Advances in the study of semiotic repertoires: Mobilities, modalities, spatialities

Organizer: Annelies Kusters, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh


Recent years have seen a revitalisation in the use of Gumperz and Hymes’ (1972) notion of the verbal repertoire. This is largely due to shifts in conceptual understandings of language use, and moves away from bilingualism and code-switching to concepts such as (trans)languaging. In line with this shift, researchers have used various overlapping terms such as “linguistic repertoire”, “communicative repertoire”, “spatial repertoire” and “semiotic repertoire”. This colloquium engages with the latter: the concept of the semiotic repertoire, defined as the totality of resources or tools that people use when they communicate (such as speech, image, text, gesture, sign, gaze, facial expression, posture, objects and so on). Importantly, Kusters, Spotti, Swanwick and Tapio (2017) argued that the lens of semiotic repertoires enables synergies to be identified between sign language research, gesture studies, spoken language linguistics and provides a holistic focus on action that is both multilingual and multimodal. This symposium examines how the semiotic repertoire is distributed, experienced and embodied among diverse population groups. Paying attention to ideological and practical (assumed) hierarchies of resources (which are contextual and situated), we theorize on what the study of the distribution of resources, spatiality, moral orientation and emotions means for the conceptualization of the semiotic repertoire.

Spatial Repertoires in the Competence of Multilingual Speakers

Suresh Canagarajah, Pennsylvania State University

Though applied linguists have expanded their orientations of analyzing language interactions to multilingualism and multimodality, their analysis is largely influenced by the traditional assumptions of methodological individualism, human agency, and cognitive representationalism. Analysis is influenced by the perspective that individuals agentively use objects to convey their predefined meanings. Scholars from New Materialist orientations have recently persuaded us to consider, alternatively, the role of distributed practice, the agency of matter, and nonrepresentational embodiment. From this perspective, we have to analyze how meanings emerge through the collaborative work of participants in relation to the contribution of semiotic and material resources in their physical settings. To facilitate this analysis, I first theorize the notion of spatial repertoires as distinct from other types of repertoires. I situate them in theorizations such as multimodal versus verbal, and community versus personal repertoires, which have been already adopted in interactional analyses.  I then analyze chosen interactions of multilingual science scholars to demonstrate how spatial repertoires interact with community and personal repertoires of a focal participant to facilitate successful communication. I conclude with the far-reaching implications for redefining the language competence of multilinguals. Though their personal grammatical repertoire in English might be limited, they adopt spatial repertoires strategically for effective communication.

Deaf cosmopolitanism: Theorizing the connection between cosmopolitanism and language  

Erin Moriarty, Gallaudet University and Heriot-Watt University 
Annelies Kusters, Heriot-Watt University 

Cosmopolitanism theory was mostly developed separately from the study of multilingualism: while language is central to cosmopolitanism as a practice, only a few scholars focusing on cosmopolitanism have taken a language-centred approach. We further theorize this relationship between cosmopolitanism and translingual practice with our focus on morality in relation to the use of the semiotic repertoire. The use of resources of the semiotic repertoire in translingual practice is infused with morality in that resources (such as languages, signs, gestures, photos) are value-laden and have particular associations or meanings in any given context. 

We explore and define deaf cosmopolitanism by offering examples from three international settings: deaf tourists travelling in Bali, a sign language conference in Brazil, and a sign language translation centre in Kenya. Deaf people engaging in international mobilities often quickly adapt in communication by making use of semiotic resources that can include International Sign; mouthing, writing and fingerspelling in different languages and scripts; speech; and drawing. Mobile deaf people also quickly adopt new semiotic resources by engaging in rapid, immersive and informal (sign) language learning, acquiring (bits of) new sign languages and fingerspelling alphabets, and including them in their practice of adapting. Our analysis centres these distinct but overlapping practices of adapting and adopting, demonstrating how these practices are shaped by moral ideas about what strategies and semiotic resources are most appropriate in specific contexts and/or with/by whom. 


Communicative repertoires between situated interaction, normative Discourse, and lived experience: Exploring processes of ‘language shaming’

Brigitta Busch, University of Vienna

With the recent revival of Gumperz’ (1964) notion of the verbal repertoire, now commonly referred to as linguistic/communicative/semiotic repertoire, many scholars have tended to locate the repertoire with individual speakers and their life trajectories. In turn, others see the repertoire as emerging from the particular social or spatial arrangements in which interactions take place. What is often underestimated is the importance of the bodily and emotionally lived experience of communicative interaction. These can be critical in preventing communicative resources from being deployed even though they are individually available and appropriate to the situation, or conversely, in mobilizing unexpected resources to achieve understanding.

Conceiving the repertoire as holding an intermediate and mediating position between interactions situated in time and space, (sometimes competing) discourses on linguistic appropriateness, and subjects’ emotionally and bodily lived experiences of language, this paper examines the interplay of these instances by analyzing narratives in which feelings of shame linked to particular ways of speaking/interacting are articulated. Understanding communication primarily as an inter-subjective and inter-corporal gesture towards the other (Merleau-Ponty, 1962), I discuss how in moments of shame the acting and perceiving subject-body turns into an object-body that views itself through the eyes of others. What then comes into play are norm setting and regimenting discourses on language and language use, power asymmetries, and processes of (self-)positioning up to exclusion.

Experiences of language shaming can leave long-lasting imprints on the repertoire when they are “inscribed into the body” (Butler 1997) because of their conspicuous affective character or frequent reiteration. Such embodied experiences can result in linguistic insecurity and in patterns of communicative practices such as language avoidance, silence, hypercorrectness, or speaking back. Taking into account the impact of bodily and emotionally lived experience of language, I suggest the importance of understanding communicative repertoire in similar ways to how Bakhtin (1981) understood language, that is, as existing “on the borderline between oneself and the other”.


A-Signifying Semiotics and Deaf-Nondeaf-Becomings

Joseph Valente & Gail Boldt, Pennsylvania State University

Felix Guattari, in his 1995 book Chaosmosis, offers the concept of “a-signifying semiotics,” dramatically expanding the field of semiotics to challenge any separation of human and non-human and any hierarchicalization of expression and that name signs as both material and semiotic. Guattari describes a semiotics that must lay language alongside that which he names as “a-signifying,” or Genosko (2014) describes a-signifying semiotics as “any system of signification that dissociates itself in some manner from a meaning component, or considers meaning as an irritant” (p. 13). Whereas signifying semiotics concern well-formed meanings, a-signifying semiotics exist in the world of affecting and being affected that does not rely upon consciousness or meaning. In this paper, we draw from Guattari’s work on “a-signifying semiotics” to center affect and movement and attend to the productivity of the assemblage beyond consciously recognizable forms of communication, including speech, language, gesture, or sign. To do this, we focus specifically on deaf-nondeaf becomings, working through stories of the first author’s work with the support of the second author, to navigate as the first deaf tenure-track professor at their university, the complexities of dealing with institutionalized and day-to-day audism and discrimination. We narrate an event in our relationship in which our typical modes of communication became inaccessible. While this appeared to be a crisis in communication, setting aside a semiotic reading of our communicative breakdown in favor of a focus on a-signifying semiotics allows us to consider the movement of extreme emotional vulnerability in these events. This vulnerability, previously attributed to Joseph Valente as the deaf professor, became fluid and our roles collapsed and became terrifyingly enlivened with new possibilities. Through our analysis of these stories, we demonstrate the potential of a-signifying semiotics for eradicating the absolute mark of self and other, illustrating the productivity of indeterminacy and emergence.