Chapter 4: Communicative Codes

In this chapter, we conclude our discussion of foundational concepts by examining communicative codes. We first discuss what makes a communicative code, and how they develop. We then examine the various dimensions along which communicative codes can vary, which can be used to assess the utility of different communicative codes for different communicative tasks.


Like “media”, “code” is a word we use in everyday conversation to refer to a number of related, but somewhat different, things. As children, for example, we use codes to write secret messages to our friends. Software programmers write code for a living, and we know that every computer program we use, and every webpage we access, is written in some kind of code. (In most web browsers, clicking “view page source” lets you see the code behind the website you are viewing). The term “code” also plays an important of traditional models of communication, which describe communicators as encoding and decoding messages. Clearly, code is a useful and versatile term for us, and relevant to the study of communication. In what follows, we will look at what makes a code, how they develop, and the role communicative codes play in message processing.

Defining Codes

Broadly defined, a code is a system in which one thing (e.g., a word, number, symbol) stands for something else (e.g., another word, symbol, or number; an idea or meme). Although we will talk about codes in more general terms, in this text, we are most interested in the role codes play in message processing. To distinguish between codes in the general sense and codes that have a first-order role in the creation of understanding between people, we will call the latter as communicative codes.

For the purposes of studying message processing, we define communicative codes as systems that pair structurally related stimuli and meme states, such that structurally related stimuli consistently and systematically evoke similar meme states across various media.

This definition specifically calls attention to what we consider the essentials of codification—in other words, the properties that make something operate as a code. The first is that structurally related stimuli consistently and systematically evoke similar meme states in different situations. Put another way, codes have syntax—that is, there is a degree of structure evident, and employed, in a code. When something is highly codified, the same stimuli always evoke the same meme state, in a structured, organized, and predictable way.

The second essential of codification is the structural commonality of stimuli (which evoke the meme state), regardless of media system being employed. When something is highly codified, stimuli can take different physical forms (i.e., be instantiated in different ways) across different media systems, as long as they retain their key structural properties. As long as these key properties are retained, different versions of stimuli should be recognized as the “same”, and will reliably activate the same meme states, for a given code.

As an example, let’s consider the “smiley face” (which one could consider part of a kinesic code). A smiley face can evoke the same meme state whether it appears as pixels on a screen, graphite or ink on paper, pieces of fruit, an arrangement of paperclips, or exhaust plumes arranged against a blue sky.

Black and white smiley face.
Image by Authors.
Smiley face made of paperclips.
Pixabay / CC0
Smiley face made of fruit.
Pixabay / CC0
Smiley face in the sky.
Flickr / No known copyright restrictions


All of those depictions differ in terms of the media systems employed; they also differ in terms of size and scale, from less than an inch to perhaps 100 feet. However, they retain a structural continuity: all consist of a closed circle containing two horizontally-aligned dots in the upper half of the circle, and a broad, U-shaped curve in the bottom half of the circle. Additionally, this arrangement is structurally comparable to a smiling, human face. There are a many different ways to depict the smiley face using different media systems. However, across all of these, the basic structure of the stimuli remains the same. That people recognize this enough for different stimuli to evoke the same meme state (“happy face”, positive affect) indicates a high degree of codification is present.

Examples of Communicative Codes

Traditionally, communication scholars have divided the codes used for human communication into two categories: verbal codes and nonverbal codes. This distinction has become reified and calcified to the point that we treat this classification system as if it is “real”—that is, as if it is a reflection of our communicative reality. We believe that thinking about communicative codes as either verbal and nonverbal, we risk limiting how we see and think about communication. First, the verbal/nonverbal distinction implicitly promotes a conceptualization of communication as based on “language and other, lesser ways of communicating.” In particular, we risk overlooking communicative codes that do not fit into this neat, two category system. But as we have argued above, modern musical notation system certainly qualifies as a communicative code, as do mathematical notation systems.

Our message processing approach requires only that we look at behaviors and ask if there is a system that activates the same meme states, through the use of structurally related stimuli, in a consistent manner. If there is, we call that a communicative code.

