The A to Z of English - Black and white signs

WHO would have thought that an innocent signboard at a public park up North would incite an outcry with the magnitude of an earthquake, but it did for a good reason. The graphics on the signboard show a male and a female with a heart sign in between them and a line rudely drawn across, to indicate “not allowed”.

What do we gather from this? Union of a man and woman in love is not allowed or love itself is forbidden? We must know that the heart is a symbol we associate with all earthy love. The implied meaning is abhorring and we can have any number of interpretations from the poorly conceived thought behind the gesture of putting up the signboard. Having said that, we all know what the guardians of morality were trying to drive at, but they need to be sensitised and sanitised for tact, which was in gross deficiency.

Now trying to connect the dots, this is a typical example of how signs and symbols are important in our lives and one has to be careful when playing with them. Meaning intended and meaning conveyed need to be solemnly married to avoid misunderstandings.

It would be timely perhaps to have some rhetorical understanding of the terms “sign” and “symbol”.

One could argue that it is only a matter of semantics, nevertheless here it is: Signs are informative, mandatory, warning, advisory and prohibitory in nature. For example, when you see the traffic light turn red, you automatically stop driving. Similarly, you see a sign depicting a horn that is crossed out on a school building. It depicts that it is mandatory to maintain silence.

Symbols on the other hand are signs that stand for something else. For example, a cross is a symbol of Christianity worldwide just as a plus sign has come to mean Red Cross or hospital in general, and even an illiterate person knows he can get medical services when he sees this symbol. In a similar manner, there are hundreds of symbols in all parts of the world that stand for something else and are readily recognisable.

One big difference between a sign and a symbol is that signs literally have a language of their own. In literature, signs and symbols are used extensively to indicate inferred meanings to the text.

A thunderstorm could spell a bad omen and the darkness of the night could be construed as evil or all things undesirable.

In this context, I thought I will share a little poem which has so much history and is still relevant today in many parts of the world where child labour is rife and the world is moving on unapologetically. The poem stands out for its richness in symbolism.

The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake (1757-1827) is a chilling rendition of slavery of a different kind. Blake was a revolutionary philosopher and an English poet who felt compelled to write about the injustice of the 18th century involving children.

Blake was a social critic of the Romantic Period, yet his criticism is still relevant today. Blake encountered many hardships in his life, including an arrest for making slanderous statements about king and country.

The subject of the poem and the audience are influenced by the wealthy “soul murderers”, who bought young children from poor parents and made them work like slaves as chimney sweepers. They could be as young as four or five and these lines from the poem are telling:

When my mother died I was very young
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “Weep! Weep! Weep”

They forced young children to perform jobs that were unfit and dangerous for humans to undertake. The story in the poem is told by a little boy. In this particular poem, the speaker is “a little black thing among the snow”. The little boy is black because he is covered in soot from the chimney that he is forced to clean.

In the poem the signs black and white are used to juxtapose good against evil, innocence against guilt, clean against unclean. The black skin of the sweeps is also symbolic of the black skin of the Africans who need this for protection from the merciless heat of the sun but for the boys in the poem, with the soot, the child in them is hidden too far below this artificial skin.

The poem is one that expounds the cruelties man imposes on humanity and it is worthy of further explication, perhaps in my next column.

“… while men and women perished and cities fell, symbols endured and grew. Symbols are immortal”.

The writer believes that the Malaysian education system will reach greater heights with a strong antidote to revolutionise just about everything. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com