What is reading ?
« … reading is also picking out signs, making hypotheses, and in
finally finding the meaning of a message, whether it be linguistic,
iconic ou recorded ». L. HAMM, p.9.
a text
Read WHAT?
an image
some music
Please note :
We have preferred to approach texts, images, music, … from the point of view of
meaning, of understanding and not of emotion or aesthetic pleasure.
Our approach
« Even if things haven’t always been formulated in this way,
it can be said, at present, that approaching or studying
certain phenomena from a semiotic viewpoint is actually
considering their method of production of meaning, in other
words, the way in which they bring about meaning, that is to
say, interpretation. Furthermore, a sign isn’t a « sign »
unless it « expresses ideas », and if it brings about
interpretative reasoning in the mind of the person or of
those who perceive it. »
(Martine Joly, Introduction à l’analyse de l’image, pp. 21-22)
To further your
knowledge :
Some interesting reading!
You can decide to read these now or later ! They will be
mentioned again at the end of the paper.
The world is a book!
Two extracts by Alberto MANGUEL :
What is reading?
Two little extracts by Hubert Nyssen which are worth attention.
The difference between semiotic and semiology : Ferdinand de Saussure and
Charles Sanders Peirce. Extracts by Martine Joly, Introduction à l’analyse de l’image,
Texts, images and music use signs …
to be decoded !!!
From the point of view of their
nature (the code)
Let’s compare them briefly
From the point of view of
the reader (the decoder)
Let’s begin by comparing texts, images and music
from the point of view of their nature, i.e. the code :
Composition, interlacing, assemblage, meeting, …
Not left to chance  produced by someone
To say/communicate something
Organized according to rules that can be learned
To be decoded by another person who will make meaning of it
Using a code made up of
No analogical
colours, shapes, graphics…
Often analogical
No analogical
makes a message by using
a code
to say/communicate
something to others
who will decode it and make sense
by an act of reading
Author (for a text)
Artist (for an image) : i.e.
draughtsman, painter, illustrator,
graphic designer, …
Seeing, hearing,
going through
Composer (for music)
photographing, drawing, painting,
illustrating, …
Let’s go into more detail from
the reader’s point of view
Text :
- If I want to read a written text myself, I absolutely have
to know the writing code.
- Orally, I don’t need to know the writing code to
understand a text read by someone else (and that starts
from earliest infancy) and even less so to produce speech
(in my mother tongue).
Image :
cannot be read orally as such! Reading it orally of necessity
means beginning to interpret it !
 To read an image , I don’t need to
know an iconic code : images are
omnipresent in our environment and
as they are often analogical, I can see
them and read them without any
particular training.
 On the other hand, to read them
in depth or to produce images which
are « efficient », I need to know the
iconic code (to be convinced of this,
see in the appendix a few lines by L.
Hamm, Lire des images).
Music :
- if it is played by someone, I can listen to it without
learning the musical code. It is also omnipresent in our
- if it is played by someone, if I know some of the
elements of the code, I can understand it better, analyse
it, appreciate it (as for images !)
- if it is written, in order to read it myself, I have to
know the musical code.
Reading = decoding and interpreting the signs (thus not doing just anything)
based on one’s own subjectivity and cultural context in order to give them meaning.
Reading brings into play
a text
an image
A reader
A message
In a context
some music
In short :
What is a sign ?
What should be done to decode it or
how should it be decoded?
This is what Martine JOLY says in her book
« Introduction à l’analyse de l’image »:
« A sign has a materiality that can be perceived with one or more
of our senses. It can be seen (an object, a colour, a movement),
heard (spoken language, shout, music, noise), smelled (different
odours : perfume, smoke), touched or even tasted.
This thing that is perceived takes the place of some other
thing : this is the essential particularity of the sign : to be there,
present, to designate or signify another thing, which is absent,
concrete ou abstract.
Redness or pallor can be signs of illness or of emotion; the
sounds of language which I perceive are signs of concepts that
I have learned to associate with them; the smoke that I smell is
the sign of fire; (…) I can also believe that the sight of a black
cat is the sign of misfortune; a red light, at a crossroads, is a
sign that it is forbidden to go through with a car, and so on. It is
therefore apparent that anything can be a sign once I deduce a
meaning from it, a meaning which depends on my culture, just
as the context in which the sign appears. (…)
For Peirce, a sign is « some thing taking the place
of some thing for some one, with some
connection, or for some reason».