Some of the communicative codes that humans employ include:

  • Language – Language could be further reduced to written (visual) versions and spoken (auditory) versions as both display enough systematic differences that it would be productive to examine and understand why those differences exist.
  • Modern Musical Notation System – This refers to how music is written, including information about the order and length of notes, time signature, key, and more.
  • Mathematical Notion Systems – This refers to how math is written, including numbers, symbols for mathematical operations, and notation used in proofs (e.g., “QED”).
  • Aesthetic Codes – Various arts – e.g., painting, sculpting, acting, dancing, film production, music composition, music performance – can be considered communicative codes in that they employ behavior and artifacts in rule-governed ways that systematically evoke particular meme states in others.
  • Kinesic Code – This refers to how we use our physical bodies to activate meme states in others. This code does not necessarily require an actual physical body as a medium. When we look at a comic strip the media system employed is paper and ink. The kinesic code, however, is visible in the faces the comic strip characters make and the way their bodies are position.
  • Proxemic Code – This refers to how we used physical space to activate memes in other. As with the kinesic code, the proxemic code can be evident in a variety of different media systems – animations, movies, photographs – and is not limited to use only between actual human beings.
  • Vocalic Code – This refers to all the qualities of our voices that accompany the content, or the words, spoken. This can include pitch, rate, variation in pitch, accent, volume, articulation, etc. It, too, can be evident in a variety of different media systems. In fact, we would argue that what is referred to as “punctuation” in print can be understood as graphic indicators of vocalic code. Commas, semi-colons, periods, ellipses, question marks, exclamation marks are all indicators of vocalic behavior. For example, person who posts something online in ALL CAPS is often told to “stop shouting.”
  • Haptic Code – This code includes all the ways we activate meme states via touching another person.
  • Chronemic Code – This refers to how we can activate meme states via the use of time. Arriving late, arriving early, imposing on something unannounced, multi-tasking while someone is talking with you – these are all examples of how we use time to activate meme states.
  • Physical Appearance – We present our physical selves a variety of ways to others. Some of these meme states get activated by qualities of our appearance less directly under our control (e.g., height, skin color, hair color), some more directly under our control (e.g., weight, size, shape).
  • Artifacts and Environment – This code includes what George Carlin refers to as “our stuff,” and how it activates particular meme states for those interacting with us. How we dress, what glasses we wear, our purses, backpacks, jewelry, and all the ways we manipulate and decorate our immediate environment (e.g., bedroom, office) can all be part of this code.
  • Olfactory Code – This code, which addresses how smell systematically activates memes, has only recently become recognized and studied by researchers, despite a “personal odor manipulation” industry (e.g., perfumes, colognes, after shaves, deodorants, breath fresheners, mouth washes, scented shampoos, “odor eaters” for shoes) that generates tens of billions of dollars annually.

Does Communication Require a Code?

In the previous chapter, we argued that communication cannot be accomplished without the use of a media system. We cannot directly access other people’s brains, so we have to access their brains indirectly, via their senses. To do this, we present fellow communicators with stimuli, which we create by systematically altering a media system. For communication to “work”—that is, for the stimuli we present to activate or create the meme state we intend—does that stimuli have to be codified? In other words, do we need codes to communicate?

Much of human communication takes places through a shared language. Shared language qualifies as a communicative code: languages are systems that pair structurally related stimuli (e.g., words) with meme states (e.g., definitions of those words), and do so in structured and organized ways. It is also the case that much of our communication employs nonverbal behavior as well. Any number of textbooks that address nonverbal communication identify and describe various nonverbal codes—that is, the “meaning” or meme states, that people systematically associate with different forms of nonverbal behavior. Many traditional definitions of communication make reference to some sort of “shared code” or “shared signal system”. Given this focus on language and nonverbal codes in scholars’ discussions of communication, it intuitively seems that communication would be dependent on some sort of shared communicative code(s).

We contend that a shared code is not an essential component of a communicative event—in other words, it is possible to communicate without a code. However, codes do facilitate communication, and can be an emergent phenomenon following repeated communicative events. Put another way, we do not have to have a code to communicate, but codes make communication easier—so much so that even if we start communicating without a code, we likely will develop one along the way, if we communicate for long enough.

As a way to illustrate this point, consider the game Charades. For the few readers unfamiliar with this game, this is the general procedure: Two teams compete against each other. One person on one team is given a prompt that is not shared with her teammates. This prompt could be many different things: a song title, a movie, a popular phrase, or any number of general concepts (“dance party”, “bookworm”). The player given the prompt must communicate this prompt to her teammates without the use of any words, language, or sound. The player can only use gestures. Her teammates shout out their inferences about what she is trying to convey until they either get it right or a set amount of time is up.

If we were to find a handful of people who have never played the game before and entice them to play, it is highly likely they will be naïve to any gestures or behaviors that other more experienced players may use when playing. They must literally “make it up as they go along.” Yet, despite this inexperience, they will probably be successful in several of their attempts to infer the right prompts.

