Semiology // Semiotics
by Robert M. Seiler
We can define semiology or semiotics as the study of signs. We may not realize it, but
in fact semiology can be applied to all sorts of human endeavours, including cinema,
theatre, dance, architecture, painting, politics, medicine, history, and religion. That is,
we use a variety of gestures (signs) in everyday life to convey messages to people
around us, e.g., rubbing our thumb and forefinger together to signify money.
We should think of messages (or texts) as systems of signs, e.g., lexical, graphic, and
so on, which gain their effects via the constant clashes between these systems. For
example, the menu we consult in a restaurant has been drawn up with reference to a
structure, but this structure can be filled differently, according to time and place, e.g.,
breakfast or dinner (Barthes, 1964, p. 28).
the basic elements of structuralism
To begin with, we should think of structuralism as a mode of thought, a way of
conceptualizing phenomena. Whereas in the past, determinists like Aristotle saw
things in terms of cause and effect, structuralists look for structures:
• From the 15th century, the word "structure" was used as a noun: the process of
building (Williams, 1976).
• During the 17th century, the term developed in two main directions: towards
the product of building, as in "a wooden structure," and towards the manner of
construction generally. Modern developments flow from (b). The sense of the
latter is: the mutual relation of the constituent parts of a whole which define its
nature, as in "internal structure."
• The term entered the vocabulary of biology in the 18th century, as in the
structure of the hand.
• The term entered the vocabulary of language, literature, and philosophy in the
19th century, to convey the idea of internal structure as constitutive, as in
matters of building and engineering. Scholars would talk (1863) about the
structural differences that separate man from gorilla say.
We need to know this history if we are to understand the development of structural
and structuralist thinking in the 20th century, as in linguistics and anthropology. We
note that this theoretical construct dominated intellectual life in France, extending into
the literary arts, during the period from WW I to WW II. Linguists in North America
had to discard the presuppositions of Indo-European linguistics when they studied the
languages of American Indians. They developed procedures for studying language as
a whole, i.e., deep internal relations. Thus, we now distinguish function (performance)
from structure (organization), as in structuralist linguistics and functional
According to (orthodox) structuralism, these structures range from kinship to myth,
not to mention grammar, one permanent constitutive of human formations: the
defining features of human consciousness (and perhaps the human brain), e.g., Id,
Ego, Superego, Libido, or Death-Wish in psychology. Of course, the assumption here
is that the structuralist is an objective observer, independent of the object of
consideration. In this context, we use words like code (hidden relations) to describe
sign-systems (like fashion).
We should note that structuralism challenges common sense, which believes that
things have one meaning and this meaning is pretty obvious. Common sense tells us
that the world is pretty much as we perceive it. In other words, structuralism tells us
that meaning is constructed, as a product of shared systems of signification.
Semiology: Two Pioneers
Again, semiology can be defined as the study of signs: how they work and how we
use them. We note again that almost anything can signify something for someone.
Saussure developed the principles of semiology as they applied to language; Barthes
extended these ideas to messages (word-and-image relations) of all sorts.
the basic elements of semiology
The goal of semiological analysis is to identify the principle at work in the message or
text, i.e., to determine the rhetoric or the grammar tying together all the elements. I
gloss the chief terms used by analysts in the section below, and I provide a short guide
to semiological analysis in the very last section.
1. axes of language
We get a sense of how language works as a system (Barthes, 1983, p. 58) if we think
of language as a pair of axes or two planes of mental activity, the vertical plane being
the selective principle (vocabulary) and the horizontal dimension being the
combinative principle (sentences). For example, we might select items (words) from
various categories in the vertical (associative) dimension, such as kitten, cat, moggy,
tom, puss, mouser; sat, rested, crouched; mat, rug, carpet and so on, and link them in
the horizontal (combinative) plane to formulate statements like The cat sat on the mat.
The idea is to think of language (Saussure, 1916) as a system of signs. Let me say a
few words about this important concept. By "system" we mean an organized whole,
involving a number of parts in some non-random relationship with one another. In
other words, a system is a set of entities that interact with one another to form a
whole. We speak of mechanical, biological, psychological, or socio-cultural systems.
