Semiotics - A Salad Bowl of Signs!

Semiotics | Signs | 21st August 2021 | Virtual Wire

Semiotics in present times plays a significant role in media analysis. The sound of thunder signifying a storm and turmoil in a movie clip, a thumbs-up action to say best of luck, or convey the message of success is the derivation of meanings that the study of semiotics has facilitated.

Semiotics has always been the interest of many scholars who stated various definitions of semiotics, but all zeroed down to studying the meaning of signs.

Umberto Eco, in his book entitled 'A Theory of Semiotics,' indicated that 'semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything that can be taken as significantly substituting for 'something else' (1979; 7).

According to Umberto Eco, that 'something else does not necessarily exist precisely at the same time when the sign represents or replaces its position. Therefore, Umberto Eco often refers to it as the theory of lie or deception because it can be used for misleading or deceiving others (1976, p. 6-7).

History of Semiotics

The philosophy referring to the relevance of semiotics in the lives of humans began around more than two thousand years ago by the Greek philosophers, documenting its historical basis and its advent, particularly during the emergence of the classical semiotic.

Later in the middle ages, Stoici (Zeno) and other philosophers and academicians debated the meaning and usage of signs in depth. However, the term 'semiotic' did not spring up until the late 18th century, when it was invented and used by a German philosopher named Lambert. There are two pioneers who have made significant contributions to the development of modern semiotics are notably Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a linguist from Switzerland, and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a philosopher from America.

The sign theory emerged when Saussure felt that the idea of linguistic signs should be studied with a more comprehensive theory. This thought led to the introduction of the term "semiology" in a few compilations of lecture notes made by his students based on lectures given from 1907 to 1911, which were subsequently published as a book 'Course in General Linguistics.'

Though there are several other signs and expressions, Saussure gave precedence to the language system of signs. Saussure's theory of sign deals with the two-dimensional system, the consensus or conventional system, and the networking relationship between the signs system and the unstructured system.

The human mind has abilities of reasoning which were given a greater emphasis in sign theory. This was done by focusing on the internal structure of the human mind, which is devoted to deriving meanings from the physical (tangible) and abstract (intangible) signs surrounding it that includes linguistic forms in the language system and that carries specific functions as humans and helps the human race to interact. This can be said as language does not reflect reality but rather constructs it (Science Direct, Halina Sendra Mohd. Yakin and Andreas Totu / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 155 ( 2014 ) 4 – 8).

Unlike Saussure, who coined the term 'semiology,' Peirce used the concept' semiotic,' which he believed was synonymous with the notion of logic that emphasizes the knowledge of the human thinking process, as illustrated in his writings released (1931/1958). The human psyche and sign limitations, the three-dimensional system (triadic/trichotomy), and the relativity regarding the three typologies or taxonomies of signs (icon, index, and symbol) are the key concepts behind Peirce's theory (Science Direct, Halina Sendra Mohd. Yakin and Andreas Totu / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 155 ( 2014 ) 4 – 8).

The Distinction Between Saussure's and Pierce's Theories

Saussure's theory was founded on the idea of a dichotomy or duality basis, according to which a sign consists of two focal components, namely signifier-the sound pattern (marker-sound picture) and signified-the concept (the outcome/the interpretation/conception of the signifier). A material shape (physicality) that exists explicitly and can be identified by human senses often falls under the category of the signifier.

On either hand, signified refers to anything that does not exist in its literal and tangible form but only exists in an abstract sense. Saussure asserted that both concepts have a very close relationship and have a mutual need and complement each other. It means that both cannot be separated, i.e., one aspect will not exist without the existence of the other (Chandler, 2001)

Peirce's theory of sign concentrates on three-dimensional or triadic and trichotomy systems. Peirce divides sign into three categories: sign or representation or ground, object as referent, and third interpretant. The first concept of the sign is synonymous with the signifier. However, the signified in Pierce's theory does not have relevance. For this, he has brought in the concept of object and interpretant.