By most definitions of communication, and certainly the definition we have employed in this book, Charades clearly involves communication. And yet our hypothetical team of Charades novices are managing to successfully communicate in the absence of any specific, previously established, shared codes. We concede by the end of several rounds of play, our novices will likely have developed a very basic, embryonic Charades code (where, for example, the same gestures are systematically used to activate “sounds like”, or “book”, or “movie”). However, their initial successes show us that it is possible to communicate without a shared code.

Development of Communicative Codes

The example game of Charades shows us one possible way that a communicative code can arise—that is, that codification can occur. Once communicators successfully create understanding using a particular set of stimuli (i.e., message), they often return to the same stimuli when they want to activate the same meme state again. In a game of Charades, putting my hand behind my ear could be used to activate the meme state, “sounds like”. If this gesture effectively activates this meme state for my teammates, I will use it again the next time it is useful to me; my teammates are also likely to use it when it is useful to them. A behavior will be reproduced if it is effective at activating a desired meme state, and reproduced widely if it is widely effective.

Through this process, this gesture (putting my hand behind my ear) becomes a cultural artifact. A cultural artifact is a product created within a human culture to serve a purpose, and that is replicated as a function of its effectiveness. We can look at the range of communicative behaviors we employ, and argue that all these behaviors are cultural artifacts that work effectively as communicative behaviors through a process of cultural consensus and habituation. If we and others find and agree that a given behavior is effective at activating a desired meme state (cultural consensus), we and others will continue to use that behavior in that way, for that purpose (habituation).

However, codification does not always arise in the same manner. The game of Charades shows how a set of conventions can emerge from human interaction, and ultimately lead to the development of (basic) code. As a different example, however, let’s return to the smiley face. A smiley face essentially reduces a smiling human face to the most fundamental structural elements that will still activate the concept of a human’s smiling face, and the positive affect associated with it. This is a bit different than a “sounds like” gesture: the smiley face is designed to emulate that smiling human face, which would also activate similar memes (“happy face”, positive affect). Do we want to argue that the actual human smiling face is just a cultural artifact as well?

The smiling face is, indeed, a bit different. The association between a smiling face and the meme state of positive affect is a global phenomenon– people around the world, from different cultures, smile in a highly similar fashion when experiencing positive affect. When a common behavior is associated with a common response around the planet (and in some cases across species as well), it is generally safe to assume that such a behavior/response relationship has a more fundamental origin than culture. In these cases, we generally presume that such behavior/response combinations are part of our genetic heritage, encoded in our DNA. Smiling when happy, growling and gritting/baring our teeth when hostile, expanding ourselves when taking on a challenge and literally shrinking ourselves when backing away from a challenge – these are all behaviors that a variety of mammals exhibit in similar ways.

Functions of Codes

We can examine codes in terms of the functions they serve in the process of human communication, just as we did with media systems. The two primary functions of codes we will discuss align with the two primary functions of media systems: codes help us distribute messages, and codes help us interface with messages. Let’s examine distribution first.


Generally, message sources and targets are separated by some kind of gap in space and/or time. To communicate, one communicator – for example, a person speaking, a book author, a radio or television station – must send or cast a message across that gap to other communicators. In most face-to-face settings, a message can effectively be cast into the proximal environment of the target using the media systems (e.g., air, light) at hand. In this case, the form in which one communicator encodes a message can be accessed by other communicators’ senses.

However, in many situations, communicators do not have direct access to other communicators’ senses. This is the case, for instance, when a book author wants to reach a reader a thousand miles away, or when a radio station broadcasts music to an audience distributed across hundreds of square miles, or an internet content producer wants to send his blog to his twenty-seven dedicated followers around the world. In such cases, communicators need additional conduit or carrier media systems (e.g., electricity in copper wires, plastic disks, paper) to move the message greater distances across space and time. Under these circumstances, a message often has to be converted, or translated, to a form of stimuli that can move efficiently through (or being carried by) these additional media systems. Codes are often used to make this conversion or translation between stimuli. Thus, an important function of codes is facilitating and enabling message distribution.

For example, early telephones captured energy created by our voice and converted it into structurally comparable variance in electrical frequencies that traveled across copper wires. Those electrical frequencies would create variance in a diaphragm at the other end of the call, creating variance in air pressure that reasonably reflected the original speaker-caused variance in air pressure. This is how a receiver would “hear” the speaker’s voice. We call this an analog code because the variance in the electrical frequencies traveling through the wires is a direct analog of the voice that produced the code.

