From Academic Kids

Semiotics (also spelled Semeiotics) is the study of signs and sign systems. This includes the investigation of apprehension, prediction and meaning: how it is that we develop meaning, make predictions, and apprehend the world. General theories of signs are called semiotics.

Semioticians generally understand signs to have meaning within larger systems. The words and phrases of a language, for example, have meaning within that language, and are meaningful only because of their place in that language's structure. Fashion and different ways of dressing also have meaning, but only within a given culture. Within film theory, films are often understood to have meaning due to conventional systems of editing techniques, shots, and other cinematographic techniques.

Semiotics is not the same as the study of communication. It may be considered as firstly concerned with signification and secondly with communication (see Danesi 1994), or, less often, considered not to study communication at all (Nattiez 1987; trans. 1990: 16).

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from our apprehension of the world through signs.



The importance of signs, signification, and semiosis has been recognized throughout much of the history of philosophy. Plato and Aristotle both explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine pondered at length the nature of the sign within a conventional system. Augustine's theories in particular had a lasting effect on theories of signs in Western philosophy, especially through the works of the Scholastic philosophers.

Umberto Eco, in his "Semiotics and philosophy of language" has shown the necessity to uncover the implicit semiotic theories in all the history of thought.


John Locke (16321704) first coined the term "semeiotike" (from the Greek word σημείον, semeion, meaning "mark" or "sign" or "point" (on a line)) in 1690, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In Locke's view, science can be divided into three disciplines:

  • physics: "The knowledge of things, as they are in their own proper beings, their constitution, properties, and operations..."
  • practice: "The skill of right applying our own powers and actions..."
  • semeiotike: "The doctrine of signs; the most usual whereof being words, it is aptly enough termed also Logike, logic; the business whereof is to consider the nature of signs the mind makes use of for the understanding of things, or conveying its knowledge to others."


Charles Sanders Peirce (18391914), founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism and a notable logician, conceived of semiotics as "the doctrine of the essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis" where he defines semiosis as "an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant ..." ('Pragmatism', Essential Peirce 2:413, 2:411, 1907). Peirce revised his view of semiosis throughout his career, beginning with this triadic relationship and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 possible elements and relationships. One reason for this high figure is that Peirce allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, creating a new signifying relationship.


Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913), the "father" of modern linguistics, re-introduced, at about the same time as Peirce, a subject he called "semiology." Saussure established a dualistic notion of signs relating the signifier to the signified. The signifier, for Saussure, was the sound: the word or phrase uttered. The signified was the mental concept. Saussure's sign was the relationship between the signifier and the signified. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary. This sets him apart from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies.


Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (1899 - 1965) developed to a further degree the structuralist theory of Saussure. His most known and influential work is Prolegomena to the theory of language. The real exposure of his theory is Resume of the theory of language, a formal development of glossematics.


Charles W. Morris (19011979) achieved recognition for his Foundations of the Theory of Signs. He proposed to divide semiotics into syntactics, semantics and pragmatics.


Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics. Eco explicitly acknowledges Peirce's importance, trying to install it on the European structuralist tradition (Hjelmslev). Many of his novels, for example The Name of the Rose—which was eventually made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater—had many significant allusions to semiotics. His most important contributions to the field regard the concepts of interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader.


Algirdas Julius Greimas developed a structural version of semiotics named generative semiotics. Greimas tried to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. Greimas rooted his theory in Saussure, Louis Hjelmslev, Claude Lvi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


Jay Forrester developed formalisms for complex systems that are useful for noting how conflicts in mental models cause problems in group communication. In his paper, "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems," for example, he explained miscommunication in human groups.


Thomas A. Sebeok was one of the most prolific and wide-ranging of American semioticians. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it chooses to live in. He posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life.

Current work

The first journal in semiotics, Sign Systems Studies, has been established by Juri Lotman and is published by Tartu University Press. The top list of semiotics journals includes also Semiotica (founded by Sebeok), Zeitschrift fr Semiotik, European Journal of Semiotics, The American Journal of Semiotics, Versus (founded and directed by Eco), et al.


Biosemiotics is the study of semiotic processes at all levels of biology, or a semiotic study of living systems.

Computational semiotics attempts to engineer the process of semiosis in a computationally tractable manner. Computational semiotics may be understood as artificial intelligence and knowledge representation examined from a semiotic perspective.

Literary semiotics applies the theory of signs (and also communication and information theory) to the interpretation of literary works. Literary semioticians often have an interest in the attempt to apply the tools and techniques of the hard sciences, such as mathematical formulae and computer analysis of texts, to literary criticism.

Others, like the French critic, Roland Barthes, and many Marxists, employ semiotic techniques as a tool of political and social criticism and satire. Pop culture artifacts have become frequent targets of the semiotic approach.

Medical semiotics specifically studies the interpretation of patients' description of their symptoms, and has particular importance for the understanding of how patients describe pain or other symptoms which a physician cannot experience or measure directly.

Music semiology or the semiology of music. "There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language." (Middleton 1990, p.172) See Nattiez (1976, 1987, 1989), Stefani (1973, 1986), Baroni (1983), and Semiotica (66: 1–3 (1987)).

The semiotics of videogames are beginning to be explored by various developers and academics, for example in Stephen Poole's book Trigger Happy. However, the field is still extremely young.

See also

External links

bg:Семиотика ca:Semitica de:Semiotik et:Semiootika es:Semitica fa:نشانه‌شناسی fi:Semiotiikka fr:Smiologie he:סמיוטיקה it:Semiotica ja:記号学 nl:Semiotiek no:Semiotikk pl:Semiotyka pt:Semitica ru:Семиотика (языкознание) sv:Semiotik simple:Semiotics


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