What is semiotics?

English: No smoking sign damaged to look like ...

English: No smoking sign damaged to look like a sign meaning the opposite. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We started from ‘The Name of the Rose’, the name of our community on Google+ and (a bit tweaked) of this blog. I mentioned in the brief description on the community that the book plays on semiotics – but what IS semiotics?

Semiotics is the science of signs.

What is a sign?

Which of these things are signs, do you think?

  • the traffic lights
  • a dog
  • a wave of the hand
  • the word ‘dog’
  • a smile
  • a bird’s song

Mind you, signs have to be made up of a form and a content, which cannot be separated without destroying the sign. You must have something in your hand which stands for something else. Which means that a sign is basically a human creation: a thunder in a stormy sky is just a sound. We can add meaning to it, for example Zeus is angry at us, and then we have a sign manifested in the thunder. Or we can consider the thunder as a surface result of some physical phenomena.

So getting back to the list above:

  • the traffic lights ARE a sign, which we install at any junction precisely to give signals; the ‘form’ is the light, which stands for a specific content, e.g. ‘go’, ‘don’t go’, or ‘attention’.
  • a dog is NOT a sign; it is only an object / being, it does not stand for something else.
  • a wave of the hand is ONLY a sign IF you give it the meaning of ‘goodbye’, or ‘hello’ or another message to someone from a distance; otherwise, it is just a hand movement.
  • the word ‘dog’ IS  a sign; it has a form, the sounds ‘d-o-g’ pronounced together, which stand for a species of animals or for one specific dog you know.
  • a smile, just like the wave of hand, is ONLY a sign IF you associate some meaning to it, if it is interpreted as an answer, as an attitude, as a mood etc.
  • a bird’s song is NOT a sign – it is just a multitude of sounds. Though in Romania the number of ‘cuckoo’ calls is interpreted as a forecast of the number of years you still have to live. 🙂

With this I have sketched in fact the theory of one of the main theoreticians of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure. He postulated a dual nature of signs, made up of signifier (the one that carries the meaning) and the signified (the meaning itself). Imagine a sheet of paper: it has two sides. The same way, signs have two elements which can’t be separated. For example, a word like aögkhe  only has a signifier (the letters I have just typed), but unfortunately no meaning, or signified. So it’s not a sign. In the same way, a feeling which we cannot find a word for is no sign either, because it lacks its material counterpart, its signifier. 

A nice, short video on this can be viewed here:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEgxTKUP_WI] 

Some concepts from semiotics are briefly defined here:

http://www.uvm.edu/~tstreete/semiotics_and_ads/terminology.html

And here an excellent short video about inter-disciplinary relations when it comes to meaning: semiotics, semantics, logic, psychology, philosophy:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZDkp8dUWyw]

How is all this relevant to you? Think of how you communicate with friends, colleagues, teachers, superiors. Think of how you interpret body language and movements, face expressions, gestures, clothing and so on. How much of the meaning, or interpretation, you give such things is in your mind, and how much is out there as an underlying cause? When conflicts come up, how often are they due to another ‘reading’ of a sign?

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