Similarly, early vinyl disks – phonographs (literally “written sound”) – were used to record sounds produced by singers or musical instruments. Just as the telephone converted voices into electrical frequencies that corresponded with the voices, singers’ voices were used to cut grooves into the vinyl records. The variance in the grooves reflected the variance in the voices that created them, thus the grooves could be “read back” to provide a reasonable facsimile of the voices that made them. These phonographs could then be reproduced in large numbers and shipped all over to allow the recorded messages to be transmitted to thousands of targets. This is also an example of analog code use, as the grooves in the vinyl reflect an analog encoding of the original sound.

Printed language, as a code, can also be used to help efficiently distribute messages. In this case, communicators’ meme states can be depicted and recorded via visually accessible codes, with stimuli consisting of letters, glyphs, or similar marks. Encoding messages into printed language allows messages to be recorded on a variety of carrier and conduit media and distributed to thousands of targets, or audience members.

Morse code provides a somewhat different example of a code used to distribute messages. It is different because it does not count on creating analog versions of the message being transmitted; instead, it converts the message into a symbols, in the form of dashes and dots. Samuel Morse, one of the inventors of the telegraph, developed his code for the transmission of text (such as English language) across electrified copper wires. Morse simply cycled the electric power on or off in short or longer pulses (“dots” and “dashes”) associated with each letter of the alphabet. The receiver at the other end would see and hear those pulses as they caused two contacts to magnetically open and close. The receiver would translate the pulses back into letters. Morse code proved to be an extremely versatile transmission code in that it can be used across a variety of media systems, virtually any system that allows for differentiating between shorter and longer pulses of any stimuli.

Digital codes are a final example of codes used for message distribution. A large percentage of message distribution today is accomplished through the use of digital coding. Analog waves have largely been replaced with digital pulses – binary digits or bits (Shannon & Weaver, 1947)– that serve as the basis of an entirely different, more versatile and efficient coding system. Combinations of bits are used to activate particular pixels on a screen in a specific way. They can activate a particular sonic frequency. They can correspond with a particular letter. At this point, virtually all messages can be converted to a stream of bits and moved across a variety of conduit and carrier media to intended targets. Material books, magazines, newspapers still employ printed language and images, but their digital counterparts use bits.


Now that we have discussed how codes can help move messages, we will turn our attention to how codes can help people interface with messages. As mentioned above, in every communicative situation, a message must traverse the gap between two or more communicators. Once that gap has been successfully traversed, the message must be in a form that can be accessed and processed by a person for it to be part of a communicative process.

A message that arrives in a form that a communicator cannot access (or detect) is useless from a communicative standpoint. This is the reason we cannot watch television shows by peering into the copper cable coming out from our wall at home. It is not because the message – the latest episode of our favorite show – is not present in the copper cable; it is there. The problem is the message is in a form not accessible to our senses and not meaningful to our understanding of the world—the stimuli that are present in the copper cable are not empirically available to us.

To watch our favorite show, we need to plug the cable into the back of our screens. When we do this, our TVs (or monitors) the decode the digital signal, and encode the message it carries into the activation of specific pixels on the screen and sonic output produced by the speakers. The light from these pixels and the sounds from the speakers will be presented at frequencies from which our senses can sample. The pixels will collectively illuminate to form a pattern that activates meme states (e.g., “dragon”) in our minds, and that response will be reinforced by a sonic wave coming from our speakers (that activates e.g., a dragon’s roar). The message was present in the cable all the time; however it was coded for distribution purposes, not for interface. For us to be able to access that message, it needs to be encoded in way that is designed to interface with (i.e., be accessible to) our primary senses.

Properties of Codes

Just as we looked at how media systems vary in their affordances, we can also examine how communicative codes vary in terms of key properties. This allows us to compare and contrast the utility of different communicative codes for the communicative task at hand. While these properties can relate to either function of codes discussed above, communication scientists generally care more about how people interface with messages than how we move them around. (Determining how to use code to move messages from Point A to Point B has historically been the province of engineers and computer scientists.) Thus, in our discussion of properties of codes, we will focus primarily on qualities that have consequences for interface.

Syntactic Rigidity

Communicative codes can vary considerably in how fixed, or rigid, their syntax is. (Recall from earlier that syntax refers to the degree and nature of structure present in a code). The modern music notation system is widely used around the world and clearly qualifies as a communicative code, according to our definition. In this system, a set of symbols (e.g., clefs, types of notes) systematically and consistently evoke the same meme states (e.g., play a particular note, for a particular amount of time, in a particular order) across users. The syntax that governs modern music notation is fairly rigid: the same visual symbols (e.g., whole note) always correspond to the same, specific meme states and corresponding behaviors (e.g., play a note for a full beat in the time signature). As a result, the “messages” encoded using modern music notation – a book of piano music, for instance – are interpreted in a highly similar fashion across multiple communicators (i.e., anyone reading the music and playing the piano).

