AskDefine | Define semiotic

Dictionary Definition

semiotic adj : of or relating to semiotics; "semiotic analysis" [syn: semiotical]

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  1. Of or relating to semiotics or to semantics.


of or relating to semiotics or to semantics
  • Dutch: semiotisch
  • Finnish: semioottinen
  • Interlingua: semiotic

Extensive Definition

Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.
The field was most notably formalized by the Vienna Circle and presented in their International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, in which the authors agreed on breaking out the field, which they called "semiotic", into three branches:
  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things they refer to, their denotata.
  • Syntactics: Relation of signs to each other in formal structures.
  • Pragmatics: Relation of signs to their impacts on those who use them. (Also known as General Semantics)
This discipline is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences - such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or zoosemiosis.
Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences."


The term, which was spelled semeiotics (Greek: σημειωτικός, semeiotikos, an interpreter of signs), was first used in English by Henry Stubbes (1670, p. 75) in a very precise sense to denote the branch of medical science relating to the interpretation of signs. John Locke used the terms semeiotike and semeiotics in Book 4, Chapter 21 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Here he explains how science can be divided into three parts:
All that can fall within the compass of human understanding, being either, first, the nature of things, as they are in themselves, their relations, and their manner of operation: or, secondly, that which man himself ought to do, as a rational and voluntary agent, for the attainment of any end, especially happiness: or, thirdly, the ways and means whereby the knowledge of both the one and the other of these is attained and communicated; I think science may be divided properly into these three sorts.Locke, 1823/1963, p. 174
Locke then elaborates on the nature of this third category, naming it Σημειωτικη (Semeiotike) and explaining it as "the doctrine of signs" in the following terms:
Nor is there any thing to be relied upon in Physick, but an exact knowledge of medicinal physiology (founded on observation, not principles), semiotics, method of curing, and tried (not excogitated, not commanding) medicines.Locke, 1823/1963, 4.21.4, p. 175
In the nineteenth century, Charles Peirce defined what he termed "semiotic" as the "quasi-necessary, or formal doctrine of signs", which abstracts "what must be the characters of all signs used intelligence capable of learning by experience", and which is philosophical logic pursued in terms of signs and sign processes. Charles Morris followed Peirce in using the term "semiotic" and in extending the discipline beyond human communication to animal learning and use of signals.
Saussure, however, viewed the most important area within semiotics as belonging to the social sciences:
It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. Cited in Chandler's "Semiotics For Beginners", Introduction.


Semioticians classify signs or sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.
To explain the relationship between semiotics and communication studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data from a source to a receiver as efficiently and effectively as possible. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognise that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e., be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994) suggested that semioticians' priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16), who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.
Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations, and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense. Peirce's definition of the term "semiotic" as the study of necessary features of signs also has the effect of distinguishing the discipline from linguistics as the study of contingent features that the world's languages happen to have acquired in the course of human evolution.
Perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference is a difference of traditions more than a difference of subjects. Different authors have called themselves "philosopher of language" or "semiotician". This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears a stronger connection to linguistics, while semiotics is closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory) and to cultural anthropology.
Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism's apprehension of the world through signs.


The importance of signs and signification has been recognized throughout much of the history of philosophy, and in psychology as well. Plato and Aristotle both explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine considered the nature of the sign within a conventional system. These theories have had a lasting effect in Western philosophy, especially through Scholastic philosophy. More recently, Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and philosophy of language, has argued that semiotic theories are implicit in the work of most, perhaps all, major thinkers.

Some important semioticians

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), the founder of the philosophical doctrine known as pragmatism (which he later renamed "pragmaticism" to distinguish it from the pragmatism developed by others like William James), preferred the terms "semiotic" and "semeiotic." He defined semiosis as "...action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs." ("Pragmatism", Essential Peirce 2: 411; written 1907). His notion of semiosis evolved throughout his career, beginning with the triadic relation just described, and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 (= 310, or 3 to the 10th power) possible elements and relations. One reason for this high number is that he allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, thereby creating a new signifying relation. Peirce was also a notable logician, and he considered semiotics and logic as facets of a wider theory. For a summary of Peirce's contributions to semiotics, see Liszka (1996).
  • Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), the "father" of modern linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the form of the word or phrase uttered, to the signified as the mental concept. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary, i.e. there was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. This sets him apart from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure himself credits the American linguist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the sign. Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign has also greatly influenced later philosophers, especially postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiologie while teaching his landmark "Course on General Linguistics" at the University of Geneva from 190611. Saussure posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a "signifier," i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the "signified," or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued "sign." Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.
  • Charles W. Morris (19011979). In his 1938 Foundations of the Theory of Signs, he defined semiotics as grouping the triad syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntax studies the interrelation of the signs, without regard to meaning. Semantics studies the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply. Pragmatics studies the relation between the sign system and its human (or animal) user. Unlike his mentor George Herbert Mead, Morris was a behaviorist and sympathetic to the Vienna Circle positivism of his colleague Rudolf Carnap. Morris has been accused of misreading Peirce.
  • Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (18991965) developed a structuralist approach to Saussure's theories. His best known work is Prolegomena: A Theory of Language, which was expanded in Resumé of the Theory of Language, a formal development of glossematics, his scientific calculus of language.
  • Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel The Name of the Rose, which includes applied semiotic operations. His most important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader. He has also criticized in several works (A theory of semiotics, La struttura assente, Le signe, La production de signes) the "iconism" or "iconic signs" (taken from Peirce's most famous triadic relation, based on indexes, icons, and symbols), to which he purposes four modes of sign production: recognition, ostension, replica, and invention.
  • Thomas A. Sebeok, a student of Charles W. Morris, was a prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it lives in. He also posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life - the view that has further developed by Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic school.

