Semiotic Terminology


Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. It is the study of how meaning is created, not what it is. Below are some brief definitions of semiotic terms, beginning with the smallest unit of meaning and proceeding towards the larger and more complex:

Signifier: any material thing that signifies, e.g., words on a page, a facial expression, an image.

Signified: the concept that a signifier refers to.

Together, the signifier and signified make up the

Sign: the smallest unit of meaning. Anything that can be used to communicate (or to tell a lie).

Symbolic (arbitrary) signs: signs where the relation between signifier and signified is purely conventional and culturally specific, e.g., most words.

Iconic signs: signs where the signifier resembles the signified, e.g., a picture.

Indexical Signs: signs where the signifier is caused by the signified, e.g., smoke signifies fire.

Denotation: the most basic or literal meaning of a sign, e.g., the word "rose" signifies a particular kind of flower.

Connotation: the secondary, cultural meanings of signs; or "signifying signs," signs that are used as signifiers for a secondary meaning, e.g., the word "rose" signifies passion.

Metonymy: a kind of connotation where in one sign is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the United States government or of the sword for military power.

Synecdoche: a kind of connotation in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor).

Collections of related connotations can be bound together either by

Paradigmatic relations: where signs get meaning from their association with other signs,

or by

Syntagmatic relations: where signs get meaning from their sequential order, e.g., grammar or the sequence of events that make up a story.

Myths: a combination of paradigms and syntagms that make up an oft-told story with elaborate cultural associations, e.g., the cowboy myth, the romance myth.

Codes: a combination of semiotic systems, a supersystem, that function as general maps of meaning, belief systems about oneself and others, which imply views and attitudes about how the world is and/or ought to be. Codes are where semiotics and social structure and values connect.

Ideologies: codes that reinforce or are congruent with structures of power. Ideology works largely by creating forms of "common sense," of the taken-for-granted in everyday life.