AS A SEMIOTIC SYSTEM
LANGUAGE AS A SEMIOTIC SYSTEM
(1): What is language?
(2): Elements of language
(3): What is semiotics?
(5): History of semiotics.
(6): Important semioticians.
(7): Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory (1839–1914).
(8): Ferdinand d sausurre’s theory.
(9) Signifier and signified in sausurre’s theory.
LAGUAGE AS A SEMIOTIC SYSTEM
(1): What is language?
According to sapir (1921)
“Language is purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating
ideas, emotion, and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols”.
According to Terger,
“Language is system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means which a
social group co-operates”.
According to Cambridge Dictionary1995
“Language is system of communication consisting of set of rules (syntax),
morphology,(phonology, which decides the way to which these parts can be
combined to produce massage (function) that have meanings (Semantics)”.
According to general definition quoted by R.Wardhaugh
“Language is a system of conventional symbols used for communication by
a whole community”.
According to D.Barton, literacy (1994)
“Language is a symbolic system linking what goes on inside our heads with
what goes on outside. It mediates between self and society. It is a form of
representation, a way of representing the world to ourselves and to others”.
According to N.E Wood, in delayed speech and language
“Language is an organized system of linguistics symbols (words) used by
human beings to communication through words.
(1): Language is basic to all communication
(2): Encompass all forms of expression”
(2): ELEMENTS OF LANGUAGE
The study of speech sounds.
The study of the sound patterns of language.
The study of structure of sentence or rules that govern how words are combined
to form phrases and sentences
Smaller unit of speech sound.
Combination of phonemes makes morphemes.
The Study of meanings.
(3): WHAT IS SEMIOTICS?
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
“Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of sign
processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols”.
Semiotics has been variously described by JHON LYONS as:
“Science of signs, of symbolic behavior or of communication system”.
Explanation of semiotics BY DANIEL CHANDLER:
There has been much discussion, within semiotics, of the difference between
signs and signals and symbols, and of the scope of the term is
‘COMMUNICATION’. Semiotics could be anywhere. The shortest definition
is that it is the study of signs. But that doesn't leave enquirers much wiser. 'What
do you mean by a sign?' people usually ask next. The kinds of signs that are
likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as
'signs' in everyday life, such as road signs, pub signs and star signs. If you were
to agree with them that semiotics can include the study of all these and more,
people will probably assume that semiotics is about 'visual signs'. You would
confirm their hunch if you said that signs can also be drawings, paintings and
photographs, and by now they'd be keen to direct you to the art and photography
sections. But if you are thick-skinned and tell them that it also includes words,
sounds and 'body language' they may reasonably wonder what all these things
have in common and how anyone could possibly study such disparate
phenomena. If you get this far they've probably already 'read the signs' which
suggest that you are either eccentric or insane and communication may have
ceased. But if you study semiotics in linguistics than you can easily identify
what type of explanation linguistics gives us in this respect.
SIGNS AND SYMBOLS IN COMMUNICATION ARE usually divided
into three branches:
Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their
Syntactic: Relations among signs in formal structures
Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use
Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for
example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as
communication. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the
science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences – such as how
organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world).
In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the
communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or
Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs
and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how
words are combined to form phrases and sentences." Charles Morris adds that
semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designata and the objects which
they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis,
that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which
occur in the functioning of signs.____ WIKIPEDIA ENCYCLOPEDIA.
The term, which was spelled semiotics (Greek: σημειωτικός, semeiotikos, an
interpreter of signs), was first used in English by Henry Stubbes (1670, p. 75) in a
very precise sense to denote the branch of medical science relating to the
interpretation of signs. John Locke used the terms semeiotike and semeiotics in
Book 4, Chapter 21 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).
In the nineteenth century, Charles Sanders Peirce defined what he termed "semiotic"
(which he sometimes spelt as "semeiotic") as the "quasi-necessary, or formal
doctrine of signs", which abstracts "what must be the characters of all signs used
by...an intelligence capable of learning by experience", and which is philosophical
logic pursued in terms of signs and sign processes. Charles Morris followed Peirce
in using the term "semiotic" and in extending the discipline beyond human
communication to animal learning and use of signals.
Ferdinand de Saussure, however, viewed the most important area within semiotics
as belonging to the social sciences:
It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of
social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general
psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would
investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet
exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place
ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The
laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and
linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human
—Cited in Chandler's "Semiotics For Beginners", Introduction.
(5): HISTORY OF SEMIOTICS
The importance of signs and signification has been recognized throughout much of
the history of philosophy, and in psychology as well. Plato and Aristotle both
explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine considered the
nature of the sign within a conventional system. These theories have had a lasting
effect in Western philosophy, especially through Scholastic philosophy. More
recently, Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and philosophy of language, has argued that
semiotic theories are implicit in the work of most, perhaps all, major thinkers.
