The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Semiotics: A term coined by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to refer to the study of signs, sign systems, and the way meaning is derived from them. Structuralist anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and literary critics developed semiotics during the decades following 1950, but much of the pioneering work had been done at the turn of the last century by Peirce and by the founder of modern linguistics, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.

To a semiotician, a sign is not simply a direct means of communication, such as a stop sign, a restaurant menu, or language itself. Rather, signs encompass body language (crossed arms, slouching), ways of greeting and parting (handshakes, hugs, waves), and even articles of clothing. A sign is anything that conveys information to others who understand it based upon a system of codes and conventions that they have consciously learned or unconsciously internalized as members of a certain culture. Semioticians have often used concepts derived from linguistics, which focuses on language, to analyze all types of signs.

Although Saussure viewed linguistics as a division of semiotics, much semiotic theory rests on Saussure’s linguistic terms, concepts, and distinctions. Semioticians subscribe to Saussure’s basic concept of the linguistic sign as containing a signifier (a linguistic “sound image” used to represent some more abstract concept) and signified (the abstract concept being represented). They have also found generally useful his notion that the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is arbitrary; that is, no intrinsic or natural relationship exists between them, and the meanings we derive from signifiers are grounded in the differences among signifiers themselves. Particularly useful are Saussure’s concept of the phoneme (the smallest basic speech sound or unit of pronunciation) and his idea that phonemes exist in two kinds of relationships: diachronic and synchronic.

A phoneme has a diachronic, or “horizontal,” relationship with those other phonemes that precede and follow it (as the words appear, left to right, on this page) in a particular usage, utterance, or narrative — what Saussure called parole (French for “word”). A phoneme has a synchronic, or “vertical,” relationship with the entire system of language within which individual usages, utterances, or narratives have meaning — what Saussure called langue (French for “tongue,” as in “native tongue,” meaning language). Up means what it means in English because those of us who speak the language are plugged into the same system (think of it as a computer network where different individuals access the same information in the same way at a given time). A principal tenet of semiotics is that signs, like words, are not significant in themselves but instead have meaning only in relation to other signs and the entire system of signs, or langue.

Given that semiotic theory underlies structuralism, it is not surprising that many semioticians have taken a broad, structuralist approach to signs, studying a variety of phenomena — ranging from rites of passage to methods of preparing and consuming food — in order to understand the cultural codes and conventions they reveal. Furthermore, because of the broad-based applicability of semiotics (including the emphasis on langue, or system), structuralist anthropologists (such as Claude Lévi-Strauss), psychoanalytic theorists (such as Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva), and literary critics (such as Roland Barthes, before his turn to poststructuralism) have made use of semiotic theories and practices.