Similarly, and for the same reasons, modern mathematical notation systems are very rigid as well. A mathematical equation has no room for ambiguity; it cannot be unclear or vague. Multiple communicators must be able to interpret that equation exactly the same way. Not surprisingly, two functions that early computers were programmed to do were various mathematical activities and – when the necessary accessory hardware was created – play music. Why could computers do math and music so early? Because math and music also have simple syntaxes that are rigid in nature.

On the other hand, many of the communicative codes we use every day have less rigid syntax. The less rigid syntax is, the more we can think of it as probabilistic: that is, the likelihood that somebody will behave in accordance with the syntax is more variable. People’s use of kinesic behaviors, for instance – facial expressions or gestures – only sometimes evoke (and are intended to evoke) specific meme states in consistent and systematic ways. Our current commercial AI systems – Apple’s Siri™, Amazon’s Echo™, Microsoft’s Cortana™ – all have some difficulties in linguistic interactions with users but are showing promise. However, it will be a long time before our AI systems can show average adult human skills at responding appropriately to kinesic, vocalic, or proxemics communicative behavior. These codes are simply characterized by much less rigidity, than musical or mathematical notation systems, or even spoken and written language. Generally, it is more difficult to reliably interpret messages when the codes they use have less rigid syntax.

Syntactic Complexity

Communicative codes also vary in the complexity of their syntax. Some codes have a relatively straightforward structure, defined by straightforward rules. Morse code, for example (see below), consists of a series of combinations of dots and dashes, with a different combination representing each letter of the English alphabet. Syntactically, this code is fairly simple, and you could learn its syntax fairly quickly. The same cannot be said of the syntax that governs mathematical communication. The syntax of mathematical communication is certainly rigid, but for the average person it is also quite complex. Many an adult when faced with solving a mathematical equation suddenly remembers “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” or PEMDAS, that helps them remember orders of operations. Grammar—the syntax of language—is also quite complex. We might be fairly adept at speaking English but most of us cannot articulate any more than the most basic rules of English grammar. Closely related, reading and comprehending sentences with multiple embedded clauses (“the man whose cat ran off in a fright last week is still upset”; “she’s a friend of my sister’s neighbor’s son, who lives in Utah”)—which is one form that complex grammatical syntax takes—can be difficult even for advanced readers.

Commonality of Use

We can also compare and contrast codes based on how widespread their use is. For example, we can assume that some aspects of kinesic and vocalic codes might be common the world over. This is because portions of these codes are part of our mammalian heritage. We can smile, frown, grit our teeth and growl and people across the planet will interpret these behaviors in a highly similar fashion. Similarly, two mathematicians from different countries who speak different languages might not be able to converse about the weather very easily, but they can communicate about anything that can be expressed in mathematical formula and equations. This is because the ways we communicate via mathematical “code” are extremely widespread, global even. Mathematical code is not part of our genetic inheritance; it is an invented (i.e., conventional) code. Like the modern musical notation system, mathematical code has become standardized across much of the world, allowing people of different cultures and backgrounds, speaking different languages, to communicate about those content areas amenable to those codes.

Limits to Topicality

This property, which refers to the range of possible ideas or meme states that can be addressed by a code, is particularly important to consider when assessing how a code can be used. As discussed earlier, the primary function of communication is the activation of meme states in another communicator. Not all codes do this equally well for all possible meme states. Mathematical codes are excellent for clearly communicating mathematical ideas, but poor for discussing the weather, politics, or how your day at school went. Of all the codes humans commonly use, language has the greatest capacity for topicality. Certainly, there are ideas we have “trouble putting into words.” But in the end, words – language – is still our most versatile and effective communicative code when faced with the need to efficiently activate the greatest range of meme states with the best possibility of success.

Summary and Conclusion

In this chapter, we offered a message processing-focused definition of communicative codes, and provided some examples of communicative codes that are frequently used to activate meme states and help communicators effectively create understanding. We made the argument that unlike media systems, we do not have to have a code to successfully communicate. However, communicative codes do facilitate communication; as a result, they often emerge across repeated communicative interactions if we do not start with a shared code. We then articulated a set of key properties—syntactic rigidity, syntactic complexity, commonality of use, and limits to topicality—that can be used to assess codes as well as compare and contrast them with each other. Identifying a set of properties common to all communicative codes helps us recognize the functional commonalities across various codes, and dispel the conceptual limitations that accompany a traditional “verbal/nonverbal” dichotomy in thinking about communicative codes.


Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


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Message Processing: The Science of Creating Understanding Copyright © 2017 by Jessica Gasiorek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.