Semiotics 101

Semiotics, the science of signs, is considered to have two fathers: Ferdinand de Saussure, and Charles Peirce. The former was a Swiss linguist whose contribution to the discipline was published after his death. Two of his former students, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, used notes take in his classes to put together Course in General Linguistics, published in 1916. The work was groundbreaking for its innovative and original approach.

My experience of semiotics so far is that it is the most complicated simple idea I have ever had to come to grips with. Saussure’s foundational idea is the easiest to explain: a message (any communication) consists of a signifier, and a signified. The signifier is a sign representing a concept. So the word “donkey”, which you read on the screen, is a sign. It represents a concept in your mind – and it is that concept that is called a signified.

Independent of Saussure, another great mind in the USA was working to explain signs. Charles Sanders Peirce explained it as a triad: a sign, an object, and the interpretation of the sign. His terminology is representamen, object, and interpretant. Taking the example of a donkey, you have the word written on the screen – donkey – which is the representamen. Then there is the actual animal braying in a field somewhere: the object. Finally, there is the concept that arises in your mind when reading the word.

Of course, signs or representamens go so much farther than words written on a page. Everything is a sign, whether the originator of the sign meant it as a sign or not. Signs are originated by humans, animals, nature. Complicating matters even more, our interpretants differ. Sheep to a child born and raised in a city means something very different from the same word to a child living on a farm, who has a sense of touch, smell, sound to add to the representamen in their mind.

Both these founding fathers’ work is explained in very simple terms here, but Peirce’s theory especially is like a deep pool. My explanation here touched no more than the surface, but his concepts go far enough to provide material for lifelong study.

Great minds such as Roland Barthes, Stuart Hall, Jean Killbourne and more expanded and built on the original ideas first bound and comprehensively described by Saussure and Peirce. Their work launched a fascinating, culturally critical new school of thought.


3 thoughts on “Semiotics 101

  1. I’m not sure how many quite understand the academic concept of semiotics; but it’s quite often used for what might be called ‘covert propaganda’, using non-neutral words as if they were neutral, and similarly with images. That is, in a discussion on a topic, an image is used which isn’t neutral but really reflects the writer’s espoused views.

    There was an example just today. If you were following the Citizens’ Assembly discussions and votes, you will know that they voted for a considerable liberalisation of abortion laws in the Republic. To the surprise of many, they voted for what is effectively ‘abortion on demand’ up to 12 weeks gestation. The Cork Examiner, which appears to me to have a pro-life stand, illustrated this story with a photo of a heavily pregnant woman. Clearly, as a 12-week pregnancy doesn’t ‘show’ this is very misleading; but they were making a point.

    1. That aspect of it is what fascinates me most. That example is classic, I must go and look it up to share in class tomorrow.

      I’m hoping to continue to postgraduate study, examining the effect of media and design communication on active travel uptake – especially cycling. I see the message built into what we see when we use the roads that it is for cars, and that it is no place for bicycles. There’s a culture of driving created through media and design. It fascinates me and I think it has a profound effect on uptake and safety of active travel (cycling and walking).

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