System Network

Some people within semiotics and multimodality use a style of diagramming called system networks to map the meaning potentials of a mode. It is a diagrammatic taxonomy of the systematic, semiotic options that are possible within a semiotic or lexico-grammatical system. The options should preferably be of the either or type, usually indicated by square brackets. As described by Halliday (1994), for instance, a linguistic utterance may either be a ‘demand for information’ (question) or an ‘offer of information’ (statement) – it can not be both. A ‘demand for information’, in turn may either be ‘polar’ (yes/no question) or not, and so on. When analyzing other modes than language, some semiotic relations are better described as scaled along a continuum.

System networks provide an analytical tool for mapping the range of semiotic resources and options made available by a mode in a given context. They can also be used to map and compare how semiotic resources have been used in different contexts or by different users. In this way system networks provide a way to push the formal analysis of a mode (or a semiotic resource) to a logical limit.

System networks have been used to describe the semiotic options available within a range of modes including language (Halliday, 2004), visual communication (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996), action (Martinec, 2000), sound (van Leeuwen, 1999), as well as three-dimensional objects (Bjorkvall, 2009).

Editor: Carey Jewitt
Other contributor: Anders Bjorkvall

Key References
Bjorkvall, A. (2009)
“‘Practical function and meaning: a case study of IKEA tables.” In Jewitt, C. (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis
London: Routledge

Halliday, M. A. K. and  Matthiessen, C. M. I. M.  (2004)
An Introduction to Functional Grammar
London: Arnold

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2006)
Reading Images: A visual grammar of design
London: Routledge

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