There is a set of books by the author Mark Z. Danielewski, that features a very irregular (but not necessarily absolutely unique) style. For example, in his debut novel, the word house (and counterparts of that word in other languages) is always colored blue. Or (this is more in a series of books he started, but did not finish, working on many years later), there are quite a few calligrams that show up. I'll focus on the house-case for now.

So, it doesn't seem totally clear to me that the coloration affects the semantics of the word. No house in the story is actually blue, if I remember correctly; especially not the house that is at the heart of the entire text. The reason the author used that color, if not quite the reason he used it on that particular word all the time (in his debut), had something to do with use of blue background framing in some cinematography, IIRC. But it's not like the point, then, is to interpret all mentions of houses, in that book (or in later books, when the word house is sometimes, but not allways(!), colored over in blue again), as implicit references to blue backgrounds in cinematography.

But it also isn't clear to me that the coloration is a syntactic matter, either. (By contrast, the calligraphy examples look kind of like syntactic variations; yet at the same time, the images given calligraphically, have a sort of imagistic semantic value, then, too. And yet even so, the calligrams are usually of objects, mostly animals, already referenced by name in the text used to form the calligrams; so at best is there a sort of "semantic overdetermination" at play, there, as such?)

Also, some parts of the text require physical or at least mental rotation, to read in proper order; or use of a mirror. This is the "ergodic" side of the book. Again, it is difficult for me to see this feature as a purely semantic or syntactic matter, if either at all.

Philosophically speaking, then: if issues of logical semantics and logical syntax are abstractions from the semantics-syntax distinction in natural language, to what logical concepts/functions/what-have-you, do things like font/typeface color, calligraphy, ergodics, etc. correspond, if anything? Can we interpret ineffability in these terms, no less, as if to say that we might not be given to rationally communicate something in the plain semantics or syntax of our propositions and arguments involving them, yet even so we might communicate the otherwise ineffable by means of the logical counterpart "purpose" of these "signiconic" literary styles? (This is not idle speculation, on my part: I was working one time on a story in which there is a scene similar to the one in Dante's Paradiso, where Dante finally "sees God face to face," and I wanted to use signiconic methods to express what was ineffable if expressed only in terms of the words and their mere grammatical arrangements proper.)

The first form the idea took was to have the start of the scene involve a black-to-white gradient shift, per letter, at the point of the pivotal word in the scene. So that the first letter would be colored black, the next a very dark shade of grey, etc., until finally the word "faded out" into white. Then, a large number of pages would be left blank, except perhaps for "flickers" of phrases fading in and out again, until eventually the text faded back in conclusively. The idea would be that the blank sections would refer to the otherwise perfectly ineffable, and even therefore comprise a sort of icon of this ineffability.

However, an overarching hyperpremise of the book's style was supposed to be adjoint calligraphy-kineography. In other words, all the words on every page would form a shape, and then all the shapes in sequence would form a "flipbook" superimposed over the interior of the narrative. I never decided whether the blank-out section would then interrupt the procession of the "flipbook." I never made the decision, because I wondered whether the signiconic dimension of the adjoint hyperstyle would already satisfy the ineffability parameters to be encoded into the text, so that blanking the adjunction out, even temporarily, would defeat the purpose of having the relevant signiconic dimension in place. More specifically, the "story" being "told" on the flipbook-level of the text, would not itself directly involve the scene that justified the blanking-out of that level of the text. Now granted, I also considered having microkineographs in the margins surrounding the bulk of the text, on every page, so maybe I could've just had it be that the smaller "flipbooks" remained in place during the blank-out. Without explaining the actual story at issue, I suppose I can't explain the reason why there would be an "ineffable" event therein...

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    As a curious observation, StackExchange does not support the use of coloured fonts with the exception of Hyperlinks, so it is surprisingly difficult to fully engage with this question. This difficulty is itself an interesting aspect of the question!
    – Paul Ross
    Dec 15, 2021 at 13:58
  • @Tsundoku (per the suggested edit): though literary theory is not mentioned by name, the whole question of communicating things just by name is at issue, here, so I think literary theory is signiconically referenced anyway. As for some of the other minor edits suggested: it is common in at least The Familiar (MZD's unfinished project) to write the word "always" as "allways." Hence why I put the (!) next to it, there. And as for the semicolon before "or use of a mirror," I'm deferring to what is, IIRC, a UK-English use of semicolons. Dec 15, 2021 at 14:17
  • There's also a totally elliptical reference to something in the intended text (a moment of personal fidelity to the story), encoded into that "allways" in the OP. Viz., it is common in the conlang side of the text, to have words that normally would just have an "f" in a certain place, have "vf" instead: e.g. vfountains instead of fountains. This carries over to talk of "vforges," important magic/tech structures, culminating in the ∀forge, which is the object of the ultimate "divine" revelation (modulo the blank-out scene). And since "∀" = "all," well... Dec 15, 2021 at 14:29
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    Communication is a complex process... We have a lot of more elements than words in verbal communication; in the same way, we can use typographical features in written communication. See e.g. Jakobson's functions of language Dec 15, 2021 at 16:14

2 Answers 2



It might be necessary to reformulate your question for clarity. Yours:

if issues of logical semantics and logical syntax are abstractions from the semantics-syntax distinction in natural language, to what logical concepts/functions/what-have-you, do things like font/typeface color, calligraphy, ergodics, etc. correspond, if anything?

