Semiotics: The Science of Signs

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19 March 2016

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Founding semioticians, Charles S. Peirce and Ferdinand Saussure developed hypothesis suggesting that meaning is consumed from symbols and signs that can be presented to us through many methods. It is clear from Peirce and Saussure’s models of signification that we do understand the signs that are presented to us and we use these signs to create a meaning and to communicate. This essay will focus on the fundamentals of Peirce and Saussure’s models and how the models created a correlation behind the indication that humans do read off signs. It will also endeavor to outline the importance behind Roland Barthes’ theory, where it can be argued that meaning is interpreted differently through culture, past experiences and previous knowledge to the individual who is receiving the message. This essay will conclude that knowledge of how a sign is conveyed is individual. Although we do read off signs that are presented before us, context is imperative as it can alter ones perception of the meaning of the message that is received.

Saussure was a Swiss linguist who focused specifically on languages in history rather than general linguistics. (Chandler, 2013) His studies in semiotics began in the early 1900’s where he focused on the nature of the signs as a part of behaviour (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2012, p. 6) and believed that “language is a system of signs that expresses ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing.” (Innis, 1986 p. 231) Saussure’s studies in semiotics lead him to the belief that speech is only possible because it is based on the system of language. (Barthes, 1968) From this he proposed a system of Langue (language) and Parole (speech) identifying the “relationship between “language” and “speech” is similar to that between “code” and “message.”” (Huhtamo, 2003)

It was then Saussure defined the linguistic sign as a two-sided entity, he labeled one side of the model a ‘signifier’ and the other the ‘signified’. Where the signifier refers to the physical form of the sign and the signified refers to the mental concept that is created. (Cobley, Jansz, 1999) For example, when a man offers a woman a red rose for instance, the signifier is the act of giving the rose, but the signified is romance. Meaning that each sign has two components, the visible part of the sign – the signifier, and the absent part – the signified. (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2012 p. 9)

We read off the signs presented before us, through the utilization of Saussure’s model we create an understanding that “for communication to take place we [I] have to create a message out of signs. This message stimulates you to create a meaning for yourself…” (Fiske, 1990) For humans to communicate effectively we unknowingly use “all five senses, smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight” which we use as an imperative function in the process of semiotics to read off signals between the sign-producers and the sign receivers. (Hawkes, 1997)

Peirce was an American philosopher who was educated a Harvard university; he focused on the logic of signs (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2012 p. 6) and during his studies he developed two separate modes of signification. Peirce believed “a sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” (Fiske, 1990)

In Peirce’s first model of signification “the sign which it creates is [I] called the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea.” (Fiske, 1990) In Peirce’s second model his theory bought forward the discussion that “every sign is determined by its object, either first, by partaking in the character of the object, when I call the sign an icon; secondly, by being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object, when I call the sign an index; thirdly, by more or less approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object in consequence of habit… when I call the sign a symbol” (Fiske, 1990)

Peirce’s second model of signification offers an in-built vitality. “No one fact, text, or object exists alone”(Leeds-Hurwitz, 2012 p. 13) as “a stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke a response that was originally evoked by another stimulus”(Weiten, Dunn, Yost-Hammer, 2008 p. 42) For example, if someone was to point his or her finger to the sky, rather than simply registering the message of the sky, you would look in the direction of the finger pointing. Perhaps there was smoke, and when we see smoke we think of fire. In this example, the acting elements behind a sign work together to interpret the signal, instead of assuming the finger could be pointing to the sky, we decode the importance behind the signal of a pointing finger and from that we read off what message to identify as a result of that sign. (Cobley and Jansz, 1997)

Barthes was a French philosopher and literary theorist who studied semiotics, throughout his studies he became to believe that texts were “a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signified; it has no beginning; it is reversible; ….the systems of meaning…. is never closed, [but] based as it is on the infinity of language…” (Barthes 1974) from this belief he conducted the theory connotation and denotation that illustrates that there is an endless meaning behind cultural and personal diversity of an interpretation of a sign. (Cobley and Jansz, 1997)

As mentioned previously “everything we do sends messages about us in a variety of codes. Humans are on the receiving end of innumerable amount of messages, which are encoded in music, gestures, foods, rituals, books, movies or advertisements. We seldom realize that we have received a message or sent such messages, and yet have trouble explaining the rules under which they operate” (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2012 p. 9) but through the use of Barthes understanding of connotation and denotation a grasp on how one’s interpretation of a received message becomes clear. A word’s denotation is its literal definition. For example: a dog – four legged, hairy, ears and a tail. A words connotation is all the associations we have with it. For example, a dog lover would perceive a dog as friendly company, cute and loving, however another person who may have been bitten by a dog at a stage in their life has since has their perception of a dog linked to malicious identities. (Cobley and Jansz, 1997)

Therefore, although we do, in general, read off a signal, we understand the signal individually, where a connotation can depend on the person who receives the signal and then relates that signal to his or her past experiences, cultural identity or previous knowledge to perceive how they understood the message of structured symbols received.

In conclusion, the use of structured symbols help to convey a meaning as we read off messages that are presented, but meaning is something that is personally constructed as many external factors contribute to the creation of one’s meaning. Humans are a substance of classic conditioning; we are prototypes of influence, we continue to ultilise structured symbols without even knowing it because we are programmed to comprehend and create a meaning behind what a signal means. And whilst humans can be manipulated we cannot be controlled and though we do read off signals as a conformist practice, Through Barthes theory of connotation and denotation the conclusion that structured symbols do not stand conclusively is evident, as the creation of one’s personal meaning comes from the contribution of cultural context, personal experiences and prior knowledge which can be endeavored through innumerable methods.

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"Semiotics: The Science of Signs" StudyScroll, 19-Mar-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 29-Sep-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Semiotics: The Science of Signs. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 29-Sep-2023]

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