article: A Truly Semiotic Understanding of Cultural „Heritage” 

7-10th May 2015 Istanbul conference „Semiotics of Cultural Heritages from Authenticity to Informatics”

by Vilmos Voigt (Budapest, Hungary)


Voici ce que dit un auteur arabe du XVIe siècle: ”J’ai entendu Sidi Ali Al Kawwaç dire que l’audition de la musique avait une grande influence sur la perception des réalités mystiques. Dieu a donné à l’homme les cinq sens pour s’approprier les choses extérieurs de ce monde. A ces sens externes correspondant des sens internes. Ces ses internes sont propres aux mystiques. Quand le moi de l’homme engagé dans la voie est purifié des impuretés, l’un des cinq sens peut remplacer un autre. Il peut entenndre avec les yeux, voir avec ses oreilles”.

(Süheylâ Bayrav: Symbolisme medieval. Istanbul, Matbaasi, 1956. p. 18. – Publications de la Faculté des lettres d’Istanbul, No. 672.)

Artefacts, values and use of „cultural heritage” have often been investigated from various points of view indeed. Semiotics – in the proper sense of the term – has not been largely used there hitherto. I think a most productive possibility may be in that regard to elaborate some basic ideas by Charles Morris for dealing with the “theory of cultural heritage”. . One profound idea is his distinction between comsign and lansign. Morris does not make himself a strict difference between „past-sign” – „present-sign” – „future-sign” – but that distinction is very close to his understanding of signs. To paraphrase the later distinction, it is about „pre-figurement” – „co-figurement” and „post-figurement” of the values of culture. If we adopt those theoretical terms, we can understand the semiotic vocation of cultural „heritage”. Heritage is thus a „past-sign”, referring to an item of the culture as „inherited” from the past. Safeguarding is a typical „post-figurative” sign: it reflects the already established signs and sign systems. Authenticity is a double-faced term. It declares the „true” nature of items from the past – and on the other hand it is promising its validation in our days. Of course, the validating in our days includes the use of modern informatics.

My paper will exemplify the above said scheme with some remarks. And it may reflect a “true” semiotic understanding of cultural heritage, which also extends the boundaries of social semiotics.

1 Before that elaboration we should outline the birth and rise of the term “cultural heritage”. From the early 1970s UNESCO wanted to systematize the “treasures” of the world. Finally the “Convention for the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage” statement was published. Then the WIPO (the legal office for guarding and taxing intellectual properties) asked UNESCO to work out some guidelines for protecting of oral literature and folklore in general. (See the Recommendation … 1989) Thanks to that preliminary activity a more general proposal (Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage) was finalized by the October 2003 General Conference of the UNESCO. In the spring of 2004, the Convention was sent out to all the member states, for ratification. After some years of ratification in significant number of member states on the 20th April 2006 the Convention came into effect. By that time at least 74 states, 21 of them European, had associated themselves with the declaration. Turkey participated in that convention at first already from 1983 very successfully.

2 As we can see from the recent book Turkey’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Editor: M. Öcal Oğuz. Ankara: Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2013.  – with a thorough report on accepting the UNESCO directives – both the international and legal and the local and touristic aspects were taken into consideration.  The book contains samples and illustrations from oral tradition, performing arts, ritual and feasts, knowledge of practices related to nature and the universe, handicraft traditions (reaching from riddling to oil wrestling and pastries). Of course one could add more and more items – but the trend is clear and acceptable: today “intangible cultural heritage” is a well known and important topic in Turkey.

3 The next major UNESCO proposal was about “Living Human Treasures”, stressing the importance of communities who still maintain their own traditions. Their acceptance is carried on regional, nation-wide and world-wide level. However, to describe the force and weakness of the UNESCO directives, it would be needed as the topic of a special study.

We can clearly describe the inner development of the UNESCO strategy of (cultural) “treasure hunt”. Originally UNESCO wanted to “preserve and protect” the nature resources (geological sites, national parks, etc.) all around the world. The next step was to list the internationally most important archaeological sites, built monuments, including also medieval castles, battlefields etc. UNESCO was always obsessed by equilibrium. If once they have already declared as to be protected the shadow theatre (wayang) in Indonesia, they felt they had to protect something different in other continent, e.g. the funeral textile dolls in Ancient Peru.  If they wanted to protect the medieval wooden churches in the protestant Norway, they felt to be obliged to offer the same for shamanism in Korea. After some troubles with the UNESCO declarations, their clerks marched to another new field: towards the “safeguarding of folklore” project. Since I participated twice as the “rapporteur” for the “Recommendation” of the UNESCO, and I could follow the development before and after – and I happened to know some (= much) of background information.

