What's in a T-shirt? Semantic distance towards a global language

Seminar Paper, 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Bettina Wolf (Author)


Table of Contents

1 The mass phenomenon of t-shirt slogans

2 Communicative functions of t-shirt slogans

3 The phenomenon of semantic distance

4 The other side of linguistic globalisation? Concluding remarks



1 The mass phenomenon of t-shirt slogans

Only five years ago, only young people were labelled. Today, everybody is caught. Recently, I saw an approximately 70-years-old lady with a hip complaint wearing a jacket with the words THE SPIRIT OF FASHION four times repeated on its lower hem. On the back of the jacket, which has never been modern and will never be modern, was a triangular leather batch without any function which said ACTIVE LIFE MORE AND MORE. […] Why does the population let this happen to them? Do they think it is cool to be labelled?

Max Goldt, columnist of the satire magazine Titanic (my translation, J.B.)[1]

As Goldt observes, texts on clothes have become a mass phenomenon. Especially among young people, it is popular to wear a t-shirt which is imprinted with a slogan. Most t-shirts sold and worn in Germany are not imprinted in German, but in English. This essay will attend to the question in how far this situation has an impact on the message character of t-shirt slogans. To prove that the relation of German t-shirt wearers to the messages on their chests is marked by a ‘semantic distance’, we will first discuss the general textual and communicative characteristics of texts on t-shirts. Then we will analyse the propositional strategies which are used and ask for their function. The last part of the essay will deal with the role of English as the global language of popular culture. It will be shown that the relation of Germans to this global language weakens the expressive impact of t-shirt slogans. The essay will focus on fashionable slogans that are worn voluntarily and possibly with a certain intention. No attention will be paid to t-shirts displaying band names, brands, or slogans with an advertising function. The main data were collected in fashionable chain stores in Jena in June 2006 (Colosseum, H&M, New Yorker, and Pimkie).[2] Occasionally, ‘found’ slogans have been included.[3]

2 Communicative functions of t-shirt slogans

The history of the t-shirt slogan goes back to the first half of the 20th century. US colleges used to sign their property, especially clothing. College athletic departments stencilled their t-shirts with phrases like Property of Virginia Tech.,[4] thus indicating not only the owner of the t-shirt but also the membership of its wearer. Today, many t-shirts imitate this kind of slogan, using names of fictitious associations. As far as we know, the first t-shirt slogan expressing an attitude was produced in the USA in 1948. Supporters of the presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey were provided with a t-shirt saying Dew it with Dewey. This idea was taken up in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower’s party which came up with the catchy slogan I like Ike. The newly-discovered advertising method gained ground in the 1950s and companies used slogans on t-shirts to make them more attractive as a souvenir. The 1960s’ peace movement discovered the t-shirt as a medium for political statements. The effects of this development are still to be felt today. In recent years it has become en vogue for celebrities to display political statements at public events.[5] In the 1980s and 1990s t-shirts with bold brand names, including the names of music bands, have been popular. This kind of ‘labelling’ was closely connected to a feeling of prestige. Since the late 1990s, slogans with a tendency to the humorous have become fashionable.[6] Today, you can easily print your own t-shirt and ‘label’ yourself with a message which serves your purposes best.[7]

The multiple forms that are taken by phrases on t-shirts make it almost impossible to talk of the language of t-shirt slogans. In the following, we will try to provide an insight into the linguistic problems which are presented by t-shirt slogans. Probably the most basic question is how to treat t-shirt slogans linguistically since the answer to this question will determine the analytical approach. Are slogans on t-shirts to be considered as a text? One would certainly agree that the following example can be considered a proper text at least formally:

Flowers burst from a surreal landscape

Little water droplets like fireworks explode!

like fireworks explode in the sky, shining like stars.

Where is this place?

I don’t know…maybe paradise

Feels like a thousand unseen eyes are watchin’

whilst swirling forms caress your soft skin

It was li[?]e!

