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).

In the notes that follow, I will say a few words about structuralism, an intellectual movement which flourished during the 1950s and the 1960s, and semiology, which has been one of the chief modes of this intellectual movement. The major figures in this movement include Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Roman Jakobson, Claude Levi-Strauss, Thomas Sebeok, Julia Kristeva, and Umberto Eco. For reasons that will become obvious, I will focus on Saussure and Barthes, the pioneers. All believed semiology is the key to unlocking meaning of all things.

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:

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 anthropology.

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.

1. Ferdinand de Saussure, 1857-1913

Saussure was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to a family celebrated for its accomplishments in the natural sciences. Not surprisingly, he discovered linguistic studies early in life.

In 1875, he entered the University of Geneva as a student of physics and chemistry, taking course in Greek and Latin grammar as well. This experience convinced him that his career lay in the study of language. In 1876, he entered the University of Leipzig to study Indo-European languages. Here, he published (1878) a monograph on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages. He was awarded the Ph.D. for his thesis on the genitive case in Sanskrit.

After completing his thesis, he moved to Paris, where he taught Sanskrit, as well as Old High German. For 10 years, he focused on specific languages--as opposed to general linguistics. In 1891, he returned to Geneva, to teach taught Sanskrit and historical linguistics at the university. The university provided the catalyst for shaping semiology--he was asked to teach (1906-11) a course of lectures in general linguistics. He died in February of 1913.

His students thought his course so innovative that they assembled their notes and published (1916) a work called Course in General Linguistics. In this work, Saussure focuses on the linguistic sign, making a number of crucial points about the relationship between the signifier (Sr) and the signified (Sd). Below I summarise the key ideas:

2. Roland Barthes, 1915-80

This cultural theorist and analyst was born in Cherbourg, a port-city northwest of Paris. His parents were Louis Barthes, a naval officer, and Henriette Binger. His father died in 1916, during combat in the North Sea. In 1924, Barthes and his mother moved to Paris, where he attended (1924-30) the Lycee Montaigne. Unfortunately, he spent long periods of his youth in sanatoriums, undergoing treatment for TB. When he recovered, he studied (1935-39) French and the classics at the University of Paris. He was exempted from military service during WW II (he was ill with TB during the period 1941-47). Later, when he wasn't undergoing treatment for TB, he taught at a variety of schools, including the Lycees Voltaire and Carnot. He taught at universities in Rumania (1948-49) and Egypt (1949-50) before he joined (in 1952) the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted his time to sociology and lexicology.

Barthes' academic career fell into three phases. During the first phase, he concentrated on demystifying the stereotypes of bourgeois culture (as he put it). For example, in Writing degree Zero (1953), Barthes examined the link between writing and biography: he studied the historical conditions of literary language and the difficulty of a modern practice of writing. Committed to language, he argued, the writer is at once caught up in particular discursive orders, the socially instituted forms of writing, a set of signs (a myth) of literature--hence the search for an unmarked language, before the closure of myth, a writing degree zero.

During the years 1954-56, Barthes wrote a series of essays for the magazine called Les Lettres nouvelles, in which he exposed a "Mythology of the Month," i.e., he showed how the denotations in the signs of popular culture betray connotations which are themselves "myths" generated by the larger sign system that makes up society. The book which contains these studies of everyday signs--appropriately enough, it is entitled Mythologies (1957)--offers his meditations on many topics, such as striptease, the New Citroen, steak and chips, and so on. In each essay, he takes a seemingly unnoticed phenomenon from everyday life and deconstructs it, i.e., shows that the "obvious" connotations which it carries have been carefully constructed. This account of contemporary myth involved Barthes in the development of semiology.

During the second phase, the semiotics phase dating from 1956, he took over Saussure's concept of the sign, together with the concept of language as a sign system, producing work which can be regarded as an appendix to Mythologies. During this period, Barthes produced such works as Elements of Semiology (1964), and The Fashion System (1967), adapting Saussure's model to the study of cultural phenomena other than language. During this period, he became (in 1962) Directeur d'Etudes in the VIth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where he devoted his time to the "sociology of signs, symbols, and representations."

The third phase began with the publication of S/Z (1970), marking a shift from Saussurean semiology to a theory of "the text," which he defined as a field of the signifier and of the symbolic. S/Z is a reading of Balzac's novel Sarrasine, plotting the migration of five "codes," understood as open groupings of signifieds and as points of crossing with other texts. The distinction between "the writable" and "the readable," between what can be written/rewritten today, i.e., actively produced by the reader, and what can no longer be written but only read, i.e., passively consumed, provides a new basis for evaluation. Barthes extends this idea in The Pleasure of the Text (1973) via the body as text and language as an object of desire. During this period, he wrote books as fragments, suggesting his retreat from what might be called the discourse of power, as caught in the subject/object relationship and the habits of rhetoric. He tried to distinguish "the ideological" from "the aesthetic," between the language of science, which deals with stable meanings and which is identified with the sign, and the language of writing, which aims as displacement, dispersion. He offers a "textual" reading of himself in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In 1976, he became professor of "literary semiology" at the College de France. In his last book, Camera Lucinda (1980), he reflects on the levels of meaning of the photograph.

