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Semiotics for Beginners

To put it in simplest terms, semiotics is the study of signs. However, to understand what semiotics is, one must understand what semioticians mean by the term “sign.” Semioticians, scholars who specialize in academic work involving semiotics, are not experts in traffic signs or store signs. When semioticians refer to “signs,” they are talking about signs as cultural symbols and as essential building blocks of language and communication. A scholar of semiotics would not be interested in a traffic sign, for instance, a stop sign, for its own sake. Instead, he or she would analyze the linguistic or symbolic process through which a red octagon became a universal symbol for coming to a stop at an intersection and the cognitive process through which drivers came to this universal understanding. 

Semioticians define signs as having two parts: a signifier that stands for or refers to a particular person, object, or idea and a signified, which is the particular person, object, or idea that is being referred to. For semioticians, the crucial areas of inquiry include the relationship between a sign and the thing or concept that it comes to stand for; the relationship between various signs (for instance, how do a stop sign and a speed limit sign work together?); and the relationship between signs and the people who interpret them. Semiotics has far-reaching implications for linguistics because all language, technically, is composed of signs. When people speak or write, they communicate in words, which are signs. The particular arrangement of letters that forms the word is the signifier, and the word’s meaning is the signified. Through the use of signs, human beings can express ideas concerning people, objects, and concepts that are not physically present simply by referring to them through words. This process is at the core of all language. 

However, there are many other kinds of signs in addition to words and traffic signs. Signs can include facial expression, body language, artistic symbols, and visual cues of all kinds. A designer hand bag can symbolize sign of wealth and prestige in a magazine advertisement. A halo can symbolize divinity in a medieval painting. Rising to one’s feet when a judge enters a courtroom can serve as a gesture of respect. All of these are kinds of signs. Therefore, semiotics actually has broad implications for the study of culture and interpersonal psychology in general. Semiotics is an essential component of what is known in academic circles as “cultural studies,” that is scholarly inquiry into culture and how human beings make sense and interact with their environment, both physical and social. It can play a vital role in the study of literature, art, politics, mass media communication, anthropology, and philosophy. Thus, semiotics is perhaps best understood as a science that studies the role and function of signs in human culture and social interaction.

Pioneers of Semiotics

The modern study of semiotics is built on the theories of a number of linguists and philosophers who became fascinated with how humans make meaning from the world around them by creating signs and how these signs interact with one another to form languages and cultural practices. 

Charles Sanders Peirce: The American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) is responsible for coining the term “semiotic.” Peirce used a related term, “ semiosis ” to refer to the process of making meaning through the formation of signs and symbols. For Peirce, the process of semiosis had three indispensable elements: the sign, which stood for an object; the object that the sign stood for; and the interpretant , the individual who drew the cognitive connection between the sign and its object. 

Ferdinand de Saussure: Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is considered the founder of modern linguistics and the father of semiotics, which he used primarily as a means of explaining language formation and the process through which language becomes the means of conveying cultural knowledge. His book Course in General Linguistics is viewed as the seminal text of semiotics. Amazingly, Saussure himself did not actually write Course in General Linguistics or seek to have it published. This important treatise on linguistics and semiotics is comprised entirely of lectures he delivered as a professor at the University of Geneva and was compiled from his lecture notes by two of his most devoted students. Saussure defined language as a “system of signs that express ideas” and the sign as the basic linguistic unit. The concepts of the signifier and signified were introduced by Saussure, who argued that their relationship was completely arbitrary. In other words, he believed that there was no underlying rationale for using red octagon to symbolize a command to stop at an intersection. He thought such associations developed completely by chance. Saussure’s work became a springboard for a number of schools of philosophy that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, including structuralism and post-structuralism.

Umberto Eco: Italian linguist, philosopher, and novelist Umberto Eco is responsible for bringing an understanding and appreciation of semiotics to a wider scholarly and popular audience. Among the works he has written on semiotics are A Theory of Semiotics, The Role of the Reader, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Interpretation and Overinterpretation , and The Limits of Interpretation. Eco’s understanding of semiotics also informs much of his highly-acclaimed fiction, particularly the novel The Name of the Rose. Eco’s works place special emphasis on the process through which signs are created and the role of the individual who “reads” or interprets those signs.

Roland Barthes: French literary theorist Roland Barthes played a significant role in extending the study of semiotics from linguistics to cultural phenomena, including art, advertising, and mass media communications. Many of Barthes philosophies and political leanings were sympathetic to and compatible with Marxism, and he believed that the elite bourgeois society used certain cultural communications, and the signs employed in them, to idealize their version of society and maintain a certain status quo , with the effect of suppressing the lower classes and oppressing minorities and underprivileged groups. Barthes explored these themes in his collection of essays Mythologies, published in 1957.

The Sign

Academic inquiry in semiotics focuses on the concept of the “sign,” which was developed by Saussure and Peirce. Although semioticians generally agree regarding the definition of a “sign,” different scholars often adopt slightly different approaches to the concept. There are also different branches of semiotics that are distinguished by the emphasis that the place upon the concept of the sign and the role they view the sign as playing in the making and communication of meaning in language.

Signs: In his excellent online primer entitled “Semiotics for Beginners,” Daniel Chandler includes a lengthy section that discusses the basic definition of a “sign,” and the variant formulations of that concept by prominent scholars of semiotics. As Chandler notes, most models of the sign are either “dyadic,” emphasizing the relationship between the signifier and the signified; or “triadic,” including not only the signifier and the signified, but also the interpretant , the individual who understands and assigns meaning to the sign.