There were two major obstacles for achieving an internationally acceptable text for safeguarding of “folklore”. First the term “folklore” was not clear for everbody, and in some languages the term “folklore” does not exist, and in other languages its equivalents can not be used internationally. The second obstacle was concerning “minorities”. If the UNESCO convention is speaking about “safeguarding” – there is the question:  which and who are in this way eligible for safeguarding? According to my opinion: all the informants and all the collectors of folklore, all the archives and museums, all kinds of folklore publications and disseminations should be protected. Obviously all possible items of folklore should also be integrated into the education (if they fit into the curriculum). (Here, again, the delegate of United Kingdom was protesting – thus championing for the “freedom” of education.) And since in the countries (in UNESCO language: “member states”) there are various kinds of minorities (ethnic, religious, professional, sexual, local etc.) all of those should also be protected. Delegates of some of the member states (as different among them, as the three Soviet states and the Holy See) protested against protection of minorities – that is the reason, why finally it was not directly included to the document.

The 1989 recommendation is still a useful document, giving some hints even today for its users in order of collecting and storing items of traditional culture. Its higher rank UNESCO document, the “Convention” is a piece of bureaucracy – more important, more general speaking and under a label various possibilities can be outlined.

There was the trouble too, including the Article 20 “Purposes of international assistance”. Everybody, who knows the past and present of folklore research should realize that “foreign” scholars are always and successfully working for the collection, publication and studying of “not-their own” folklore. They were never received well in accomplishing their tasks. Local authorities were suspicious for the “foreigners” working on their traditions. On the other hand “international assistance” could also be in fact a kind of disguise for cultural imperialism.

In the last decades multinational media have developed enormously, and it remained not regularized legally as regards the “use” of folklore there. That problem regularly arises at international conferences, and we can easily list some good, perspective cases – but the problem is immediately important. Who could, and who should not build up “data bases”. Who could have access to them? Should be there “royalties” of folklore, and if yes, how could they make effective in our cyberspace?

Another international UNESCO term “Sustainable Heritage” is directed against the decadence and death of folk traditions. It has double aspect as regards modern life, e. g. tourism. On the one hand it encourages the tourists to visit traditional settlements – on the other hand it is threatening against tourists’ fake-lore production or unjustified multiplication of traditional folklore items. (A typical case: the Estonian Island Kihnu, where they now officially limit the number of foreign visitors, because they might be more numerous, than the inhabitants themselves, and they are eager to “obtain” local souvenirs – according to their own (!) taste. The Island has about 600 inhabitants, and recently UNESCO has proclaimed the Kihnu marriage ceremony as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” – thus it became a world-wide accepted brand.

4 Before go further towards a semiotic study of cultural heritage, as a folklorist I have to speak some words about the “ethnosemiotics” – the study of ethnic phenomena from the point of view of semiotics. As it is well-known, the term ethnosemiotics was coined independently by four scholars as early (or late?) as 1971. A. J. Greimas initiated the term at the first congress of SIEF (Société international d’ethnologie et de folklore) contrasting it to “socio-semiotics” (the later one is about contemporary sign systems, whereas “ethno”-semiotics refers to the past, to the traditions). The Russian linguist (and French interpreter for the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushtchev) Yuriy Stepanov derived the term from “ethnolinguistics” and included phenomena, like walking behaviour in different cultures. A noted Hungarian ethnographer, Mihály Hoppál incorporated ethnosemiotics into the old and new communication patterns. In my 1971 publication I have demonstrated that pragmatics, semantics and syntactics can be done under the label of semiotics. I referred to important studies of folk costumes by P. G. Bogatyrev (for pragmatics), folk tale morphology and structure description by V. Ya. Propp, E. M. Meletinsky and others (for syntactics). As regards “semantics” it is very easy to find “signs and symbols” in folk culture: in folk costume, folk art or rituals. My system was application of the Morrisian semiotics for folk tradition studies. Another important task is that we might draw the difference between “internal” and “external” analysis of signs: for example to compare the views of “foreigner’s” or “native’s” description of folk cultures. As for the developing that scheme, for the 12th International Association for Semiotic Studies in Sofia I offered some observations.

5 Among the classics of semiotics it was Charles Morris who elaborated a methodological framework for the social analysis of cultural signs. In the Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938) he was starting from the statement that interpersonal signs have common signification (see: Charles Morris: Writings on the General Theory of Signs. The Hague – Paris, 1971. p. 111). It is articulated in communication: “A comsign is thus a special class of interpersonal signs … Each of the persons … is thus potentially a communicator or communicatee of the spoken words, and each is a communicatee when he is a communicator …” (p. 111.) Among the signs the language signs have special importance. “a language is a system of comsign- families. A language sign is any sign in a language” (p. 113). Signs, which we study as manifestations of cultural heritage are typical com-signs.