Martine Joly, p. 25
A sign maintains an interdependent relationship between three points :
the signifier (i.e. the perceptible part of the sign)
 the reference (i.e. the object, what is represented, what it means)
 the signified (which depends on the context in which the sign appears and on the
expectations of the one receiving it)
Example :
I hear or I read the word « camel »
The word heard or read « camel »
Based on whether I’m a European
turned more often towards the far
north, or a European who prefers the
desert, or a Touareg living on trade
thanks to my camels, or someone
who is very angry with a disagreeable
or unbearable person who is getting
in my way, the same signifier will
have meanings or significations which
are very different.
The sound heard or the word read
refers to the concept of the
well-known mammal.
Another example
I see the image
the holiday period and in
wealthy countries, this image is going
to mean gifts, celebrations, the new
year, …
During the middle of the year, it could
mean « birthday, birth, retirement, … »
Imagine what it could mean for a
graphic designer, a 4 year old child, an
older person who is very ill, etc.
And for people from poor countries, it
could mean wealth, exploitation,
arrogance, etc.
A drawing, an image in colour,
Two stylized people, each one carrying
a big gift-wrapped package.
It should be noted that a real object is never a sign of what it is,
but that it can be the sign of something else.
(Martine Joly, p.25)
As Jocelyne Giasson describes it, with reference to
texts, reading can be said to be:
An interactive process
An active process
A communication process
A language process
An indivisible process (all the
skills at the same time)
A process of constructing meaning
For more details, see J. Giasson, La lecture, De la théorie à la pratique, ch.1.
Words (said or written) are a special way to communicate, to learn, to get
into images and music, to analyse them, … we will therefore attach great
importance first to reading texts, then images.
That is why we will present a summary of the whole book by J.
Giasson on understanding in reading (see other document in
power point format).
For music, we prefer to refer to
documents which have already been
written, such as, for example, the Some of these have been filmed
«music lessons» by Jean-François (Chopin, Fauré, Bartok, Debussy,
Zygel which are remarkable.
Chostakovitch, and many others), and
then edited in DVD format.
As mentioned at the beginning of this document,
here is a reminder of some interesting reading
which will help you to further your knowledge!
The world is a book!
Two extracts by Alberto MANGUEL:
What is reading?
Two little extracts by Hubert Nyssen which are worth attention.
The difference between semiotic and semiology : Ferdinand de Saussure and
Charles Sanders Peirce. Extracts by Martine Joly, Introduction à l’analyse de
l’image, p.22-3.
Document written by Hélène Delvaux and Anne Moinet
of the IF BELGIUM and developped as a Microsoft
power point presentation 2003 by Hélène Delvaux
Images : clipart on
For the European project Signesetsens
Metaphors of reading
Alberto Manguel, in his book Histoire de la lecture (ed. Actes Sud, 1998),
asserts that metaphors are « an authentic means for understanding
contexts » and shows that one of the oldest and most common metaphors
is to present the world as a book. In this perspective, the book becomes a
book about a book (pp. 207 and 209).
(...) Saying that an author is a reader and a reader is an author, considering a book
as a human being or a human being as a book, describing the world as a text or a
text as the world, are so many ways of naming the reader’s art.
Saying that we read – the world, a book, a body – isn’t enough. The
metaphor of reading calls on another metaphor in turn, needs to be explained in
images situated ouside of the reader’s library and nevertheless inside the reader’s
body, associating the function of reading to the other essental functions of our
being. Reading – as we have seen – is used as a metaphoric vehicle, but in order
to be understood, the metaphor must also be recognized, as a metaphor, through
metaphors. In exactly the same way as writers speak of concocting a story, or of
ruminating over a text, letting an idea simmer, spicing up a scene or of garnishing
the framework of an argument, seasoning a slice of life with allusions which will
give readers something to chew on, as readers we speak of savoring a book,
of finding it nourishing, of devouring it in one sitting, of ruminating a passage, of
rolling a poet’s verses off our tongue, of feasting on poetry, or of following a
steady diet of detective novels. In an essay on the art of studying, the XVIth
century English scholar, Francis Bacon, made a catalog of the process : « Some
books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and
digested. »
In whatever way readers appropriate books, at the end of the day, the
book and the reader become one. The world is a book which is devoured by a
reader who is a letter in the text of the world; thus a circular metaphor of
the infinity of reading is born. We are what we read.
