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What are Semiotics?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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Semiotics, also referred to as “semiotic studies” and “semiology,” is the study of how humans communicate. In particular, it is the study of how we created meaning and how meaning is understood by the people to whom meaning is being communicated. Semiotics is the study of how we use symbols such as letters and numbers to transfer meaning between parties.

The term “semiotics” comes from the Greek word semeiotikos which means “interpreter of signs.” In English, the term was first used by the British writer and scholar Henry Stubbes in 1670. Twenty years later, in 1690, John Locke used the term in his work “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Some important figures in the history of semiotics include: Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, William Dwight Whitney, Louis Trolle Hjelmslev, Charles W. Morris, Umberto Eco, Algirdas Julien Greimas, Thomas A. Sebeok, Juri Lotman, and Valentin Volosinov.

The development of semiotics as a field of study was formalized during the Vienna Circle, an event which took place at the University of Vienna in 1922. At the Vienna Circle, a group of scholars presented a work titled “International Encyclopedia of Unified Science.” In this work, the field of semiotics was defined and broken down into three parts: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.

Semantics is the study of how meaning is expressed in a language. It is important to note that semantics is not limited to verbal languages. It can also be applied to other systems of symbols that convey meaning, such as the language of mathematics and computer codes. Syntactics is the study of how the symbols within a specific language relate to one another, or the study of syntax. Pragmatics is the study of how a language is used in practical applications, how the speakers of a language use the language.

Semiotics is a discipline that is deeply connected with the human experience. Communication is not only key to professional success and personal relationships, but it is also key to survival. Through language, humans have the ability to complete such crucial tasks as calling out for help or warning someone else about possible or impending danger. However, humans are not the only species that can communicate such information. A cat stuck in a tree knows to meow loudly, even howl to communicate its predicament. A mother duck with squawk at her ducklings if she sees a hound approaching the shoreline. The application of semiotic theories in organisms other than the human being is called “biosemiotics” or “zoosemiosis.”

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By anon317617 — On Feb 03, 2013

It very comprehensively explained the true meaning of what semiotics are. I appreciate it.

By Perdido — On Sep 05, 2011

I think it would be interesting to study semiotics. Communication is very important to me, and it seems lacking with several people in my life. Maybe if I had a better understanding of semiotics, I could learn how to better interact with them.

I wonder if semiotics addresses what I call “static” between two individuals. When I say “static,” I am referring to the noise that a television makes when the signal is lost. This occurs when someone is talking, but the other person is not getting their meaning for whatever reason. It is as though the first person is speaking static rather than words.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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