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Illocution and Signage

What distinguishes an election sign from other signs? The question may not be as vacuous as it might seem.

Consider these signs currently on main street of Del Norte, a town in south central Colorado (population 1,578 and declining). How do we know the red one has to do with a local election?The easy answer is content. Only the red sign refers to an initiative on the local ballot. But how can we be sure? “2A” might be a highway through town that bypasses the business section, and the red sign is just an inept way of saying, Motorist, please take main street, not 2A.

Another doubtful answer is materials. The red sign is printed and hung by amateurs and not designed to last—clearly local election stuff. But just below it is a garage-sale announcement, equally  the work of amateurs, even more ephemeral.

A third questionable answer is the metaphoric language. General semantics—that venerable study of how language works—might argue that the connotations of the metaphoric “kill” in the red sign give it away. All the other signs are purely denotative. Actually not. The garage sale sign continues around the telephone post, where it says, “GREAT BUYS FOR A SONG.” A block away is a coffee shop called “The Columbine” (Colorado’s state flower).

Speech-act Theory

A more useful answer is offered by another approach to language, almost as venerable as general semantics: speech-act theory. Speech-act analysis looks especially at utterances, illocutions, that state or imply an action on the part of the writer and reader (or speaker and listener). The analysis can still be insightful. For instance, a literal statement of fact actually may be a request for action, depending on when, where, and how it is uttered. The grandmother glances at the grandson and says, seemingly to herself, “It’s cold in here,” and the grandson understands, gets up and closes the window (so illocution leads to perlocution). On Del Norte’s mainstreet, the illocutionary force of “SPEED 25” is, Motorist, here on this street you will be breaking the traffic laws if you drive faster than 25 miles an hour and the town cops will do their best to catch you.

There are different kinds of illocutions. “SPEED 25” is a directive, an utterance that orders, requests, warns, advises, or advertises. Reader, you do X and Y will happen. The other signs in the photograph, including the election sign, are also directives. But the election sign differs radically, namely in the length of time between action and reaction and the specificity of the reaction. Rhetorically, reaction matters.

The fastest reaction time is conveyed by the yard sale sign. Show up between 8 and 2 this Saturday and, bingo, you can shop. A little slower is the pedestrian crossing button, which says, “PUSH BUTTON TO TURN ON WARNING LIGHTS.” Push it and—at least from my experience—the warning lights will go on in about two seconds. Third fastest is the left-turn yellow arrow. If you plan to turn left, the yellow will change to red in about four seconds. The traffic signs are much more iffy in outcome. How quickly or how often will the police stop you if you drive in the bike lane, drive over 25 miles per hour, or park your truck where it says (barely visible in the photograph), “NO TRUCK PARKING”? I’d say—not from experience—that the likelihood of a police reaction are lowest with the first, highest with the last.

But what are the chances that your vote of no on initiative 2A will defeat it, or, if 2A is passed, local business will be forced to close? The intention of 2A is to raise town revenue to pay for more police enforcement and more street improvement. If passed, 2A would raise the town sales tax from 2% to 4%. But what are the odds that if The Columbine raises its price on coffee (with three free refills) from $1.75 to $1.79, it will go out of business? And if it did, how long would that take?

Fuzziness of Voting Signs

From the angle of illocutionary directives, voting signs are distinguished from most other signage by the extreme fuzziness of the acts they convey. This they share with campaign slogans of all kinds. “Working for Change, Working for You.” “Make America Great Again.” You vote for me, and look what will happen. But what will happen, and how long will it take? That’s anybody’s guess, a guess to be made by the voter. And politicians are betting that few voters are going to do that.

Illocutionary force is only one aspect distinguishing this cluster of downtown signs. Other kinds of rhetorical analysis will locate other differences. Foucauldian anaylsis? Feminist language theory? Critical discourse analysis? Appraisal theory?

1 thought on “Illocution and Signage”

  1. By the way, Del Norte’s ballot issue 2A lost, big time. Two-thirds of voters opposed it. Whew! Local businesses won’t die.

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