Word clouds

Word clouds

Word clouds are one of the many new forms of writing that can no longer meaningfully be read aloud – they break the tie between speech and writing which the alphabet introduced almost four centuries ago.

What links the words in word clouds is not grammar, but relative salience, proximity, and composition. Looking at the example above, the relative salience of the words could tell us, perhaps, that boys are more important than girls, and schools more important than hieroglyphics. The proximity of the words to each other could tell us, perhaps, that there is some relation between scribes and hieroglyphics, and between mothers and babies.  Composition could tell us, perhaps, that hieroglyphics existed before school. We may even construct sentences, in broken English, “Girls went write school learned” or “Many scribes hieroglyphics”. But for the most part word clouds are precisely what the word ‘cloud’ suggests, passing shapes that we can read different things in, endlessly variable semantic fields that can be interpreted in many different ways which are nevertheless constrained by the words that are and are not included – in the example above we may have ‘school’ and ‘learned’, and we may have butchers, fathers, mothers, weavers, scribes, lawyers, and accountants, but we do not have teachers.

What word clouds do have is aesthetic value – compositional balance, typographic finesse, colour. In word clouds, once they are fixed, words become decorative, a setting for everyday practices that we need not be consciously aware of but that is yet always reassuringly there – on the wall of the lobby of an English Department, in the banner of the website of a forthcoming conference, on the cover of the annual report of a Library, to mention just a few I have seen recently.

“What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”
“Well, I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind”

(Charles, M. Schultz, The Complete Peanuts, vol 5)


Musical logos

Windows icon sonic logos

Corporate music retains many of the heroic characteristics of patriotic hymns – rising melodies in a major key and large intervals, signaling energy, aspiration, growth, and progress.

But the timbres are different. Electronic sounds laced with instrumental timbres replace the militaristic bugle call – gentle wind-driven chimes, the nostalgia of old pianos, the sentiment of Hollywood strings, the sweet retro sound of the Wurlitzer.

In 1995 Microsoft commissioned Brian Eno to compose a start-up musical tune for the Windows Operating system. He was told it had to be ‘universal, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional’ – and 3.8 seconds long. The piece he came up with had a low note ascending glissando-like to four identical high notes that formed a static melody which remained open, unresolved, a mood-setting intro to the computer user’s activities. The soft chime-like timbre suggested a calm, new age mood, a laptop user sitting on a veranda, perhaps, listening to the tinkling chime, blissfully contemplating the wide open landscape – no one in sight of course,  as in car advertisements, and Microsoft guarding over us, a colourful kite or satellite in the blue sky.

Other IT logos are not dissimilar. The Intel logo starts with a high impact electronic ‘audio sparkle’, a sprinkling of strings added. It becomes louder, then softer, then louder again, as if describing an orbit – the sonic equivalent of the dynamic swoosh-like cycle that surrounds the company’s name in the visual logo. This is followed by a four-note staccato melody that spells ‘Intel inside’ and blends electronic sounds with bells, sound effects (hammering) and the sound of a marimba. The AT&T logo begins with a four-note ascending melody and mixes electronic sounds with an old piano, a glockenspiel and a Wurlitzer.

The heraldic power of the bugle call continues, but in a new context, blending the futuristic power of a technocratic world with the emotive power of music, precisely as Microsoft envisaged, more than twenty years ago.

Baby laptops

Baby labtop multimodal blog van Leeuwen
Taking a dog (or other animal) to school was once a common theme in children’s stories. The moral was always the same. The dog was disruptive, could not sit still, didn’t understand what the teacher said, and eventually had to leave the classroom.

In this baby laptop, recommended in an accompanying leaflet as “a foundation for language and literacy development”, a puppy dog is the teacher. “Hello”, he says, in a childish voice, his face lighting up: “Do you want to play? Can you find the number two?”

When baby presses the orange button with the number two on it, he responds enthusiastically: “Number Two! One-Two! Orange triangle! Wraf Wraf!”. When she presses the blue button, he sings the alphabet, to a happy tune. And so on. “40+ learning activities and songs for baby to explore”
But learning is piecemeal, prone to distraction, interrupted by play. “Can you push my biscuit up to my paw? Thank you”.

“Do you want to play peek-a-boo?” (this can be done by lifting and closing the lid – “Peek-a-boo”, says the dog when the lid is opened again).

So baby learns – about letters and numbers and geometrical shapes, but above all about what a laptop is – a constant to and fro between learning and distraction, instruction and entertainment. And an object that must be loved – a faithful dog wanting to be touched, but ultimately taking you by the lead.

Wraf wraf.

Mind(less?) maps


This is a diagram features from a junior high school history textbook. It is headed ‘Mind Map or Concept Map’. A mind map, the young learners are instructed, “allows you to organizes and present your thoughts on a given topic. It is a great way to brainstorm information individually or in groups”. A concept map, on the other hand, “organizes ideas in a hierarchical branching structure using words and captions” and concepts “can be linked with phrases such as ‘results in ‘contributes to’ ‘impacts on’”

But what is this?  A mind map or a concept map? Free association or hierarchical branching? The text does not disclose it.

Yes, ‘citizens’ and ‘metics’ were two kinds of ‘members of society’ in ancient Athens – but they were not equals, and they were not the only kind of ‘members’.  There were also slaves, for instance.

And what do the links mean? Is jewellery ‘a kind of’ clothing?  Or does clothing perhaps  ‘result in’ or ‘contribute to’ jewellery? What do we make of this?

Mindmaps were an invention of advertisers in the early 1950s to assist in creative brainstorming, hierarchical branching structures a tool for rigorous, scientific classification. But here the distinction is not so clear.

In the age of Enlightenment, John Locke wrote “To express methodical and rational thoughts, a man must have words to show what connexion, restriction, distinction, opposition, emphasis &c, he gives to each respective part of his discourse”. New words were invented as a result. Words that still pepper academic discourse. Words like ‘however’, ‘notwithstanding’, and ‘consequentially’

In diagrams we have just two kinds of links,  lines and arrows, to express a multitude of relations. Should we invent different arrows to signify ‘results in’, ‘impacts on’, contributes to’ and so on? Or should we enjoy the creative drift of the   and the cognitive labyrinth it leads us into?

Mind(less?) maps