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Semiotics:  The Science of Signs and Symbols

Page history last edited by Carrie Mehaffy 15 years, 4 months ago



"Whatever name you give to a thing is it's right name; and if you give up that name and change it for another, the later name is no less correct than the earlier; for I think no name belongs to a particular thing by nature"  Plato's Crytalus


"That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"





Semiotics Defined 


Semiotics is defined as the study of signs and symbols.  Semiotics is the attempt to account theoretically for what is distinctive about the sign, both in its being and in the temorally coterminous action that follows upon that being , according to the ancient saying that "being is, so does it act"[5].   Semiotic consciousness is the explicit awareness of the role of the sign as that role plays in a given respect.  According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat, an archaeologist at the University of Texas, signs are considered a subcategory of symbols.  "Like symbols, signs are things which convey meaning, but they differ in carrying narrow, precise, and un-ambiguous information.  Symbols and signs are used differently:  symbols help us conceive and reflect on ideas, whereas signs are communication devices bound to action.  Signs can be pictoral or numeral, even alphabetical representations"[6].  The famous Philosopher, Charles Sanders Pierce and the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure spent a great deal of their lives studying the idea of signs and attempting to put them into classifications to better understand the use of them.  According to Pierce, "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'.  "Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have to intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning".  "Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign"[6].





These are some simple representations of signs that are well know worldwide.  They have a specific meaning, and that meaning does not change.              



 Interpretation of Signs Given by Ferdinand de Saussure(1857-1913)



 For Saussure, the idea of signs had to be split into a two-part model in which he defined a sign as the whole result of a signified and a signifier put together.  He calls the relationship between the two the signification.  He uses a diagram to help explain his meaning.  In the diagram, there is a horizontal line and two arrows.  The horizontal line is called the bar.  Above the line is the signified, or the concept that the sign represents and below the line is the signifier, or the form which the sign takes.  Saussure uses the example of the word OPEN when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway.  He claims it is a sign with a signifier (the word open) and a signified concept (the shop is open for business)[6].  Saussure believed that a sign must have both of these parts to be considered a true sign, although that same sign could be used in other contexts such as using the word OPEN to not only mean the store, but also a command on how to open something.  The difference is that the word is paired with a different meaning.  Because Saussure was a linguist, he attributed his ideas of signs with a sound image or sound pattern, seeing writing as a separate, secondary, dependent but comparable sign system.  He described written signs as the signifier being the letter, and the signified being the sound that accompanied it.  This describes his idea of language in general.  Saussure's ideas have been criticized for the fact that his model of the sign refers only to a concept and not to a thing.  Other theorists later use the term "symbol" to refer to a linguistic sign.  Saussure has defended his position stating that "a sign could

not consist of sound without sense or of sense without sound"[6].  He explained that the two arrows in the diagram and the bar in the middle suggest the interaction between the sign and the sound, and claims that signs refer primarily to each other.  Ultimately, for Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the sign was the first principle of language[6].           


Interpretation of Signs Given by Charles Sanders Pierce(1839-1914)



Approximately the same time Saussure was formulating his model to explain signs, another work was in progress by a philosopher named Charles Sanders Pierce[6].  He took a different view of the idea of signs and classified it in a triangular or triadic model using a representamen(the form which the sign takes), an interpretant(a sense made of the sign) and an object(to which the sign refers).  Pierce believed that a sign addresses somebody or creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign or a more developed sign.  He states, "That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign, the sign stands for something, it's object"[6].  Pierce refers to the relationship of the three ideas as the semiosis.  For example, according to Pierce's definition of signs, the traffic light sign for 'stop' would consist of:  a halting(the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop(the interpretant)[6].  Pierce's idea of signs and his triad differ greatly from Saussure because he believes that a sign includes an object.  He believed that a sign addresses somebody.  Pierce also reiterated his ideas that his idea of semiosis is a process versus Saussure's idea of a sign as simply a structure.  Most theorists who study Pierce's work describe his ideas of the meaning of the sign as the importance of not the sign itself, but the way it is interpreted.  Charles Sanders Pierce was classified by modern semioticians as a compulsive taxonomist whose divisions and subdivisions of signs were extremely elaborate.  Pierce believed he could classify over 59,049 different types of signs, although today, Susanne Langer comments that "there is but cold comfort in his assurance that his original number can really be boiled down to a mere sixty six"[6].  The use of Pierce's triad is not as widely accepted today as that of Saussure because it is not considered as broad, yet he stood by his idea that his triad was "the most fundamental division of signs"[6].


