Why are Words not Enough? Or a Few Remarks on Traffic Signs

Fig. 27.1
Warning traffic signs in Poland, according to Regulation of Ministers of Infrastructure and Internal Affairs and Administration of 31 July 2002 on the traffic signs and signals. Journal of Laws 2002, no. 170, item 1393. Due to the editorial requirements, signs in Fig. 27.1 are not presented in their original color palette. Polish warning signs have basically three colors: red (border), yellow (background) and black (graphics on background, if there are any; see ‘yield’ sign—A-7). However, there are two exceptions from this ‘three color rule’—graphics on background of signs A-19 and A-29 have, respectively, white and green elements)

Because of this, it must stressed once more, that means of visual-nonlinguistic communication present in some of the texts of legal acts seem to be not only used to illustrate some content. References to these graphics are also a very important part of the content of the particular legal provision that encode specific legal norm. One can venture an assertion, that these means may be treated as an integral part of certain provision and encoded norms. On this ground, it seems appropriate to dispense the more or less directly formulated claims of ‘subsidiarity’ of traffic signs—treating them only as illustrations, or an alternatives to written linguistic expressions.

Of course, this partial conclusion may be regarded by some as merely a statement of the obvious. One can even say that this proposal is simply a more complex version of too perfunctory, or even metaphorical statement of C.B. Nutting (1964, p. 781), that traffic signs “have their basic authorization in words”, but “their impact (…) is not through words but through graphic or similar representations. When one sees an arrow bearing left he bears left. For all practical purposes the arrow is the law.” Similar possible criticisms, however, still seem to be oblivious to significant problems for many of the issues discussed in broadly understood legal science, to which the above diagnosis of the role and characteristics of the traffic signs can lead. Therefore, one should present at least one of the more or less troublesome consequences of the occurrence in the texts of legal acts the means of visual-nonlinguistic communication, that are not merely to illustrate the ideas expressed by written utterances.

27.5 Inadequacy of a Concept of a Legal Norm as a Linguistic Utterance in a Context of Traffic Signs

In contemporary legal science there are still present various standpoints, according to which legal norm is a kind of linguistic utterance reconstructed from legal provisions, that is, another kind of linguistic utterances, but of very specific properties.11 Adoption of such a fundamental assumption in the interpretation of the law is at least problematic when one considers the above-quoted provision from Polish Road Traffic Law, which prohibits “overtaking a moving motor vehicle on the road”, amongst others, “on the bend marked with warning signs”, or other similar examples. In order to reconstruct the legal norm, understood as a clear, self-evident, almost autonomous linguistic utterance, it would be necessary to literally put into words the whole catalogue of diverse warning traffic signs (Fig. 27.1),12 to which the cited provision refers. Below, it is argued, that in this particular case (and other similar), it is impossible to realize the vision of legal norms (results of interpretation of law) as the objects of purely linguistic nature. Consequently, concepts of interpretation of law assuming such a vision of legal norms prove to be inadequate from the perspective of the whole legal order. Regulations of road traffic clearly show that in the set of all the texts of legal acts in a given time and place, one can find encoded norms, which cannot be accurately and intelligibly presented only with words. The result of the interpretation of certain provisions must be made not only with words but also with graphics. Of course, it is not to say, that messages conveyed by traffic signs cannot be verbalized, ‘put into words’; that one cannot describe (in speech, writing, etc.) particular information or instruction presented by a given sign. Message communicated by a particular traffic sign can be verbalized.

What cannot be fully and unambiguously verbalized is the sign itself, but such a linguistic description seems necessary as well, if one wants to actually realize the cited vision of interpretation of law. One cannot only by means of linguistic utterances accurately and intelligibly describe the mere medium for the message, that is in given context, traffic sign. Such elements of traffic sign like its general shape, specific angles, particular pictograms13 and ideograms (e.g., arrows, slashes)14 are describable, but their accurate and intelligible linguistic description would have to be significantly long. Otherwise, not all relevant features and subtleties of a given sign would be included in prepared specification. Because of this, one can venture to say that the use of graphics such as traffic signs can be regarded as a way of avoiding or reducing wordiness in expressions of language of law.15

At this point, one may object the above statement that linguistic description of graphics like traffic signs is impossible; that, in given context, words are not enough. Namely, one can say that it is still possible. Indeed, it is possible, but highly nonfunctional. The result of such a linguistic description can be extremely long and complex. Moreover, even the most elaborated description of a particular graphic can be still inaccurate (may not represent all of the features of the subject of specification) and unintelligible for someone who does not already know what sign is being linguistically specified.

However, this way of argumentation seems to be sound, it yet does not show that even if one is not concerned with accuracy and intelligibility, completely autonomous, self-evident linguistic description of a particular mean of visual communication, like traffic sign, is impossible from one particular reason. Color cannot be ‘put into words’—it is indescribable in the sense of famous passages from Principia Ethica. One cannot accurately give through language (in speech or in writing) the exact specifics of given color and its particular shade she or he experiences to another subject, who did not experience the same visual stimulus. G.E. Moore (2002, p. 59) convinces that one “cannot, by any manner of means, explain to anyone who does not already know it, what [for example] yellow is” and adds (2002, p. 62) that “[w]e may try to define it [color], by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to shew that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow [or other color]. They

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