Semantics:  Semantics is the study of meaning. Generally, it is the study of meaning as it is conveyed in language. In semiotic terms, semantics is the study of the relationship between signs and the objects or concepts that they stand for. American linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky is a pre-eminent scholar of semantics.

Syntactics: Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that concerns itself with the relationship between signs as they co-exist and interact within a formal structure, such as a language. It is the study of syntax or “ syntagms ,” which are orderly sequences or combinations of signs and signifiers . An example of a syntagm would be a string of words that word together to form a meaningful sentence within a written text. Syntagmatic relationships are the relationships between various elements within the text which combine to signify a particular meaning. Syntagmatic analysis involves the study of the parts of a text, piece of art, or other form of communication and their interaction. 

Pragmatics: Pragmatics is the branch of semiotics that focuses on the interaction and interrelationship between a sign and the sign’s interpreter.

Terminology of Semiotics

In addition to “sign,” “signifier,” and “signified,” there are a number of specialized terms used by semioticians.

Symbolic Signs, Iconic Signs, and Indexical Signs:   Symbolic signs are signs in which the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and based purely on convention and cultural practice. Words are examples of symbolic signs. Iconic signs are signs in which the signifier resembles the signified. A portrait of a person would be a good example of an iconic sign. The portrait “stands for” the person but is not the person himself or herself. However, the relationship between the portrait and the person is obvious because the portrait has been painted to look like the person. The third type of sign is the indexical sign in which the signifier is caused by the signified. A good example of an indexical sign is smoke. Fire causes smoke, and so smoke serves as a sign of fire. If someone sees smoke, he or she will assume that a fire is causing it, even if the fire itself is not visible from his or her vantage point.

Codes: Codes are a combination of semiotic systems that function as general, overarching maps or schemes of cultural meaning. Codes provi de the framework of meaning in which it is possible to interpret and understand signs. For instance, understanding the meaning of individual words requires an understanding of the conventions of the language to which they belong. While words can be viewed as signs, the language to which they belong can be viewed as an overarching semiotic system, or co de .

Denotation and Connotation: The denotation of a word or sign is its literal meaning or dictionary definition. For instance, the denotation of the word “rose” is a “type of flowering plant.” The connotation of a word or sign is its secondary or cultural meaning. That is, the connotation involves all the associations that one makes when one hears or sees a particular word or sign. For instance, red roses in our culture have come to represent romantic love. This association with romantic love is not part of the dictionary definition of the word “rose.” It is part of the secondary meaning of “rose” which is known as its “connotation.”

Subfields in Semiotics

Semiotics has been applied usefully in a number of fields ranging from literature to art to cultural anthropology. As a result a number of “branches” or subfields of semiotics have emerged.

Biosemiotics:  Biosemiotics is a specialized field of semiotics devoted to the production and interpretation of signs in the biological context. In other words, it is the study of communication and signification in and between living organisms and biological systems. Topics of inquiry range from gene sequences and intercellular signaling processes to display behaviors exhibited by certain animal species.

Cognitive Semiotics: Cognitive semiotics is the study of the production and interpretation of signs in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science.

Computational Semiotics: Computational semiotics is the specialized study of signs in the computational world. Those who study this field are concerned with how human knowledge is represented in computer language, the interaction between humans and computers, and the development and meaning of “artificial intelligence.”

Literary Semiotics: Literary semiotics is use of semiotic theories, terminology, and concepts to interpret literary texts.

Music Semiology:  Music semiology is the application of semiotics to the study of symbolism and meaning in music.

Organizational Semiotics: Organizational semiotics is the study of human organizationsusing the conceptual analytical tools of semiotics. Organization semiotics can be divided into three major theoretical approaches: system-oriented approaches, behavior-oriented approaches, and knowledge-oriented approaches.

Social Semiotics: Social semiotics is that branch of semiotics that extends the theories and concepts of linguistic semiotics to an examination of human communication and “signifying practices” in the context of society and culture.

Urban Semiotics: Urban semiotics is the study of the meaning and symbolism conveyed by components of the urban environment, particularly its physical structures, including building, parks, and streets, and the texts that create the rules and templates for those structures, including building codes and municipal ordinances.

Visual Semiotics: Visual semiotics is the branch of semiotics that studies visual signs. Visual semiotics is relevant to a range of scholarly inquiries, including art and art history and the cultural impact of advertising.

Online Resources in Semiotics

There are a number of thorough, well-researched primers on semiotics for those who are novices in the field and would like to learn more. 

Semiotics for Beginners: This thorough and comprehensive online primer authored by Dr. Daniel Chandler of the University of Wales at Aberystwyth painstakingly sets out the basic concepts of semiotics and provides a detailed history of their evolution.

A Crash Course in Semiotics: This link provides access to a transcript and audio version of a program on basic semiotics hosted by Michael Dwyer as part of the Radio Open Learning Series which features commentary and explanations by a number of prominent contemporary semioticians.

Semiotics Institute Online: This site, made available through the University of Toronto, features a number of lectures and course outlines on semiotics by university faculty.

The Basics of Semiotics: This link makes available the full text of John Deely’s 1990 book The Basics of Semiotics which provides a thorough survey of the history and essential concepts and applications of semiotics.

Semiotics: This site serves as an impressive and highly useful clearinghouse for important semiotics resources on the web. The page includes links to online primers, books, academic research centers, journals, and news articles.