The Interpretation of Signs Given By Susanne Langer(1895-1985)




Susanne Langer was considered one of the most widely read philosophers of the twentieth century.  In her work, "The Lord of Creation", she discusses the idea of signs and symbols in great depth.  Susanne is quoted to say, "The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in face of the thing symbolized"[4].  She describes the idea that signs are something that can be recognized by the human and the animal.  Since she believes that signs are imbedded in a world of instant reality, and that is why they are just a stepping stone to the symbolic nature that only humans can interpret from them.  Susanne believes that a sign is anything that announces the existence of the imminence of some event, the presence of a thing or person, or a change in a state of affairs[4].  This idea expands on the ideas of Pierce and Saussure although Langer delves deeper into the interpretation of signs as simply a thing.  Because she believes that signs not only signify something, but also go beyond that to discuss the idea that signs can even signify future events such as weather or danger, she attributes the reading of signs as "the essence of rational behavior, which all animals show in varying degrees"[4].  Some animals are able to sense danger, and take on an aggressive stance, some an animals feel the change in the weather patterns and seek shelter, while others bury their head in the sand, or even squirrels know when to stock up food for the winter.  Their feelings of their environment around them or the "signs" they take note of make them react.  Humans are the same way, as demonstrated by the adrenaline that courses through one's body in a fight or flight reaction.  Humans see threat, and they immediately become fearful and hide.  Humans see weather patterns and seek shelter.  Langer says in "Lord of Creation", "If man had kept to the straight and narrow path of sign using, he would be like the other animals, though perhaps a little brighter.  He would not talk, but grunt and gesticulate and point"[4].  Thus, in Langer's mind, the idea of signs is very limiting.  They cannot be expanded on in an abstract way, they cannot be changed, modified, or adjusted for a given situation.  They just are. In order for the human species to evolve, the idea of the sign had to expand and grow into something more, the symbol.


Talisman and Tokens:  The First Symbols 




The idea of symbols used in today's society cannot be purely and abstractly understood without clearly defining the beginning of symbolic use.  Cuneiform is the earliest example found so far of the use of symbols by humans.  The term "cuneiform" is very deceptive, in that it tricks people into thinking that it's some type of writing system.  The actual word "cuneiform" came from Latin cuneus, which means "wedge."  Therefore, any script can be called cuneiform as long as individual signs are composed of wedges[7].  Clay tokens were a precursor of cuneiform.  Clay tokens are dated to being used as record keeping devices since as early as 8000 BCE in Mesopotamia[7].  Clay tokens are described as three dimensional geometric shapes that can be plain or complex.  The oldest found tokens were plain and found in very wide geographic areas including Turkey, Syria, Isreal, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran.  They consist of spheres, disks, cones, tetrahedrons, and cylinders.


 These tokens, as shown above are representative of the symbols that were used by the ancient Mesopotamian people.  They were primarily used as a way of counting, or record keeping.  Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who has studied tokens extensively, theorized that both were used for record keeping.  In particular, the plain tokens, given their long timespan and their widespread use, most likely counted agricultural items like grains or cereal[7].  There were many different kinds of tokens that would be used in a single transaction and this became a problem because it is assumed that each token represented one item.  The complex token had to be created to solve this problem.  These complex tokens were evident later in the Sumerian populations.  One example of a complex token is what is referred to as an envelope.  This was a clay sphere that individual tokens were placed in to avoid losing them, and later using cylindrical shapes with marks wedged into them to represent many items at once.  As society and trade grew among the different nations, the need for a way to keep track of larger amounts of data helped create the idea of expanding the tokens into symbols. 