Early theorists in this area include Charles W. Morris, Max Black attributes the
work of Bertrand Russell as being seminal.
(6): IMPORTANT SEMIOTICIANS
• Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the founder of the philosophical
doctrine known as pragmatism (which he later renamed "pragmaticism" to
distinguish it from the pragmatism developed by others like William James),
preferred the terms "semiotic" and "semeiotic." He defined semiosis as
"...action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects,
such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not
being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs." ("Pragmatism",
Essential Peirce 2: 411; written 1907). His notion of semiosis evolved
throughout his career, beginning with the triadic relation just described, and
ending with a system consisting of 59,049 (= 310, or 3 to the 10th power)
possible elements and relations. One reason for this high number is that he
allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, thereby creating a new signifying
relation. Peirce was also a notable logician, and he considered semiotics and
logic as facets of a wider theory. For a summary of Peirce's contributions to
semiotics, see Liszka (1996).
• Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the "father" of modern
linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the
form of the word or phrase uttered, to the signified as the mental concept. It
is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely
arbitrary, i.e. there was no necessary connection between the sign and its
meaning. 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. In his Course in General Linguistics,
Saussure himself credits the American linguist William Dwight Whitney
(1827–1894) with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the sign. Saussure's
insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign has also greatly influenced later
philosophers, especially postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida,
Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the
term semiologie while teaching his landmark "Course on General
Linguistics" at the University of Geneva from 1906–11. Saussure posited
that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a "signifier,"
i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain
with the "signified," or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued
"sign." Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in
doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize
physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.
• Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) studied the sign processes in animals.
He introduced the concept of Umwelt (subjective world or environment, lit.
"world around") and functional circle (Funktionskreis) as a general model of
sign processes. In his Theory of Meaning (Bedeutungslehre, 1940), he
described the semiotic approach to biology, thus establishing the field that is
now called biosemiotics.
• Valentin Voloshinov (Russian: Валенти́н Никола́евич Воло́шинов)
(1895 – June 13, 1936) was a Soviet/Russian linguist, whose work has been
influential in the field of literary theory and Marxist theory of ideology.
Written in the late 1920s in the USSR, Voloshinov's Marxism and the
Philosophy of Language (tr.: Marksizm i Filosofiya Yazyka) developed a
counter-Saussurean linguistics, which situated language use in social process
rather than in an entirely decontexualized Saussurean langue.
• Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965) developed a formalist approach to
Saussure's structuralist theories. His best known work is Prolegomena to a
Theory of Language, which was expanded in Résumé of the Theory of
Language, a formal development of glossematics, his scientific calculus of
• Charles W. Morris (1901–1979). In his 1938 Foundations of the Theory
of Signs, he defined semiotics as grouping the triad syntax, semantics, and
pragmatics. Syntax studies the interrelation of the signs, without regard to
meaning. Semantics studies the relation between the signs and the objects to
which they apply. Pragmatics studies the relation between the sign system
and its human (or animal) user. Unlike his mentor George Herbert Mead,
Morris was a behaviorist and sympathetic to the Vienna Circle positivism of
his colleague Rudolf Carnap. Morris has been accused of misreading Peirce.
• Thure von Uexküll (1908–2004), the "father" of modern psychosomatic
medicine, developed a diagnostic method based on semiotic and biosemiotic
• Roland Barthes (1915–1980) was a French literary theorist and
semiotician. He would often interrogate pieces of cultural material to expose
how bourgeois society used them to assert its values upon others. For
instance, portrayal of wine in French society as a robust and healthy habit
would be a bourgeois ideal perception contradicted by certain realities (i.e.
that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating). He found semiotics useful in
these interrogations. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths
were second-order signs, or connotations. A picture of a full, dark bottle is a
sign, a signifier relating to a signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage –
wine. However, the bourgeois take this signified and apply their own
emphasis to it, making ‘wine’ a new signifier, this time relating to a new
signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing wine. Motivations for such
manipulations vary from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to
maintain the status quo. These insights brought Barthes very much in line
with similar Marxist theory.
• Algirdas Julien Greimas (1917–1992) developed a structural version
of semiotics named generative semiotics, trying to shift the focus of
discipline from signs to systems of signification. His theories develop the
ideas of Saussure, Hjelmslev, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Maurice Merleau-
• Thomas A. Sebeok (1920–2001), a student of Charles W. Morris, was a
prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. 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 lives in. He also
posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and
life – the view that has further developed by Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic
• Juri Lotman (1922–1993) was the founding member of the Tartu (or
Tartu-Moscow) Semiotic School. He developed a semiotic approach to the
study of culture and established a communication model for the study of text
semiotics. He also introduced the concept of the semiosphere. Among his
Moscow colleagues were Vladimir Toporov, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich
Ivanov, and Boris Uspensky.
