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semiotics or semiology, discipline deriving from the American logician C. S. Peirce and the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It has come to mean generally the study of any cultural product (e.g., a text) as a formal system of signs. Saussure's key notion of the arbitrary nature of the sign means that the relation of words to things is not natural but conventional; thus a language is essentially a self-contained system of signs, wherein each element is meaningless by itself and meaningful only by its differentiation from the other elements. This linguistic model has influenced recent literary criticism, leading away from the study of an author's biography or a work's social setting and toward the internal structure of the text itself (see structuralism). Semiotics is not limited to linguistics, however, since virtually anything (e.g., gesture, clothing, toys) can function as a sign.


See R. Barthes, Elements of Semiology (1967); A. A. Berger, Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics (1988).

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the general science of SIGNS, whether these signs appear in language, in literature or in the world of artefacts. As an aspect of STRUCTURALISM, semiology evolved from the linguistic studies of SAUSSURE. Its leading exponent was Roland BARTHES.

Although the idea of a general science of signs first appeared at the turn of the century in the work of Saussure, it was not until the 1960s, and in the fields of MASS MEDIA research and CULTURAL STUDIES that the idea was developed. In the realm of cultural studies semiology has involved the study of areas ignored by other disciplines (e.g. eating habits) and opened up the question of the relationships between cultural codes and power relationships. Its key concepts are the signifier (a thing, word or picture) and the signified (the mental picture or meaning indicated by the signifier), and the sign is the association or relationship established between them (see also SIGNIFIER AND SIGNIFIED). Some relationships may be fairly direct (iconic) and others may involve considerable mediation because of their arbitrariness. Semiology draws attention to the layers of meaning which may be embodied in a simple set of representations (e.g. the representations of’Christmas’ on greetings cards: Santa, Merrie England, Virgin and Child, fluffy animals, and so on). Barthes said that signs communicate latent as well as manifest meanings. They can signify moral values and they can generate feelings or attitudes in the viewer (e.g. a photograph of a Rottweiler = dog = power, a fighting dog = threat to children). Thus signs may be collected and organized into complex codes of communication. See also BRICOLAGE.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(semiology), the study of the properties of signs and sign systems in both natural and artificial languages. Semiotics studies the characteristic features of the sign-signified relation, which is quite widespread and is not reducible to cause-and-effect relations. The term “sign” is here understood in the broad sense, as an object—usually of an arbitrary nature—to which, under certain conditions, a certain meaning is correlated; taken together, the conditions form a “sign situation.” This meaning may be a concrete physical object (phenomenon, process, situation) or an abstract concept.

Semiotics distinguishes three basic aspects in the study of the sign and the sign system (the totality of signs, which is structured in a certain way): syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntactics studies the internal properties of sign systems without reference to interpretation; in other words, it studies the rules of the construction of signs within the framework of a sign system. Semantics investigates the relationship of signs to what is meant (the content of the signs) or—and this amounts to the same thing—the interrelations between signs and their interpretations, regardless of the addressee (interpreter). Pragmatics investigates the links between the signs and the addressee; this includes the interpretation of signs by those who use them and the usefulness and value of the signs for the interpreter. Thus, semantics and, more particularly, syntactics are concerned with only some of the problems of semiotics; pragmatics, on the other hand, requires “help” from psychology, psycholinguis-tics, social psychology, and other specific sciences and studies all problems relating to semiotics as a whole.

The task of syntactics is to describe the stock of correctly constructed texts (composite signs) for the various classes of sign systems. In general, syntactics seeks to formulate a theory (a listing of syntactic relationships and postulates) in which the class of texts of a given sign system is the class of all models of the theory. In such a case, the postulates of the theory will exhaustively describe the stock of permissible texts. The syntactics for programming languages has been so well developed that there are even means of machine verification to check whether programs have been correctly devised. In the case of natural language, a formal description of syntactics has been achieved only in part.

In the semantics of sign systems, a distinction is made between the meaning of the sign (the denotatum, or that which a given sign signifies in a concrete sign situation) and its sense (the designatum, the concept or information that the sign carries about the signified). Thus, in Russian or any other natural language, the word does not serve merely as a “marker” for the object, allowing the object to be distinguished from among other objects, but also usually characterizes the object according to certain of the object’s properties. As a rule, one and the same sign is capable of designating different objects in different situations, distinguishing the objects on the basis of a common concept. The multivalence of the correspondence between sign and concept leads to what is known as homonyny, polysemy, and synonymy.

Pragmatics is linked to the study of the category of usefulness, value, and comprehensibility. It is also linked to the study of semantic information; a crucial issue here is the evaluation of the information obtained from the text by a given addressee. The most productive research in semiotics results when two or three of the enumerated aspects (syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics) are linked together. An important achievement of semiotics has been to establish the fundamental irreducibility of semantics to syntax.