But what about a simple noun phrase like Western Girl ? Is it to be considered as a text? The first example fulfils the general expectation that texts consist of a series of sentences. Beaugrande/ Dressler mention seven textual criteria all of which have to be fulfilled to constitute a text. These criteria are: cohesion, coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality, intertextuality.[8] Of these textual criteria, the criterion of coherence has been least debated. Linguists agreed that the criterion of coherence would be sufficient to constitute a text. But this does not answer for borderline cases. According to Beaugrande/ Dressler’s definition, one-word utterances like Help! would not be texts although they have a clear communicative function (and thus meet the criterion of intentionality), fit in a situation, are produced in a way which is understandable and acceptable by the recipients, and are highly informative. But a single-word utterance can hardly have cohesion or coherence.

In this essay we will adopt a wider text notion which has been formulated by Brinker. Brinker’s text concept is more communicatively oriented. He has defined texts as a limited series of linguistic signs which signal a communicative function, thus including one-word utterances (both written and oral) and texts consisting only of one sentence as potential texts.[9] Following this text notion, t-shirt slogans have a textual character since they undeniably consist of linguistic signs and fulfil a communicative function. Even a simple noun phrase like Western Girl can be analysed with respect to basic communicative requirements as they are summed up in the Lasswell formula: “Who is saying what by what means to whom with what effect ?”[10]

But the phenomenon of t-shirt slogans presents a problem concerning the definition of the sender (the who in Lasswell’s formula) since the text is not produced by the person who wears the t-shirt. Nevertheless, the wearer has to be considered as the primary sender[11] since he or she is the user of the utterance. The company which has actually produced the text, does not participate in the communicative action, but rather makes the message available to other people. Therefore, the communicative structure of t-shirt slogans would look like this: The wearer (sender) displays a message (writing on a t-shirt) to a receiver (any person looking at the t-shirt) in an optical, i.e. graphical way. We will now have to ask which kinds of messages are conveyed. For the following classification, we have to bear in mind that the slogans analysed largely depend on fashion. Potential senders can only choose from a limited range of messages which is probably rather suited to express a general zeitgeist than an individual personality.


[1] Max Goldt, Okay Mutter, ich mache die Aschenbechergymnastik in der Mittagsmaschine. Beste „Kolumnen“ & Beste Nicht-„Kolumnen“ in einem Band. (Frankfurt/ M.: Zweitausendeins, 1999) 342.

[2] For a representative list of slogans found in Jena see appendix.

[3] For a detailed analysis of the characteristics of t-shirt slogans, the data basis would have to be more precisely limited. But this essay is only a first consideration of the linguistic dimensions of the phenomenon.

[4] Example taken from Paul Collins, Tee Season: You cool kids are all wearing those zany shirts? How quaint, 22 August 2005,The Village Voice, 4 June 2006


[5] One of the most energetic t-shirt protesters is the actor Viggo Mortensen. He repeatedly occurred at public events wearing handwritten messages on his t-shirt, among them slogans expressing bold criticism of the Bush administration such as No more Blood for Oil or War is not the answer.

[6] In fact, Paul Collins suggests that the tradition of the humorous slogan goes back to the 19th century. According to Collins, the Chicago Tribune from June 10, 1897 features an article about a young gentleman who wrote the words There are no Flies on me on his shirt front. Cf. Collins, Tee Season <http://www.villagevoice.com/nyclife/0534,essay,67069,15.html>.

[7] A search for „t-shirt slogans“ in the online search engine Google produces hundreds of websites dedicated to providing the customer with the most brilliant, funny, and exciting t-shirt slogan in the world.

[8] Cf. Robert-A. de Beaugrande and Wolfgang U. Dressler, Einführung in die Textlinguistik (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1981) 3.

[9] Cf. Klaus Brinker, Linguistische Textanalyse: Eine Einführung in Grundbegriffe und Methoden (Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag, 1988) 17.

[10] Cf. “Communication model”, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. 1996 ed.

[11] Primary sender is a term taken from research of advertising language. Cf. Nina Janich, Werbesprache: Ein Arbeitsbuch (Tübingen: Narr, 2001) 35.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


What's in a T-shirt? Semantic distance towards a global language
http://www.uni-jena.de/  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Übung: Writing - Liguistics-based
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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656 KB
T-shirt slogans im Anhang.
What, T-shirt, Semantic, Writing, Liguistics-based
Quote paper
Bettina Wolf (Author), 2006, What's in a T-shirt? Semantic distance towards a global language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/78994


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