Barthes died on 26 March 1980, having been knocked over by a laundry van (reports suggest that the driver was drunk).

In the notes that follow, I summarise the principle he forumlates in Elements of Semiology:

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.

2. Signs

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 convenience only.

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.

3. motivation

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

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.

unmotivated signs

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. 61-64):


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 triangular.


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 grammar.

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.

6. difference

The term "difference" describes the relationship between the elements at work in any given message. They work as rhetorical figures, such as the figures of addition, where the elements are added to a word, sentence, or image; or the figures of suppression, where elements are suppressed, concealed, or excluded. The key to understanding the structure of a system of signs, then, lies in understanding the relationship(s) the system utilizes. We are interested in the techniques of additions primarily, which include:

The idea is that nothing in and of itself has meaning: rather, meaning is a function of some relationship.

7. Metaphor and Metonymy

These terms--used by Roman Jakobson, the linguist--define the two fundamental modes by which the meanings of signs are conveyed.


Metaphor involves a transposition or displacement from signified to signifier, together with the recognition that such a transposition implies an equivalence between these two elements of the sign. Likewise, "visual metaphors" are constructed, e.g., a portrait of a man is constructed in such a way as to convince us that the two dimensional visual representation is equivalent to its three-dimensional reality. Similarly, a map signifies the reality to which it refers by constructing an equivalent form in whose features we can recognize those of the object itself. Thus, both verbal and non-verbal, arbitrary and iconic signs can be metaphorical.


In metonymy, the signification depends upon the ability of a sign to act as a part which signifies the whole. Television advertisers are particularly adept at exploiting both metaphoric and metonymic modes in order to cram as much meaning as possible into a short period of time. For example, the sign of a mother pouring out a particular breakfast cereal for her children is a metonym of all her maternal activities of cooking, cleaning, and so on, but a metaphor for the love and the security she provides. As we have suggested, the structural relationship between these modes can be visualized as operating on two axes, one vertical and one horizontal in character.

8. three orders of signification

In the study of signs, we can speak of different levels of meaning or orders of signification.

first order

In the first order of signification, the sign is self-contained: the photograph means the individual car. This is the denotative order of signification.

second order

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.

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.

third order

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.

9. semiological analysis

Barthes (1964) points out that semiological analysis involves two operations: dissection and articulation. The first operation (dissection) includes looking for fragments (elements) which when associated one with another suggest a certain meaning. The analyst looks for paradigms, i.e., classes or groups from which elements have been chosen (and endowed with specific meaning).

The units or elements in this group or class share a number of characteristics. Two units of the same paradigm must resemble one another so that the difference which separates them becomes evident, e.g., to a foreigner, American automobiles seem to look alike, yet they differ in make and color.

The second operation (articulation) involves determining the rules of combination. This is the activity of articulation. In summary: The analyst takes the object, decomposes it and then re-composes it. The analyst makes something appear which was invisible or unintelligible.

10. Concluding Remarks

Like structuralism, semiology decenters the individual, who is no longer the source of meaning. Semiology (Barthes, 1964) refuses the obvious meaning of a work: it does not take the message at face value. We are concerned with MESSAGES and the preferred ways to READ them.

I conclude these notes with a guide to a semiological analysis, based on Barthes' (1977) seminal essay, "The Rhetoric of the Image."

a guide to a semiological analysis

This guide identifies the key activities analysts undertake when they conduct a semiological critique of a text, such as an advertisement, a tv program, a movie, a painting, etc.

  1. Offer your reader a brief overview of the message

    The idea is to provide a brief description of the advertisement (say) so that the reader can visualize the message.

  2. Identify the key signifiers and signifieds.

    Ask questions like: What are the important signifiers and what do they signify? What is the system (of signs) that gives the text meaning? What ideological and sociological matters are involved?

  3. Identify the paradigms that have been exploited.

    Ask questions like: What is the central opposition in the text? What paired opposites fit under the various categories? Do these oppositions have any psychological or social significance?

  4. Identify the syntagms that come across.

    Ask questions like: What statements or messages (directly and implied) can you identify? Answer this question by considering

    (a) the linguistic message

    This message is made up of all the words, denotations and connotations.

    (b) the non-coded iconographic (literal) message

    This message is made up of the denotations in the photograph.

    (c) the coded iconographic (symbolic) message

    This message is made up of the visual connotations we detect in the arrangement of photographed elements.

  5. Finally, identify the principle at work in the message or text. Remember, the goal of analysis is to determine the rhetoric or the grammar tying together all the elements.


    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 Wang.

    ---. 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 Press.

    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.

    Williams, Raymond. 1976. "Structural." In Key Words. London: Fontana, pp. 253-59.

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