Semiotics Definition and Examples

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in human communication

The red ribbon
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 theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication. Common examples of semiotics include traffic signs, emojis, and emoticons used in electronic communication, and logos and brands used by international corporations to sell us things—"brand loyalty," they call it.

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 semiotics in the form of intertextuality, puns, metaphors, and references to cultural commonalities.

Signs are all around us. Consider a set of paired faucets in a bathroom or kitchen. The left side is almost certainly the hot water tap, the right is the cold. Many years ago, all taps had letters designating the temperature of the water—in English, H for hot and C for cold; in Spanish, C for hot (caliente) and F for cold (frio). Modern taps often have no letter designations or are included in one tap, but even with a single tap, the semiotic content of faucets still tells us to tilt or turn left for hot water and right for cold. The information about how to avoid being burned is a sign.

Practice and History

A person who studies or practices semiotics is a semiotician. Many 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. He defined langue as the structure or grammar of a language and parole as the choices made by the speaker to communicate that information.

Semiotics is a key study into 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) said that signs work only if there is an intelligence capable of learning from experience. Peirce's conception of semiotics was triadic: sign, meaning, and interpreter. Modern semioticians look at the entire network of signs and symbols around us that mean different things in different contexts, even signs or symbols that are sounds. Think of what an ambulance siren communicates when you are driving: "Someone is endangered and we are in a hurry to help. Pull over to the side of the road and let us drive by."

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 saying "Luke," you can transmit a raft of Star Wars images and sounds and meanings. "Knowing the semiotics you are, Grasshopper," is a reference both to Master Yoda and to Master Po in the 1970s "Kung Fu" television series. In fact, you could argue that Yoda 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 whether you've read the Bible. 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

William 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."

A hypertext supports semiotic understanding. We know what a hypertext means: "Here you'll find a definition of this term or this phrase."

Nonverbal Communication

Many ways that we communicate with one another are nonverbal. A shrug, a roll of the eyes, a wave of the hand, these and thousands of other subtle and unsubtle body language memes communicate information to another person. Vocalics is 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 a culture. A person approaching too close to you in Western culture might seem 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.

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