Definition and Fundamentals of Semiotics

In linguistics, semiotics is the study of signs.

Signs may be broadly described as anything that stand for something else, such as words, images, sounds, objects, discourses, and text. Therefore, more precisely, semiotics studies the meanings of signs and how meanings are constructed through sign systems and their use.

Semiotics allows us to understand that reality is not objective but rather constructed through meanings that are generated through codes, discourses, practices, and contexts.

Semiotics is derived from the Greek semeioun, meaning “to interpret as a sign.” It came to acquire its current meaning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the work of the American logician, philosopher, and mathematician Charles Sanders PeirceOpens in new window and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de SaussureOpens in new window.

Saussure built his semiotic theory around the grammatical and syntactical properties of language. Shifting from the traditional sociolinguistic attention to how meaning varied over time, he focused on the differences among signs at a fixed point in time. His focus on differences yielded the observation that difference itself is the source of meaning.

Saussure is also credited with establishing the basic distinction between a symbol that carries meaning (signifier) and a referent (signified). For him, a sign was the unity of “signified” and “signifier”. Followers of Saussure yet transcended the key limitations of structuralism (e.g., Derrida, Barthes, Eco) are known as poststructuralists.

In contrast to Saussure, Peirce viewed meaning as emergent in the responses people direct toward signs.

Peirce’s model of signs is a triadic one, including the sign vehicle, the object to which the sign vehicle refers, and its interpretant—which roughly refers to the sense that is made of the relationship between sign vehicle and object. Peirce’s theories also incorporated three types of signs:

Followers of Peirce’s semiotics are now numerous among proponents of pragmatism in philosophy, symbolic interactionism in social psychology, and social semiotics in cultural studies.