Semiotics for beginners

Published 9th April 2013
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It is highly about time I indulged in discussing my favourite field of study; Semiotics.

Semiotics is concerned with the way meaning is created and communicated. Its origins lie in the academic study of how signs and symbols generate meaning. Semiotics is important because it can help us not to take reality for granted. Studying Semiotics can assist us to become more aware of reality as a system of signs, as well as of our own part in constructing it. We learn that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding reality except through the codes into which signs are organised.

The kinds of signs that are likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday life; namely, the visual ones. However, Semiotics involves the study of anything which represents something else. Signs are not always visual; they can be aural or sonic too. In a semiotic sense, signs can take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.

One of the dominant models of what constitutes a sign is the one put forth by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who offered a two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of a signifier (the form which the sign takes) and a signified (the concept that it represents). For example, traffic signs are common signifiers, whose signified concepts have to do with designated behaviour while driving.

Semiotics represents a range of studies in art, literature, anthropology and the mass media rather than an independent academic discipline. Those involved in Semiotics include linguists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, literary theorists, and psychoanalysts, to name a few. However, everyone is essentially a semiotician, since everyone is constantly unconsciously interpreting the meaning of signs around them.

Semiotics began to become a major approach to cultural studies in the late 1960s, partly as a result of the work of Roland Barthes. Charles Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure and Umberto Eco are only a few individuals contributing in shaping current semiotic theories and establishing Semiotics as both an academic discipline and a social science.

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