A machine is a system. We think of the brake system in a car. An organism like the
body is a system. We think of the nervous system. With regard to social units, we
think of the family. The members of the family are the objects of the system. Their
characteristics as individuals are the attributes; their interaction forms constitute the
relationships. A family exists in a social and cultural environment, which affects and
is shaped by, the members.
The following example will help clarify three related terms: The system of traffic
signals performs the function of controlling traffic; the structure of this system is the
binary opposition of red and green lights in alternating sequence.
To make a long story short, we should think of texts as systems, e.g., lexical, graphic,
and so on, which gain their effects via the constant clashes between these systems.
As we have seen, de Saussure--the founder of semiology--was the first to elaborate
the tripartite relationship
signifier + signified = sign
According to Saussure, the linguistic sign unites a sound-image and a concept. The
relationship between Sr and Sd is arbitrary. It should be remembered that neither of
these entities exist outside the construct we call a sign. We separate these entities for
• The signifier--which has a physical existence--carries the meaning. This is the
sign as we perceive it: the marks on the paper or the sounds in the air.
• The signified is a mental concept that is the meaning. It is common to all
members of the same culture who share the same language.
• The sign is the associative total of the two: we speak of it as a signifying
During the 1960s, long hair on a man, especially if it was dirty (the signifier) usually
suggested counterculture (the signified), whereas short hair on a man (the signifier)
suggested the businessman or "square" (the signifier). Of course, these meanings vary
according to place and time.
The terms motivation and constraint describe the extent to which the signified
determines the signifier. In other words, the form that a photograph of a car can take
is determined by the appearance of the specific car itself. The form of the signifier of
a generalized car or a traffic sign is determined by the convention that is accepted by
the users of the code.
Motivated signs are iconic signs; they are characterized by a natural relation between
signifier and signified. A portrait or a photograph is iconic, in that the signifier
represents the appearance of the signified. The faithfulness or the accuracy of the
representation--the degree to which the signified is re-presented in the signifier--is an
inverse measure of how conventionalized it is. A realistic portrait (painting) is highly
conventionalized: this means that to signify the work relies on our experience of the
sort of reality it re-presents. A photograph of a street scene communicates easily
because of our familiarity with the reality it re-presents. It is important to recognize
that (i) in signs of high motivation, the signified is the determining influence, and (ii)
in signs of low motivation, convention determines the form of the signifier.
In unmotivated signs, the signifieds relate to their signifiers by convention alone, i.e.,
by an agreement among the users of these signs. Thus, convention plays a key role in
our understanding of any sign. We need to know how to read a photograph or a
sculpture, say. Convention serves as the social dimension of signs. We may not
understand the unmotivated verbal sign for car that the French use, but we understand
the road signs in France in so far as they are iconic. The arbitrary dimension of the
unmotivated sign is often disguised by the apparent natural iconic motivation; hence,
a man in a detective story showing the inside of his wallet is conventionally a sign of
a policeman identifying himself and not a sign of a peddler of pornographic postcards.
4. denotation and connotation
Saussure concentrated on the denotative function of signs; by contrast, Barthes pushed
the analysis to another level, the connotative. Simply put, these two terms describe the
meanings signs convey.
By denotation we mean the common sense, obvious meaning of the sign. A
photograph of a street scene denotes the street that was photographed. This is the
mechanical reproduction (on film) of the object the camera points at. For example, I
can use color film, pick a day of pale sunshine, and use a soft focus lens to make the
street appear warm and happy, a safe community for children. I can use black and
white film, hard focus, and strong contrast, to make the street appear cold,
inhospitable. The denotative meanings would be the same.
By connotation we mean the interaction that occurs when the sign and the feelings of
the viewer meet. At this point, meanings move toward the subjective interpretation of
the sign (as illustrated by the above examples). If denotation is what is photographed,
connotation is how it is photographed.
5. paradigms and syntagms
Saussure defined two ways in which signs are organized into codes (Fiske, 1982, pp.