Instead of editing your word-wall, let's restate the question in a way an analytic philosopher of language might:

Formal semantics and formal languages are abstractions of natural language that are adjacent to the linguistical notion of syntax-semantics interface or the philosophical dichotomy of syntax and semantics. Extremely creative uses of typography such as calligrams and non-conventional use of typeface seem to have an impact on the semantics of sign-users in the sense that semiotics understands it. What is the relation of these semiotic-centric concepts to linguistic-centric concepts like truth, syntax, and sense?

Short Answer

You have two sets of terms that might be described as those of semiotics and those of linguistics. The relationship between your semiotic terms and your linguistic terms occurs as the concept of 'graphic symbol' because written languages are built out of graphic symbols as primitives. That is the only necessary connection.

Long Answer

You have two philosophies and sciences at play, the philosophy of language and linguistics, and the communication theory and semiotics. On the one hand, you talk about ideas that are used to describe signs when you talk about typeface, colors, shapes, art, and so on, and on the other, you talk about syntax, semantics, logic, and truth. Essentially, these are two different domains of discourse unless linguistic meanings are deliberately assigned to non-linguistic signs, a fact exploited by artists and poets as well as cryptographers.

Of course, language began as spoken, but since humans evolved to a significant complexity to manipulate media, such as with petroglyphs, graphical art/signs/symbols became much more permanent. Of art, signs, and symbols, we will restrain our discourse to symbols since the prior categories have some nuances of meaning not relevant to the discussion. Art, signs, and symbols are explored in aesthetics in a normative sense, but what's relevant to your question is that symbols are employed as basic units of sense, in the Über Sinn und Bedeutung sense. Let's explore some different ways.

Once you are using graphic symbols to encode human language, you have what is known as proto-writing, the first of which seems to go back 8,000 years ago in China. These systems are most sophisticated when they begin using the pictogram as a symbol that represents an idea that clearly resembles the idea. Ancient cave drawings represent aurochs, and it is clear that they are aurochs. But once a pictogram becomes a little more sophisticated, especially in the representation of a complex or abstract idea, you now have an ideogram.

One fantastic innovation necessary for written language starts with the abstraction of a highly graphical ideogram that is simplified in such a way to make repeated use with a medium easy to use. Thus, with simplified ideograms, we see the first written expression of language with the Chinese hanji, the Mesopotamian cuneiform, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Lastly, it can become cumbersome to memorize enough ideograms to have a rich vocabulary (as you'll find if you try to study text Chinese coming from an alphabet), so a final innovation for representing ideas is to collapse the graphic symbol from idea to sound, either as a syllabary where syllables are encoded by graphic images or in an alphabet, where individual sounds are used. From there, letters can encode phonemes, morphemes or words, for instance. Depending on the language, the smallest combination of these symbols and functional units of meaning is known as glyphs and graphemes, respectively.

Once you have glyphs and graphemes, the smallest functional units of syntax and semantics, you can plainly see the connection. In linguistic formal semantics as opposed to the computational variety that studies automata, formal systems are used to study how natural language semantics is organized from the grapheme level. Some key ideas here truth-conditionality, compositionality, anaphora, and deixis. These have relationships in logic in the notions of truth-conditional semantics, mereology, and reference.


So, symbols, a subject studied by semiotics intersects 'meaning' because certain types of symbols are used to represent meaning in a medium. When those symbols become sophisticated enough to represent a language, then symbols become used conventionally to fulfill human goals. These are the functions of language. By using the properties of symbols which is the concern of semiotics and structure of language, the concern of linguistics, it becomes possible to fulfill a broad range of intentions and is a primary indicator of intentionality and intelligence whether measured by IQ tests or the Turing test.

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    I totally forgot about semiotics. Answer confirmed! Dec 18, 2021 at 6:30

It's a common feature of writing systems that they rely on the sogn and not the colour.

This need not have been the case as we can see the use of the colour red in the West often signifies a warning. But this is the only common use of colour in script. And compared to the vast bulk of writing where colour is not used in signifying, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny percent. Of course colour is used in signifying: black for funerals; green, amber and red for traffic lights; orange and yellow for safety clothing etc. But again, though these are signifying, they are not writing by any stretch of the word.

We can ask why?

The obvious answer is that not using colour as a dimension of meaning in writing makes reading and writing more robust as there is only one dimension of meaning: the sign and not two: the sign and colour. It is also much simpler to write as we do not need several coloured inks. Also, as writing developed from cuneiform, we can see that there the sign by itself is much simpler to form in clay otherwise we would have the labourious task of colouring in the marks and waiting for it to dry.

  • "only common use of colour in script": wrong, there are red-letter Bibles, too, btw. And at any rate, Danielewski's books are hardly "common," they fall under the heading of experimental fiction. Way to ignore the entire basis of the OP! Dec 18, 2021 at 8:57
  • @Kristian Berry: I'm not going to list all the possibilities. That's a fools errand or rather, a pedant's. The point is, that there are very good reasons why scripts are signified through signs, like I've listed above. Go ahead, ignore them if you want to - but it's only pointing up your own lack of understanding. Dec 18, 2021 at 9:13
  • To be sure, the printing costs for Danielewski's most complex work were so prohibitive that the publisher gave up on greenlighting future volumes, on account of there not being a large enough paying audience to balance against those costs. However, I don't see what anything like that has to do with the question posed in the OP. And anyway, J D provided a sufficient answer to that question. You didn't. Get over it. Dec 18, 2021 at 9:22

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