Definition and Examples of Semiotics

What does the expression "Harry Potter" conjure up to you?

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The red ribbon is an international symbol of AIDS awareness. In the U.S. and Canada, the red ribbon is also a sign of support for the prevention of drunk driving.

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Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, in particular as they communicate things spoken and unspoken. Common examples of semiotics include traffic signs, emojis and emoticons used in electronic communication, and logos and brands used by international companies to sell us things—"brand loyalty," they call it.

But signs are around us all the time: consider a set of paired faucets in a bathroom or kitchen.

In your kitchen, the left side is almost certainly the hot water tap, the right is the cold. Twenty years ago or so, taps even had letters designating the temperature of the water—in English, H for hot and C for cold. But in Spanish it was C for hot (caliente) and F for cold (frio). Modern taps have no letter designations at all or are included in one tap—but even with one tap, the semiotic content of faucets is still tilt or turn left for hot water, and right for cold. The information about how to avoid being burned is a sign: you know which direction to tilt.

Semiotics, then, is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication.

Practice and History

A person who studies or practices semiotics is known as a semiotician. Many of the terms and concepts used by contemporary semioticians were introduced by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913).

Saussure defined a sign as any motion, gesture, image, pattern, or event that conveys meaning. Langue he defined as the structure or grammar of a language, and parole he defined as the actual choices made by the speaker to communicate that information.

Semiotics is a key study in thinking about the evolution of human consciousness.

English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) tied the advancement of intelligence to three steps: understanding the nature of things, understanding what to do to achieve whatever you wish to achieve, and the ability to communicate these things to another. Language began with signs. In Locke's terminology, signs are dyadic—that is, a sign is tied to a specific meaning.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) pointed out that signs only work if there is an intelligence capable of learning from experience. Peirce's conception of semiotics was triadic: sign, meaning, interpreter. Modern semioticians look at the entire network of signs around us, signs or symbols that mean different things in different contexts, even signs or symbols that are sounds. Think of what an ambulance siren communicates to you when you are driving: "Someone is endangered and we are in a hurry to get there. Pull over onto the side of the road and let us drive by or we will track you down and fine you."

Examples of Semiotics: Textual Signs

Intertextuality is a type of subtle communication, in that what we write or say often is recollecting something shared between us. For example, if you mimic James Earl Jones' deep baritone by saying "Luke...," a whole raft of Star Wars images and sounds and meanings can be transmitted to your listener.

"Knowing the semiotics you are, Grasshopper," is a reference both to Master Yoda and to Master Po in the 1970s "Kung Fu" television show: in fact, you could argue that Yoda himself was a semiotic reference to Master Po.

Metaphors can act as meaningful stand-ins to people who are familiar with the culture: "he was a rock to me in my hour of need" and "that coffee is hotter than Hades" are intertextual references to the Judeo-Christian Bible, and they're so common that it doesn't matter if you've read the Bible or not. Metonyms can too: "the Smoke" is a metonym for London, a reference to its once-prevalent smog, which still means London even if the smog is less prevalent.

Writing as Semiotics

Shakespeare's and Lewis Carroll's writings are full of puns and cultural references, some of which, sadly, are no longer meaningful to modern speakers.

The master of intertextuality was the Irish writer James Joyce, whose books such as "Ulysses" are so dense with snippets of different and invented languages and cultural references that the modern reader needs hypertexts—live weblinks—to get them all.

"Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o'er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a'."

A hypertext itself supports semiotic understanding. We know what a hypertext means: "here you'll find a definition of this term or this phrase." That is semiotics in action.

Nonverbal Communication and Semiotics

Many of the ways we communicate with one another are nonverbal—without the use of words. A shrug, a roll of the eyes, a wave of the hand, all of these and thousands more subtle and unsubtle body language memes communicate information to another person. Vocalics are a type of nonverbal communication embedded into speech: the pitch, tone, rate, volume, and timbre of spoken language communicate additional information about the underlying meaning of a group of words.

Personal space is also a form of semiotics that is specific to culture. A person approaching too close to you in Western culture may be felt as a hostile incursion, but in other cultures personal space dimensions are different. Simply touching someone can calm an angry or sad person, or enrage or offend them, depending on the context.

Semiotics Takeaways

  • Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, in particular as they communicate things spoken and unspoken.
  • Common signs that are understood globally include traffic signs, emojis, and corporate logos.
  • Written and spoken language is full of intertextuality, puns, metaphors, and references to cultural commonalities.

Sources

Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics: The Basics." Routledge, 2006

Klarer, Mario. "An Introduction to Literary Studies." 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004.

Lewis, Michael. "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine." W.W. Norton, 2010.

Craig, Robert T. "Communication Theory as a Field."  In "Theorizing Communication: Readings Across Traditions." Edited by Robert T. Craig and Heidi L. Muller. Sage, 2007.