Eventually, the use of tokens and envelopes became extremely cumbersome and was abandoned for a more revolutionary way of keeping track of information, cuneiform symbols.  After the Mesopotamian uses of tokens faded away, the Sumerian culture expanded into a writing system whose wedge-shaped strokes would influence the style of scripts for the next 3000 years[7].  The Sumerians, in addition to using wedge symbols in clay, also added other symbols that were more representative of picture images.  They resembeled the natural object that they represented.  Some examples were pictures of male images, hunting dogs, and boars that were symbolic to the Sumerian people.  By 2800 BCE, the Sumerian cuneiform usage had expanded greatly to include numeric symbols, phonetic elements, and the idea of polyphony, whre many words that have similar meaning but vastly different sounds are written with the same sign[7].  As time and societies grew, evolved, and spread further, the idea of cuneiform became increasingly cumbersome.  Carrying around heavy tablets and using them for record keeping was difficult, and they were sometimes lost or broken.  Thus, a new form of record keeping and "writing" was beginning to take shape, and that was hieroglyphics from the ancient Egyptian society. 

Symbols in Today's Society



 The capacity to understand symbols are unique to humans and is what sets us apart from animals. Understanding symbols gives us the power to abstract ourselves or contemplate on ideas and keep some and throw out theirs[4].  Human beings have developed this symbolic process where certain things can stand for other things. When we communicate we can make anything stand for any other thing. A coat and tie can mean formal dress, a cross stands for Christianity or an eagle feather can designate a chief in a tribe. There are very few things in our lives that we do or want that do not have a symbolic value. These values can change along with our collective social norms[1]. The fact that this symbolic process makes life complicated and makes us exhausted or stressed is not a reason to return to an animal existence. The fact that a thousand things can go wrong with a car while wheelbarrows have only a few movable parts is not reason for going back to wheelbarrows[1]. Animals' brains are like telephone exchanges always acting on new stimuli. Human brains are more like a projector - many stimuli may come to it, but our reactions are what we want them to be. We can transform and distort our stimuli into such things as doubt, judgement, selflessness and bliss[4].  Language is said to be the most highly developed, most subtle, and most complicated use of symbolism.  We let certain noises of our vocal chords, our throats, cheeks, tongue, and chest stand for specific things in our minds, as well as the world around us[1].  There doesn't have to be any connection between the symbol and that which is symbolized.  For example, someone who wears running shoes isn't necessarily a runner, or just because I say I am hungry doesn't mean that I really am.  Due to our different languages, what these inner symbols will actually be depends on the language we speak[1].  An interesting idea of using language to understand symbols is described in "Helen Keller Discovers Language."  Being deaf, blind, and mute, she was taught that symbols represented something, whether it was an actual object or an idea.  She states, "my teacher had been with me for several weeks before I understood that everything has a name"[8].  By using letters spelled out in her hand, and the feel of an object, Helen Keller learned that the feeling of something meant a word.  "I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"[8].


How Symbols are Misunderstood 



According to S.I. Hayakawa, "Most of us have, in some area of our thinking, improper habits of evaluation.  For this, society itself is to blame:  most societies systematically encourage, concerning certain topics, the habitual confusion of symbols with things symbolized"[1].  For example, Hayakawa uses an analogy to our societies use of symbols to show socioeconomic status.  "In one way or another, we are all like that student who cheats on exams in order to make Phi Beta Kappa:  it is often more important to have the symbol than what it stands for"[1]. According to Jeffrey Scheuer in Shouting Heads, The Language of Television, "While symbols carry meaning by the truckload, and are often top-heavy, they cannot do the critical work of dissecting their own freight or comparing it to other semantic cargo"[9].  Scheuer also criticizes the ideas that symbols are too broad, thus they don't allow for analyzation, argument, or reason in any way.  They can be interpreted by people to mean many things, and thus their meaning is ambiguous.  "Symbols inhibit inferences, deductions, elaborations, or critical challenges"[9].  Scheuer believes that symbols are simply used in society today to blind the human mind to entertain us or convince us to buy something.  Ultimately, Scheuer's main point is that "the power of symbolism rests in its not being analyzed or deconstructed by its intended audience; the power is largely in the encryption itself"[9].