Current applications

Applications of semiotics include:
  • It represents a methodology for the analysis of texts regardless of modality. For these purposes, "text" is any message preserved in a form whose existence is independent of both sender and receiver;
  • It can improve ergonomic design in situations where it is important to ensure that human beings can interact more effectively with their environments, whether it be on a large scale, as in architecture, or on a small scale, such as the configuration of instrumentation for human use.
Semiotics is only slowly establishing itself as a discipline to be respected. In some countries, its role is limited to literary criticism and an appreciation of audio and visual media, but this narrow focus can inhibit a more general study of the social and political forces shaping how different media are used and their dynamic status within modern culture. Issues of technological determinism in the choice of media and the design of communication strategies assume new importance in this age of mass media. The use of semiotic methods to reveal different levels of meaning and, sometimes, hidden motivations has led some to demonise elements of the subject as Marxist, nihilist, etc. (e.g. critical discourse analysis in Postmodernism and deconstruction in Post-structuralism).
Publication of research is both in dedicated journals such as Sign Systems Studies, established by Juri Lotman and published by Tartu University Press; Semiotica, founded by Sebeok; Zeitschrift für Semiotik; European Journal of Semiotics; Versus (founded and directed by Eco), et al.; The American Journal of Semiotics; and as articles accepted in periodicals of other disciplines, especially journals oriented toward philosophy and cultural criticism.


Semiotics has sprouted a number of subfields, including but not limited to the following:
  • Biosemiotics is the study of semiotic processes at all levels of biology, or a semiotic study of living systems.
  • Music semiology "There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language." (Middleton 1990, p.172) See Nattiez (1976, 1987, 1989), Stefani (1973, 1986), Baroni (1983), and Semiotica (66: 1–3 (1987)).
  • Design Semiotics or Product Semiotics is the study of the use of signs in the design of physical products. Introduced by Rune Monö while teaching Industrial Design at the Institute of Design, Umeå University, Sweden.
  • Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology. (Translated by Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Clarke, D. S. (1987). Principles of Semiotic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Clarke, D. S. (2003). Sign Levels. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Culler, Jonathan (1975). Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Danesi, Marcel & Perron, Paul. (1999). Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
  • Danesi, Marcel. (1994). Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics. Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  • Danesi, Marcel. (2002). Understanding Media Semiotics. London: Arnold; New York: Oxford UP.
  • Danesi, Marcel. (2007). The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Deely, John. (2005 [1990]). Basics of Semiotics. 4th ed. Tartu: Tartu University Press.
  • Deely, John. (2003). The Impact on Philosophy of Semiotics. South Bend: St. Augustine Press.
  • Deely, John. (2001). Four Ages of Understanding. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Derrida, Jacques (1981). Positions. (Translated by Alan Bass). London: Athlone Press.
  • Eagleton, Terry. (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Eco, Umberto. (1976). A Theory of Semiotics. London: Macmillan.
  • Eco, Umberto. (1986) Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Eco, Umberto. (2000) Kant and the Platypus. New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.
  • Foucault, Michel. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock.
  • Greimas, Algirdas. (1987). On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory. (Translated by Paul J Perron & Frank H Collins). London: Frances Pinter.
  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1961). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. (Translated by Francis J. Whitfield). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hodge, Robert & Kress, Gunther. (1988). Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
  • Lacan, Jacques. (1977) Écrits: A Selection. (Translated by Alan Sheridan). New York: Norton.
  • Lidov, David (1999) Elements of Semiotics. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Liszka, J. J., 1996. A General Introduction to the Semeiotic of C.S. Peirce. Indiana University Press.
  • Locke, John, The Works of John Locke, A New Edition, Corrected, In Ten Volumes, Vol.III, T. Tegg, (London), 1823. (facsimile reprint by Scientia, (Aalen), 1963.)
  • Peirce, Charles S. (1934). Collected papers: Volume V. Pragmatism and pragmaticism. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Editor) (1977). A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Stubbe, Henry (Henry Stubbes), The Plus Ultra reduced to a Non Plus: Or, A Specimen of some Animadversions upon the Plus Ultra of Mr. Glanvill, wherein sundry Errors of some Virtuosi are discovered, the Credit of the Aristotelians in part Re-advanced; and Enquiries made...., (London), 1670.
  • Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.


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