Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Ragen, Brian Abel. "Semiotics and Heraldry." Semiotica 100, no. 1 (1994): 5–34.

Related topics:

Language and Linguistics

Ragen's article establishes why heraldry can be considered a language. He begins by explaining that, rather than a random collection of images, heraldry is "a system of rules... for combining symbols in meaningful ways" (6). He compares the structuralist definition of language as a system of differences to a similar system in heraldry in which a coat of arms can be painted in many different ways as long as certain differences are maintained between the basic elements: colors, tinctures, ordinaries, and charges.

Next, Ragen explores the relationship between the sign and its referent within the context of heraldry. All of the visual elements of heraldry must be reduced to a verbal description in order to be considered important in the system. This verbal description is called "blazon." Like analytic languages, blazon operates according to a very particular syntax, which requires a certain level of pedantry to understand (6). Further, in heraldry, as in most semiotic systems, a sign must correspond to a single referent, in this case a particular person. Like most other systems, however, the relationship between signifier and signified quickly becomes unclear as people appropriate arms (13). While a coat of arms symbolizes only one person, different combinations of coats can portray marriages, business partnerships, and other amalgamations (14).

Finally, Ragen associates heraldry with pre-literate communication and community organization, which relied on totemic symbols (22). As a complex system of visual and verbal communication, it is both emblematic of a highly literate era and reminiscent of its pre-literature predecessor.

Citations and Related Sources

Culler, Jonathon. Structuralist Poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Hawkes, Terrence. Structuralism and Semiotics, n.d.
Scott-Giles, C. Wilfrid. Shakespeare’s Heraldry,. London: Heraldry Today, 1971.

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