Implications for Media Ecology 


The development of symbols and signs has implications that are so incredibly wide that there is really no particular and accurate way to define them.  Our society has grown because of them, people have gained literacy because of them, math and science exist because of them, and the world we live in today is an absolute product of them.  In the beginning, the use of signs and symbols were created out of necessity, and were not really abused in any way.  They made life easier, they made communication possible.  Now, in our society today, because of the advancement of the symbol and sign to digital media and the development of the binary system that powers our current most popular and encompassing technology, the Internet, the beginning idea of using signs and symbols for necessity has morphed into a society of introverts, laziness, and a loss of literacy.  According to Geoffrey Nunberg, "In the end, then, instruction in information literacy will have to pervade every level of education"[10].  The shift from the beginning of signs and symbols as an interest in the human race to become literate, has ended in our society now as a lack of interest in literacy at all.  Most humans now want to be coddled through life with conveniences handed to them.  No longer is the search for more a life-long quest, rather, it is a click away.  But to give due credit to the beginning, if it were not for the development of symbols and signs in the first place, we would still be an oral society living and communing together, working together for a common purpose and striving to survive.




1. Hayakawa, S I. "Symbols." Language in Thought and Action. n.d.

2. Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. "The Earliest Precursor of Writing." Communication in History. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon, 2007

3. Robinson, Andrew. "The Origins of Writing." Communication in History. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon, 2007.

4. Langer, Susanne. "The Lord of Creation." IWC Media Ecology. 23 Apr. 2008 <http://iwcenglish1.typepad.com/iwc_media_ecology/Documents/The_Lord_of_Creation3.doc>.

 5.  www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B 

 6.  Chandler, Daniel, Semiotics for Beginners, www.aber.ac.us/media/Documents/S4B/sem02.html.

 7.  www.ancientscripts.com/cuneiform.html.

 8.  Helen Keller Discovers Language, www.afb.org/MyLife/book.asp?ch=P1Ch4.

 9.  Scheurer, Jeffrey, "Shouting Heads:  The Language of Television", The Soundbite Society:  Television and the American Mind.

10.  Nunberg, Geoffrey, "Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea."




Original Author:  Chad Chumley

Comments (7)

Jeff Martinek said

at 10:41 am on Sep 12, 2008


Follow format for references from my article on General Semantics. List by author, give full title of article/essay, give publication info for the book that the essays were taken from. -- JM
-- AdmiN (2008-04-04 16:00:47)

Jeff Martinek said

at 10:42 am on Sep 12, 2008

Chad, I think it would really be great if you were to elaborate on the difference between the chimps and people. Maybe, talk about how human beings have the ability to doubt, or think critically, which is what causes us not to always go on green. Like we talked about in class, people have the ability to think about the symbols and reason, as animals don't. We may see green but traffic going by and doubt the symbol. This could be a great elaboration for non-knowing readers.
-- PriscillaMarlar (2008-04-16 22:14:37)

Jeff Martinek said

at 10:42 am on Sep 12, 2008

If you do elaborate use Susan Langer (can be found on class site)
-- KimFitten (2008-04-21 14:02:32)

Jeff Martinek said

at 6:36 pm on Nov 19, 2008


Jeffrey Scheuer talks about Symbolism on pages 8-10 of "Shouting Heads" with some very important implications for media ecology, especially when it comes to mass media, broadcasting, etc.

Also, see Cassirer's "An Essay on Man" pp. 31-35. Most of those pages can be viewed online at GoogleBooks. The direct link is:


Carrie Mehaffy said

at 12:23 am on Nov 25, 2008

Professor Martinek, don't worry, there are a few more things that I plan on adding to this, I just ran out of time because we are leaving for Atlanta in the morning and I had to pack. Leave me some comments, because I plan on checking on this while I am there...I won't be back until Monday, hopefully in time for class..Carrie

Carrie Mehaffy said

at 12:27 am on Nov 25, 2008

Professor Martinek, how do you put quotes in those neat little boxes like on your wiki? I have a couple of good quotes from Shakespeare and Plato that I want to put in...Carrie

Jeff Martinek said

at 5:37 pm on Dec 9, 2008


You make the "neat little box" by selecting the "table" icon on the editing bar and making a 1x1 table (one row and one column). Once you've made it, you can type or past in your text. Next, you can change its size by right-clicking on its edge and dragging it to make it longer, taller, wider, smaller, etc. If you want to give it a grey background like mine (which I think looks neat from a page design standpoint), you right-click and choose "cell" / "cell properties" and from there go to the "background color" box and click select, then choose the lightest grey and click "OK" twice.

Good luck. I look forward to seeing the highlighted quotes.


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