• Umberto Eco (1932–present) made a wider audience aware of semiotics
by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel
The Name of the Rose, which includes applied semiotic operations. His most
important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and
model reader. He has also criticized in several works (A theory of semiotics,
La struttura assente, Le signe, La production de signes) the "iconism" or
"iconic signs" (taken from Peirce's most famous triadic relation, based on
indexes, icons, and symbols), to which he purposes four modes of sign
production: recognition, ostension, replica, and invention.
• Eliseo Verón (1935-present) developed his "Social Discourse Theory"
inspired in the Peircian conception of "Semiosis".
• The Mu Group (Groupe µ) (founded 1967) developed a structural
version of rhetorics, and the visual semiotics.
(7): Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)
We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above
all, we are surely Homo significans - meaning-
makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through
our creation and interpretation of 'signs'. Indeed,
according to Peirce, 'we think only in signs' (Peirce
1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words,
images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic
meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. 'Nothing is a
sign unless it is interpreted as a sign', declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172)
(8): Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913)
Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) is a summary of
his lectures at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911. Saussure examines the
relationship between speech and the evolution of language, and investigates
language as a structured system of signs.
The text includes an introduction to the history and subject-matter of linguistics; an
appendix entitled “Principles of Phonology;” and five main sections, entitled: “Part
One: General Principles,” “Part Two: Synchronic Linguistics,” “Part Three:
Diachronic Linguistics,” “Part Four: Geographical Linguistics,” and “Part Five:
Concerning Retrospective Linguistics.”
“Saussure defines linguistics as the study of language and as the
study of the manifestations of human speech”
. He says that linguistics is also concerned with the history of languages, and with
the social or cultural influences that shape the development of language.
Linguistics includes such fields of study as:
Phonology (the study of the sound patterns of language),
Phonetics (the study of the production and perception of the sounds of speech),
morphology (the study of word formation and structure),
Syntax (the study of grammar and sentence structure),
Semantics (the study of meaning), pragmatics (the study of the purposes and effects
of uses of language)
, and language acquisition.
Saussure draws a distinction between:
language (langue) and the activity of speaking (parole).
Explanation: when we say of someone that he speaks English, we can mean one of
two things: (a); that he, habitually or occasionally, engages in a particular kind of
behaviour or (b): that he has ability(whether he exercised it or not) to engage in this
particular kind of behaviour referring to the former as PERFORMANCE and latter
as COMPETENCE, we can say hat performance presupposes competence, whereas
competence does not presupposes performance the concepts of competence and
performance is given by Chomsky.____ by JHON LYONS, LANGUAGE AND
Speaking is an activity of the individual; language is the social manifestation of
speech. Language is a system of signs that evolves from the activity of speech.
Language is a link between thought and sound:
Language is a link between thought and sound and is a means for thought to be
expressed as sound. Thoughts have to become ordered, and sounds have to be
articulated, for language to occur. Saussure says that language is really a borderland
between thought and sound, where thought and sound combine to provide
Spoken language includes the communication of concepts by means of sound-
images from the speaker to the listener. Language is a product of the speaker’s
communication of signs to the listener. Saussure says
“that a linguistic sign is a combination of a concept and a sound-image. The
concept is what is signified, and the sound-image is the signifier. The
combination of the signifier and the signified is arbitrary; i.e., any sound-image
can conceivably be used to signify a particular concept”.
A sign can be altered by a change in the relationship between the signifier and the
signified. According to Saussure, changes in linguistic signs originate in changes in
the social activity of speech.
Saussure says that linguistic signs are by nature linear, because they represent a span
in a single dimension. Auditory signifiers are linear, because they succeed each
other or form a chain. Visual signifiers, in contrast, may be grouped simultaneously
in several dimensions.
Relations between linguistic signs can be either: syntagmatic (linear, sequential, or
successive), or associative (substitutive, or having indeterminate order).
Study of signs (Semiology):
sassure defines semiology as the study of signs, and says that linguistics is a
part of semiology. He maintains that written language exists for the purpose of
representing spoken language. A written word is an image of a vocal sign.
“ Saussure argues that language is a structured system of arbitrary
. A symbol may be a signifier, but in contrast to a sign, a symbol is never completely
arbitrary. A symbol has a rational relationship with what is signified.
Linguistic signs may, to a varying extent, be changeable or unchangeable.
Deterrents to linguistic change include: the arbitrary nature of signs, the multiplicity
of signs necessary to form a language, and the complexity of the structure of
language. Factors that promote change in language include: individual variation in
the use of language, and the extent to which language can be influenced by social
Saussure distinguishes between synchronic (static) linguistics and diachronic
Synchronic linguistics: is the study of language at a particular point in time.
Diachronic linguistics: is the study of the history or evolution of language.
According to Saussure, diachronic change originates in the social activity of speech.
