Semiotics and the study of meaning
Signs are all around us. But I don’t just mean street signs or those plaques outside the public bathroom. In semiotics, a sign is anything that has meaning. So traffic lights, religious buildings and insignias, the alphabet, the color white, chirping birds, running water, smoke, and even the entire English language are all signs. Signs can be pictures or symbols or gestures, and they can also be sounds or tastes or smells.
Semiotics is “the study of signs”. It’s the study of meaning, the study of how we communicate. We think in signs, and so we communicate in signs. But before we talk about why semiotics is both so fascinating and important, let’s talk more about what these “signs” actually are.
Get ready to have your mind blown.
These are all signs. A sign is anything that we give meaning to. When someone smiles, it means that they’re happy. Smiling is a sign. When you smell something bad coming from the kitchen, it might mean you left something on the burner (or your roommate is trying – and failing – to cook dinner). That weird smell is a sign. When you hear the doorbell ring, it means someone’s at the door. The familiar ringing noise is a sign.
Signs are “meaning triggers”. When you see rain clouds, that means something. When you smell smoke, that means something. When you hear the “C, A, and T” sounds all together, that means something!
Two parts of a sign: the signifier and the signified
There’s a lot of hoity toity discussion about this among linguists and semioticians, but for now let’s just echo the Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure and say that semiotic signs have two parts: the physical representation of the sign (for example, the cross itself pictured above) and what it actually means — i.e., how we interpret the physical representation (my brain recognizes the cross and says “Christianity”). Usually, these terms are called “the signifier” and “the signified” respectively.
Visual signs: pictures, gestures, and symbols
Here are some more signs. Visual signs. We see them, and they mean something to us. It’s instant. It’s intuitive. When I want to close something on any electronic device, I instinctively go to the top right corner and go for the little X. When I see the progress bar, I know my request is being processed.
This light, this guy’s hand gesture, the red stop sign, and the referee’s hand gesture are all separate signs, but they all mean basically the same thing: stop. We look at them and instantly know what they mean. They all technically mean the same thing, but we see and use them in different, distinct circumstances.
The signifier (the physical representation) is different for all of the signs here, but the signified (the meaning) is the same.
All of these “thumbs up” gestures are also separate signs. But they’re the opposite from the signs above. The signifier is the same for each sign here (a thumbs up), but the signified is different. In other words, these signs all look the same, but they mean different things. We distinguish between them with context. If your friend flashes you his thumb, you know he thinks you’re cool. If you see someone on the side of the road with his thumb up, you know he wants to get in your car.
Auditory signs: language, music, alarms
So we’ve seen so far that signs can be pictures, objects, and gestures. But signs aren’t just visual stimuli – they can also be auditory, tactile, or olfactory.
Language itself is comprised of multiple systems of signs. The first thing we’re going to look at is the difference between writing and speaking as sign systems.
When I say “cat”, the concept of a cat immediately comes to your mind. Most people “see” a cat in their mind’s eye, but others may see the word spelled out. How you consciously think of a cat when I say the word doesn’t matter. The fact is that these sounds put together (Kkkk – Aaaah – Tttt) means the same thing to all speakers of English. This sound-meaning pairing (the sounds that make up the word “cat” and what comes to your mind when I say them) is a sign.
Written language is a visual representation of spoken language, and it works in a similar way as other signs, but there’s an added layer of “uncoding” that you have to do to interpret written language. You see the letters “cat” on a page, know that each letter represents a certain sound, and that those sounds all together represent the concept of a cat. Reading only feels instant and intuitive because we’ve been reading from such a young age and for such a long time. In fact, what’s interesting is that most people equate writing with language itself. They see it as the “be all, end all” of language. But that’s just not true.
We’ll talk about our hyper-literacy another time though. Back to signs!
So language is a system of auditory signs. But there are other auditory signs too. For example, a ringing doorbell or a fire alarm or church bells. Even your cell phone ringtone is a special sign. When you’re out in public and someone else’s phone rings with your same ringtone, you often jump to attention and reach for your phone. All ringtones are signs. A generic ringtone means someone is calling. But YOUR ringtone means someone is calling YOU. It’s a different sign.
So what? Why do I care?
Semiotics isn’t just fascinating. Understanding it also has practical value. When you’re able to look at all media (be it auditory, visual, or a mix of both) and language as a spectrum of communication, you open yourself to new possibilities of expressing yourself and understanding others. An understanding of semiotics can make you better at writing, directing and shooting videos, marketing services, selling products, and even making friends.
Semiotics helps you understand how you process meaning. So in turn, it helps you understand yourself and others.
Plus, this stuff gets more mindblowing the deeper you go!
Interested in learning more?
1. Ways of Seeing
This BBC documentary series is free on YouTube and was incredibly well done. It shows how our culture and values are displayed subtly in our art. There are four 30 minute episodes that can be watched out of order if you’re uninterested in one or another.
The second episode was my favorite! It analyzed famous nude oil paintings, and used those to discuss both the object-like treatment of women and even some effects of Christianity on Western society.
2. How Art Made the World
This is another BBC documentary that is free on Archive.org. It explores what makes art and the stories told by art throughout history compelling. I also learned a lot about storytelling and human nature from this series. You don’t have to watch the episodes in order.
3. Semiotics: The Basics by Daniel Chandler
This book is an overview of the entire field of semiotics. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of technical language. And if you’re not a little familiar with the famous people and ideas going in, it might take a while to get through. But it’s a really well done book and I enjoyed it immensely.