A paradigm is a vertical set of units (each unit being a sign or word), from which the
required one is selected, e.g., the set of shapes for road signs: square, round and
A syntagm is the horizontal chain into which units are linked, according to agreed
rules and conventions, to make a meaningful whole. The syntagm is the statement into
which the chosen signs are combined. A road sign is a syntagm, a combination of the
chosen shape with the chosen symbol.
Paradigms and syntagms are fundamental to the way that any system of signs is
organized. In written language, the letters of the alphabet are the basic vertical
paradigms. These may be combined into syntagms called words. These words can be
formed into syntagms called phrases or sentences, i.e., according to the rules of
Syntagms--like sentences--exist in time: we can think of them as a chain. But
syntagms of visual signs can exist simultaneously in space. Thus, a sign of two
children leaving school, in black silhouette, can be syntagmatically combined with a
red triangle or a road sign to mean: SCHOOL: BEWARE OF CHILDREN.
8. three orders of signification
In the study of signs, we can speak of different levels of meaning or orders of
In the first order of signification, the sign is self-contained: the photograph means the
individual car. This is the denotative order of signification.
In the second order, this simple motivated meaning meets a whole range of cultural
meanings that derive not from the sign itself but from the way society uses and values
the Sr and the Sd. This is the connotative order of signification. In our society, a car--
or a sign for a car--can signify virility or freedom. According to Barthes (1964), signs
in the second order of signification operate in two distinct ways: as mythmakers and
as connotative agents.
• When signs move to the second order of signification, they carry cultural
meanings as well as representational ones, i.e., the signs become the signifiers
of CULTURAL MEANINGS. Barthes calls the cultural meanings of these
signs MYTHS. The sign loses its specific signified and becomes a second-
order signifier, i.e., a conveyor of cultural meaning.
• We can explain the connotative order of signification with a simple example.
A general's uniform denotes his rank (first-order sign) but connotes the respect
we show it (second-order sign). Say that by the end of the war film we are
watching the general's uniform is tattered and torn; it still denotes his rank;
however, the connotative meaning will have changed.
Thus, in the connotative order, signs signify values, emotions, and attitudes. Camera
angle, lighting, and background music, for example, are used in film and television to
connote meaning. The connotative meaning of a televised painting can be changed by
the background music accompanying it.
The range of cultural meanings that are generated in this second order cohere in the
third order of signification into a cultural picture of the world. It is in this order (the
third) that a car forms part of the imagery of an industrial, materialist, and rootless
society. The myths which operate as organizing structures, e.g., the myth of the
neighborhood policeman as keeper of the peace and friend of all residents of the
community, are themselves organized into a pattern which we might call
MYTHOLOGY or IDEOLOGY. In the third order of signification, ideology reflects
the broad principles by which a culture organizes and interprets the reality with which
it has to cope. This mythology is a function of the social institutions and the
individuals who make up these institutions.
Barthes, R. 1964. "The Structuralist Activity." From Essais Critiques, trans. R.
Howard. In Partisan Review 34 (Winter):82-88.
---. 1967. Writing Degree Zero, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1953; rptd.
New York: Hill and Wang.
---. 1967. Mytholgies, trans. A. Lavers. 1957; rptd. London: Hill and Wang.
---. 1967. Elements of Semiology, trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1964; rptd.
New York: Hill and Wang.
---. 1974. S/Z, trans. R. Howard. 1970; rptd. Oxford: Blackwell.
---. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text, trans. R. Howard. 1973; rptd. New York:
Hill and Wang.
---. 1977. Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, trans. R. Howard. 1975; rptd.
New York: Hill and Wang.
---. 1977. "The Rhetoric of the Image." In his book Image-Music-Text, trans.
S. Heath. 1964; rpt. London: Wm. Collins Sons and Co., pp. 32-51.
---. 1981. Camera Lucinda, trans. R. Howard. 1980; rptd. New York: Hill and
---. 1983. The Fashion System, trans. M. Ward and R. Howard. 1967; rptd.
New York: Hill and Wang.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1960. Course in General Linguistics. 1916; rpt.
London: Peter Owen.
Eco, Umberto. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University
Fiske, John. 1982. Introduction to Communication. London: Methuen.
Jakobson, Roman. 1960. "Linguistics and Poetics." In Style in Language, ed.
Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 350-77.