Another important observation of Morris is directed “to a kind of sign made possible by language signs and yet which is itself often not a language sign: post-language symbols.” (pp. 122-123). It is a part of a complicated network: “language” is expressing or naming something, which then will be expressed in the communication. And than the communication will be expressed by the language. The “original sign” returns as the “new sign”. If we do not follow here in details Morris’ behavioural and personal observations – one is clear: lan-signs develop to com-signs, which in turn will be expressed as “new signs”, in form of lan-signs.

This theoretical statement can easily be proved in the vocabulary of “intangible cultural heritage” topics. First we see e.g. the feasts and costumes as they are manifested. Then we find lan-signs for them (e.g. holiday, ritual, etc.). Then we use those signs as com-signs, which may be understood on a comparative level (e.g. folk tales, belief legends etc.). In the com-signs need support, we summarize them as “new signs”, and finally we declare the above mentioned phenomena as “tradition” or “heritage”, which are language terms, but they are used for describing the culture and asking for its protecting. The metaphoric words “intangible” and (living human) “treasure” became terms in the same way (lan-sign → com-sign → com-sign).

If we adapt that system for describing the signs of the cultural heritage, we have to introduce one more distinction. In any culture the use of norms and values can be divided into three chapter. There are “pre-figurative” systems, where the life is prescribed by the previous circumstances. For example in church service ancient languages are used. The “co-figurative” systems are focusing at the actual situation, like in theatre performances or sport matches. “Post-figurative” systems are scheduled for the future. In most cases education belong to that practice.

Now we are able to profile the signs of heritage according to the above listed terms.

“Tradition”, as its name suggests: is a typical pre-figurative term. The participants in a community live following the accepted patterns. If we collect the folklore, and invent it into tourism and education – it is the case for “co-figurative” system. “Co-figuration” is in the correct sense of the word is of actual use: we learn in schools the children lore, folk songs and folk dances – and perform it as strengthening of the existing values. “Post-figurative” tendency is expressed in every kind of “safeguarding” and “protecting” of the cultural heritage.

Returning to the signs, we may draw the difference between “past-sign”, “present-sign” and “future-sign”. The first group is “pre-figurative”, the second is “co-figurative”, and the third is “post-figurative”. In describing the signs we may use them safely.

I should add two more remarks.

If we want to use the semiotic terms in describing the items of intangible cultural heritage, at first we are tempted to use the tripartite division of the signs: icon, index, symbol. I think it does not give more insight, but that classification can be used with results.

On the other hand the describing of the semiosis can be done by using the Peircian terms: firstness, secondness and thirdness. As it is well known, the three terms reflect the development phases of semiosis. An original item of the traditional culture can be labelled by firstness, as long, as it exists within its boundaries. When we single out an item, e.g. tea glass, teas saucer, teaspoon as a sign of Turkish traditional culture, their semiosis may be described by the term secondness.  And, finally various items of intangible heritage might symbolize a given culture as such. Goulash soup or gypsy music may be used as representamen of Hungarian folk culture, as a “final” sign of it. It is a case of renvoi (feedback), or in Peircian term of the thirdness. The reason, why I am much in favour of using the three Peircian terms in study of cultural heritage is the fact; they speak about the role of “interpretant” of the signs. Safeguarding is a phenomenon of thirdness, to single out the items is secondness, and their traditional existence is firstness. This system was elaborated for understanding the role of the “interpreter”, who, by virtue of step-by-step semiosis finally “feeds back” something as sign to its original birthplace. Immediate interpretant just is observing and naming something as a sign. The dynamic interpretant brings it into performance, where the sign is always active and actively responds to the circumstances. And the final interpretant (after the naming and performing the sign) accepts it as sign just in summing up it. If we remember, how “Cultural heritage” as a term and as a program was developed in UNESCO programs: it is the same process. We fight the bulls, as a way to control them (firstness, immediate interpretant), then we elaborate it as ritual and entertainment, in one word as the tradition (secondness, dynamic interpretant), finally we declare it as an  “intangible cultural heritage”, as a part of the value system: fostering, neglecting or prohibiting it, like in our days the “bull-fighting” in Spain and elsewhere.

6 In the motto the view of the Arabic poet was quoted: external senses are replaced by internal senses. It is an important observation also as regards the signs. The more interesting is his other assumption: any sense can be replaced by any other sense from the exterior to the interior. It explains why ethnic food of traditional jewellery can be used as symbol of the cultural heritage: staying some unrelated entities as symbol for the other.

It was not my aim to draw a matrix around cultural heritage, but the aforementioned terms can be grouped into some phenomenology:


tradition                             actual existence                                heritage

pre-figurative                     co-figurative                                     post-figurative

firstness                              secondness                                        thirdness

(to accept as sign)               (to single out as sign)                       (to feed-back as sign, renvoi)

immediate inter                  dynamic interpreter                           final interpreter