Changes occur in individual patterns of speaking before becoming more widely
accepted as a part of language. Speaking is an activity which involves oral and
auditory communication between individuals. Language is the set of rules by which
individuals are able to understand each other.
Saussure says that nothing enters written language without having been tested in
spoken language. Language is changed by the rearranging and reinterpreting of its
units. A unit is a segment of the spoken chain that corresponds to a particular
concept Saussure explains that the units of language can have a synchronic or
Saussure’s investigation of structural linguistics gives us a clear and concise
presentation of the view that language can be described in terms of structural units.
He explains that this structural aspect means that language also represents a system
of values. Linguistic value can be viewed as a quality of the signified, the signifier,
or the complete sign.
(9): Signifier and signified:
The linguistic value of a word (a signifier) comes from its property
of standing for a concept (the signified). The value of the signified
comes from its relation to other concepts. The value of the complete
sign comes from the way in which it unites the signifier and the
signified. Saussure offered a 'dyadic' or two-part model of the sign. He defined a
sign as being composed of:
a 'signifier' (signifiant) - the form which the sign takes;
the 'signified' (signifié) - the concept it represents.
The sign is the whole that results from the association of the
signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974,
67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is
referred to as 'signification', and this represented in the Saussurean diagram by the
arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as
If we take a linguistic example, the word 'Open' (when it is invested with meaning
by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:
a signifier: the word open;
a signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally
meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure 1983, 101;
Saussure 1974, 102-103).
Nowadays, whilst the basic 'Saussurean' model is commonly adopted, it tends to be
a more materialistic model than that of Saussure himself. The signifier is now
commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign - it is something
which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted. For Saussure, both the signifier
and the signified were purely 'psychological' (Saussure 1983, 12, 14-15, 66;
Saussure 1974, 12, 15, 65-66). Both were form rather than substance:
“A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a
concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a
sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological
impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound
pattern may be called a 'material' element only in that it is the representation
of our sensory impressions. The sound pattern may thus be distinguished from
the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is
generally of a more abstract kind: the concept”. (Saussure 1983, 66; Saussure
Saussure was focusing on the linguistic sign (such as a word) and he
'phonocentrically' privileged the spoken word, referring specifically to the image
acoustique ('sound-image' or 'sound pattern'), seeing writing as a separate,
secondary, dependent but comparable sign system (Saussure 1983, 15, 24-25, 117;
Saussure 1974, 15, 16, 23-24, 119).
A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The
same signifier (the word 'open') could stand for a different signified (and thus be a
different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift ('push to open door').
Similarly, many signifiers could stand for the concept 'open' (for instance, on top of
a packing carton, a small outline of a box with an open flap for 'open this end') -
again, with each unique pairing constituting a different sign.
The arbitrary aspect of signs does help to account for the scope for their
interpretation (and the importance of context). There is no one-to-one link between
signifier and signified; signs have multiple rather than single meanings. Within a
single language, one signifier may refer to many signifieds (e.g. puns) and one
signified may be referred to by many signifiers (e.g. synonyms). Some
commentators are critical of the stance that the relationship of the signifier to the
signified, even in language, is always completely arbitrary (e.g. Lewis 1991, 29).
Onomatopoeic words are often mentioned in this context, though some semioticians
retort that this hardly accounts for the variability between different languages in
their words for the same sounds (notably the sounds made by familiar animals)
(Saussure 1983, 69; Saussure 1974, 69._________ Cited in Chandler's
"Semiotics For Beginners", Introduction.
. Thus, Saussure shows that the meaning or signification of signs is established by
their relation to each other. The relation of signs to each other forms the structure of
language. Synchronic reality is found in the structure of language at a given point in
time. Diachronic reality is found in changes of language over a period of time.
Saussure views language as having an inner duality, which is manifested by the
interaction of the synchronic and diachronic, the syntagmatic and associative, the
signifier and signified_____________
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charler Bally
and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger, translated by
Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966) pp. 68-73.
In early 19th century many semioticians described theory that language as semiotic
system. Charles pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure also generator of this theory but
saussurre is considered to be FATHER of modern linguistics. he described language
as semiotic system in his book. His concept of language as semiotic system is based
on structuralism, which was his famous theory based on language structure. In
describing language as semiotic system, he described characteristics of language as
arbitrariness, duality etc.He has paved way for new researches in linguistics.
JHON LYONS, LANGUAGE AND LINGUISTICS AN
MARIE EMMITT, JHON POLLOCK, LINDA KOMESAROFF, IN
LANGUAGE AND LEARNING third edition oxford press.
Daniel chandler, semiotics for beginners introduction.
Ferdinand d Saussure, course in general linguistics, edited by
Charles Bally and AlbertSechehaye in collaboration with
Albert Riedlinger, translated by wade baskin(new york:Mc
Graw-Hill Book Company,1996)pp.68-73.
Wikipedia, free encyclopedia.