Text Can Save Life

St Petersburg

Photo: St Petersburg by Steve White2008

When I started to think what short passage that sheds light on the meaning of text I might use I remembered the sign I read many years ago in St Petersburg. The sign located at the Nevsky Prospekt (one of the city’s most famous streets) reads “Citizens! During artillery bombardment this side of the street is especially dangerous”. The sign was put there during the 900-day siege of the city in the World War II in which many people died due to starvation and bombardment. I think this text is an ultimate example of language as a communication tool – the message it conveys could literary save humans lives.

Another issue related to this text is its material shape. It is written in Russian and in Cyrillic. For me these attributes are inseparable from its meaning. This is an example of how text can be understood as technology because it requires specific skills (language and alphabet) that are applied to creation of an artefact (text).

Generally speaking, not only creator of a text needs to have specific skills. Readers also need to have specific skills – they need to know alphabet and to understand language. (Reading and writing are separate skills. For example, according to Wikipedia, at the end of the 18th century, the ability to read in Sweden was close to 100%, but many Swedes, especially women, could not write. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy)

I translated this text to English and wrote it in the Latin alphabet because I assumed that you don’t understand Russian and can’t read Cyrillic. Here we come to another meaning of a word text (according to Oxford English Dictionary Online) – the words in the original language, as opposed to a translation.

One of the points mentioned in the course learning materials is that in order to understand technologies they should be placed in a specific context. This text has complex historical and cultural connotations and it gets its full meaning only if readers are familiar with that context. That’s the reason I outlined it for you.

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1 Response to Text Can Save Life

  1. Hi Gordana,

    Great example and explanation. There are a number of cues to the importance of the sign. There is an exclamation point which indicates the need for attention. However, this is only a useful sign for those whose language includes the exclamation point (i.e. not Hindi). The large size of the final word in the first sign also indicates its importance. The clever passerby may therefore seek translation.

    I think it is also interesting that there are a number of life saving texts that humans in fact choose to ignore, such as fasten seatbelt signs, speed limits, and no smoking signs!

    Great post. Thanks for sharing a bit of history and language!


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