The term 'object' refers to something that is depicted or illustrated by a sign that has both tangible and intangible aspects in nature (Masinambow, 2001). Interpretant refers to meanings that were previously unknown and abstract to humans but are now being conveyed by the object. Pierce covered the interactional relationship between these three aspects of semiotics.

Pierce has also helped us understand Semiotics by the introduction of icons, indexes, and symbols. An icon is has a physical resemblance to the signified. A photograph of a castle is an icon for that castle. A symbol is a sign whose meaning is learned over a period of time and is also assumed to be based on culture and social conventions—for example, a symbol of a speed breaker.

An index describes the physical connection between a signifier and a signified, implying that a signifier cannot exist without the presence of the signified. For example, a pool of mud cannot exist without water and mud. Hence, all these do not require any language to derive meaning but are understood either due to resemblance, conventional study, and physical connection.

In summation, Saussure believed that signs had been developed to communicate, while Pierce stressed the idea of sign that lets people think and communicate. Saussure said that a sign had been developed to communicate meaning, and the people have been associated with that convention, including the idea that a single sign can have a lot of other meanings as well. However, Peirce's sign theory covers whatever, whether developed by humans or not, as long as it can be comprehended and identified by their minds (Eco, 1991).

Semiotics and Modern World

Having talked a lot about the theories, let us incorporate semiotics in media analysis by analyzing a scene from the movie 'Tales of Terror from Tokyo' which is a Japanese movie, and we do not know the Japanese language. If Saussure's theory is applied, then anyone apart from the people of Japan and who know Japenese would not be able to understand the scene. However, if Pierce's theory is applied, we can infer the crux of the scene by other signs such as music, camera angles, expressions, voiceovers, and lighting in the movie scene. The link to the movie scene is here.

The bangs at the door, the position of camera angles, shooting of the scene in a narrow and low lit passage, frightened expressions on the child's face, pale white hand with red colour nail paint, and the eerie feeling when there is no background music still make us feel scared and sends shivers down our spines without even knowing the language and dialogues of the visitor. So how did we get terrified? This is where Semiotics comes into play, and this is because the above-mentioned things have been linked to the abstract feelings of being petrified over the years, and we know what all do these signs signify.

Another such example is Chris Ofili's painting of the Holy Virgin Mary. Ofili reimagined the Holy Virgin as a lively folklore figure. Most controversially, he created his own image of the Virgin, defying convention. The "parody-like African mouth" and exaggerated facial features highlight racial stereotypes as well as the supposed whiteness of biblical figures in Western portrayals. According to Chris, "As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version." (, 2015).

Ofili's Virgin Mary stares directly at the viewer, with wide eyes and parted lips, on a glittering gold background. Her blue gown cascades over her body, revealing her breast, which is made of elephant dung. Cutouts from pornographic magazines are scattered all over the paintings in a decorative fashion that cannot be recognized if observed closely. The two dung balls beneath the canvas are covered with dazzling letters spelling out the title of the work. (, 2014)

Ofili's art did upset sections of society, but later with time, when the meaning and significance of his art evolved, it was described as 'Ambitious,' 'Vibrant,' 'Gorgeous,' as stated by American Critics as explained by Alastair Sooke. It is because during the course of time, signified (meaning, interpretation) of this signifier (painting) has evolved and changed. For some, the art piece was just a piece of work because it hurt the religious sentiments of the people because of the principle of situatedness that tells that people can infer meanings that are influenced by time and geopolitical situations. When the generation changed and principles evolved, the same painting became a masterpiece for them.


The beauty of semiotics lies in the interpretation of signs, symbols, icons, and indexes based on not just one meaning but involving a multicultural and interdisciplinary aspect to the study, which will not only lead to the growth of this subject but also it will involve in the development of new ideas.

The development of semiotics as a branch of linguistic to a methodology for analyzing media is proof for the same. Many related elements exist in both semiotics and communication, such as symbol, meaning, verbal and nonverbal code, and so on. In essence, semiotics implies that cultural and sign phenomenon are entwined.

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