As I am continuing my education in the field of communications, I have discovered something important… Nothing, and I repeat, NOTHING is what it seems. Take my last sentence for example. The fact that I repeated the use of the word “nothing” in all capital letters is a sign. Perhaps it signals to the reader some type of importance. Others may perceive it to mean an increase in volume of the reading of internal text going on inside a person’s head. Tell me. When you were reading that sentence did your brain make it appear ‘louder’ in your mind than the words preceding or following? By now you are probably wondering where I am going with all this, and the answer is semiotics.
What is Semiotics?
Semiotics is, in its simplest form, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation (do i smell a connection between this and my last blog post on hermeneutics?). Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure came up with the concept of the signifier and the signified.
A signifier can be defined as the physical manifestation of a sign. The signified is what the sign stands for – a mental concept. Together the signifier and the signified create the sign. In other words, a signifier is composed of the physical manifestation achieved through the senses, and the signified is the meaning a person places behind the physical sense. For example when I say the word “rose” what image comes to mind? A sign works to incorporate a person’s knowledge of a text’s denotation and the person’s connotation. When I mention the word “rose” what one probably imagines is a pretty flower such as this:
This object is the signifier, and what is signified is the meaning placed behind the word “rose.” When I say “rose,” the denotation and the connotation that a person places on the text causes us to engage in a successful form of communication. Really, meaning appears in the space between what a person senses and what he or she thinks. The word “rose” itself means nothing. Actually, any form of text itself is meaningless. As a matter of fact, all letters are symbols. Take the letter “A.” Standing alone, without any prior knowledge of what this symbol stands for, “A” is just three lines on a page. Think back to childhood when you were first being taught to read and write. Someone had to explain that “A” is called a letter and that the letter is used to express a certain sound and that those sounds create the words we communicate with in the English language. Thanks, Sesame Street!
To quote an article by Daniel Chandler, “Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognize what we know.” How humans place meaning on symbols can only go as far as their frames of references.
Types of Signs
In the early 1900’s, around the same time that Saussure was doing his work, American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced like “purse”) was also studying the ideology of semiotics. Peirce referred to a sign as anything that points to something else, and there are three types of signs.
- Symbols: a sign in which the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and culturally specific.
- Icon: a sign in which the signifier resembles the signified.
- Indexes: a sign in which there is a direct link between the signifier and the signified.
Signs are everywhere. Every advertisement you see, scent you smell, and material you touch can be a sign. The relationship between the physical sensation and the unconscious human mind are what makes this so. We have been taught that certain images mean certain things. For example, a red stop light means to halt the vehicle. We have had experiences that build our connotative abilities, such as the smell of a certain perfume reminding a person of his or her grandmother. The possibilities are endless. Semiotics is, in a way, the study of the human experience – how we sense the world and build connections and relations that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. There are infinite layers that signs can lead us to, and they are all around us. Try thinking about the hidden meaning the next time you look at a poster for a movie or read a good article from the paper. This is a sign.
Want to Discover More?
Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler.” Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2016.