are several implicit layers that surround every word spoken. Hinton states, “the contextual nature of language is something that makes semantic information fundamentally different from physical information” [8]. In other words, there are many different ways context can be understood depending on different variables.

“Language works entirely because of the context of what is said in relation to everything around it,” Hinton explains [8]. People understand a word's meanings when they understanding its relationship to the sentence, where it is, and who is saying it, the tone used, etc. Using the word “fire” on a battlefront is different than “fire” inside a movie theater. Likewise, complementing someone with “you’re on fire” as a streak of luck is different than “you’re on fire” literally.

Language also involves the physical environment. To investigate an example Hilton considers a name tag. The Sticker's design lets people know it is a mechanic for introducing oneself. It is common that this happens for newcomers at a party, and to put something other than one's own name would be ironic. This given context makes conversation easier and increases the probability of it, much like the Facebook Like makes things simpler. "It’s a blunt instrument that can mean almost anything depending on what is being liked, by whom, at what time, and with what commentary" [9]. This vagueness does less harm than good as it prompts interaction when normally it might not occur.

Analysis  Edit

Hinton found success in creating a very understandable and comfortable working definition of language in this chapter, allowing the reader to move forward in their thinking about it. He reveals the ability it has to react to, spawn, and nourish communication. Icons, indexes, and symbols all work “in part because of their dependencies on other signifiers in an object or device” [10]. This is useful to understand because they work together to develop a singular meaning that people understand and use.

Hinton explains that by understanding signification, it can help people work though everyday design issues. Using language in a digital environment is tricky as the context can be blurred. It is important to understand how things can be perceived. For example the symbol used to describe how one feels about a "Tweet" can incite discontent if it does not line up with the context the writer wants it to [11]. An important grasp of the basics can help the readers and creators understand the content, and give writers a better sense of how to communicate to a variable number of people.

When understanding is achieved, user experience will be eased. The consequences of bad understanding can be seen in Hinton’s example about his problems with his email. Hinton explains that one's perception-action loop works best, and with the least confusion and explicit effort, when the environment allows them to conflate signifiers without having to solve referential puzzles. It may take a while to grasp the definitions and apply them into one’s design of digital reading and writing, with many trial and error tests to understand the user culture. However, the user experience will be greatly improved as a result.

ReferencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 128
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 129
  3. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 134
  4. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 133
  5. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 134
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 135
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 136
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 138
  9. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 150
  10. Hinton, Andrew, and Peter Morville. Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2014. Print. Page 130
  11. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/11/twitter-unfaves-itself-hearts/413917/

 

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