Alberto Manguel, Une histoire de la lecture, ed. Actes Sud, 1998,
pp.19 and 20
Readers of books (…) develop or
concentrate a function which is
common to all of us. Reading letters
on a page is only one of its numerous
attires. The astronomer who reads a
map of the stars which have
disappeared ; the Japanese architect
who reads the land which a house is
to be built on, in order to protect it
from evil forces ; the zoologist who
reads the excrements of animals in
the forest; the card player who reads a
partner’s expression before playing a
winning card ; the danser who reads
the choreographer’s indications, and
the public which reads the danser’s
indications on the stage ; the weaver
who reads the complex designs of a
carpet which is being woven; the
organist who simultaneously reads
several lines of a musical score which
are orchestrated on the page ; the
parents who read signs of joy, of fear
or of astonishment on their baby’s face
; the Chinese seer who reads the
antique marks on a tortoise’s shell ;
the lover who blindly reads the
beloved body, at night, beneath the
sheets ; the psychiatrist who helps
patients to read their enigmatic
dreams ; the Hawaiian fisherman who
reads marine currents by plunging his
hand in the water ; the farmer who
reads what the weather is going to be
like ;
– all of them share with the
reader of books, the art of
deciphering and of translating
signs. Some of these readings
are coloured by the idea that the
object read was created for this
specific purpose by other
human beings – music, for
example, or roadsigns and
markings – or by the gods – the
tortoise’s shell, the evening sky.
The others come under the idea
of chance.
And, however, in each one of these
cases, the reader is the one who reads
the meaning : the reader is the one
who recognizes or attaches to the
object, the place or the event a certain
readability ; it’s up to the reader to
ascribe a meaning to a system of signs
and then to decipher it. All of us, we
read ourselves and we read the
world around us in order to perceive
what we are and where we are. We
read to understand, or to begin to
understand. We can only read.
Reading, almost as much as
breathing, is our essential function.
Hubert NYSSEN – Lira bien qui lira le dernier – lettre libertine sur la
lecture (ed. Labor/ ed. Espace de libertés, 2004)
p.43 …It isn’t enough to know how to read, to be able to read (…) if we
weren’t prepared by our education, be it partial or social, we can only
find deception, and worse, seeds of hostility, in reading. Giving a book
to someone who doesn’t know how to read amounts to turning that
person away from books for a long time, if not forever.
p.44 … never confuse getting someone to read, with learning to read,
the demonstration of reading, with literacy.
A l’origine
M. Joly, Introduction à l’analyse de l’image, p.22-3.
« Let’s begin by the etymology of the
word « semiotic », and with that of the
word « semiology », a term which is
also used frequently. It should be
pointed out briefly, though, that it is
relatively more complex, that these
two terms are not synonyms, as such :
the first one, of American origin, is
the canonical term which designates
semiotics as the philosophy of
language. The use of the second, of
European origin, is more involved
with the study of specific languages
(images, gestural, theatre, etc.). These
two nouns were created from the
Greek word séméion which means
« sign . (…)
The idea of putting together a
science of signs, named therefore,
from the beginning, either semiology
or semiotics, and which would consist
of studying the different types of signs
which we interpret, of drawing up a
typology, of finding the laws of
operating, of different categories of
signs, this idea is recent and goes
back to the beginning of the century.
The great precursors are the Swiss
linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, in
Europe, and the scientist Charles
Sanders Peirce,
in the United
States ».
Liliane Hamm, Lire des images, 1986
(livre épuisé), p.9.
(…) Television, advertising, posters, comic books, films, images of all kinds and
of all sorts accompany them(= students) from their first steps, often without
their being offered any kind of effort of reflection or analysis which could come
to their assistance, to enable them to transform an unorganized accumulation
of vague impressions or at best a sum of more or less superficial learning into
a structured and controlled body of knowledge.
There are certainly not any « illiterates » of images, so to speak. Even a very
young child already has an intuitive knowledge of an image, as soon as it is no
longer perceived as a simple piece of paper, but as an authentic
Liliane Hamm, Lire des images, 1986
(livre épuisé), p.9.
The temptation could then be very great to lean only on this global and
intuitive knowledge, and purely imitative practical experiences, to lead
students to often very ambitious productions, using very sophisticated
materials, but which often come to a dead end very quickly, once the keen
interest for new things has subsided. Video recorders and movie cameras
can then easily be put away in the closet, for not having led to the results
which had been anticipated, and this is for lack of sufficient mastery of the
image, of its language and its codes, which can only be acquired
progressively, often by using more modest methods.

Diapositive 1 - Signes et Sens