The heuristic value of semiotics consists not only in the possibility of studying different sign systems from a single standpoint but also in the possibility of revealing the “sign” character of different situations in human society, thereby allowing another important aspect of these situations to be perceived. The study of “secondary model systems” permits the investigator to discover sign situations in the most varied areas of culture, including literature, art, rituals, and games. The semiotic aspect can never exhaust the nature of the phenomena being studied but allows the investigator to perceive essential structures in the syntactics of the sign systems being studied, such as the characteristics of poetic meters or the compositional structure of a work of art.

Inasmuch as the sign is the information carrier, semiotics acquires great importance as an applied tool in the study and planning of sign systems used to transmit and process information. The applications of semiotics follow two main lines. The first is the creation of artificial languages that permit convenient algorithmization of the processing of information; these languages include programming languages and languages for indexing documents and recording scientific and technical facts. To regulate complex systems, it is important to create a language allowing a description of the class of possible situations, including decision-making. The second line of practical applications for semiotics has been the creation of algorithms that make it possible to process texts written in natural languages; these applications include machine translation, automatic indexing and abstracting, and translation from a natural language into a formal language.

The first comprehensive plan for semiotic research was developed by C. S. Peirce, who also made use of the very term “semiotics.” C. W. Morris significantly advanced the ideas of semiotics and introduced the division into syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Above all, however, semantics was shaped into an integrated, independent field of scientific research with its own methodological approach by the range of problems presented by the artificial formal languages; it was called on to grapple with logico-mathematical calculi, the generative grammars of mathematical linguistics, information-retrieval languages, programming languages, and other languages possessing a “regular” syntax.


Linguistic semiotics studies natural language, the most important of the sign systems in the cultural sphere, from the standpoint of what natural language has in common with other sign systems. At the same time, language serves as a standard of sign systems. In language, the sign is clearly differenti-able—something that occurs only in highly organized systems—and preserves a tripartite structure that is characteristic of the system as a whole. Linguistic semiotics has been studied by E. Benveniste and L. J. Prieto in France, J. Kuryłowicz and J. Pelz in Poland, and V. V. Martynov and Iu. S. Stepanov in the USSR. Works in this area mainly treat language in the light of general semiotic rules.

Narrative semiotics is treated to some extent by all semioti-cians, but it figures especially prominently in works by Iu. M. Lotman of the USSR, U. Eco of Italy, and R. Barthes, J. Kristeva, and T. Todorov of France. It is mainly concerned with literature but also studies legal, publicistic, and religious texts and paintings, films, and works of architecture. In narrative semiotics, the object of study is examined in a way analogous to the way language is investigated. In this sense, narrative semiotics is simply an end stage of the scholarly tradition that preceded it. In all the materialist aesthetic theories of the past and in the dialectical-materialist aesthetic, art has been described as an indissoluble unity of sensory-material and idea-tional-conceptual forces; the sensory-material forces play an expressive role (as phenomenon, fact, or signifier) and the idea-tional-conceptual forces play the role of that which is expressed (the signified, essence, sense, or idea). Consequently, these theories were concerned with deep sign relationships. However, it is not art as a whole but always the individual work of art that behaves as a semiotic system and is thus the direct object of study in narrative semiotics. This is because it is only within the confines of an individual work (more rarely, a cycle) that definite analogies with language and speech will operate and that more or less univalent rules of signification (semiosis), “vocabulary” units, and rules of the syntax and genesis of the text can be established. Different approaches are emphasized, depending on which of the analogies with language is considered the most essential.

As can be seen from the works of B. A. Larin and Iu. N. Ty-nianov written in the 1920’s and 1930’s, scholars concentrated mostly on the specifics of signification in poetic texts. They studied, among other things, unique synonymies of concepts; for example, in the poetry of S. Esenin, “blue” (sinii) is a synonym for “dear” and “tender.” Other scholars, such as A. Belyi in the 1920’s and 1930’s, revealed the specifics of “deep” poetic vocabulary and semantics. For example, A. S. Pushkin’s attitude to nature is revealed by the totality of his pronouncements on the sun, water, air, and sky, which combine to form the overall image: “the distant firmament sparkles.” The poetry of E. A. Baratynskii, on the other hand, reveals another image type: “the native sky is clouded.” Studies by the Russian formalists, particularly V. Ia. Propp, V. B. Shklovskii, B. M. Eikhenbaum, and R. Jakobson, revealed syntactic and formal analogies, which were generalized in the theory of “art as device.” This approach was developed in an extreme form by representatives of the French school, such as R. Barthes and J. Kristeva. At the same time, analogies between the individual work and language were transferred without sufficient grounds to the sphere of art as a whole. J. Kristeva and other writers elevated such analogies to the level of a universal “method of critical conquest of all other methods” and identified the analogies with an ideology.

To the extent that individual works of art form cycles and can be taken together to represent schools, trends, and even artistic and historical eras (such as the Italian Renaissance), the question may be raised concerning semiotic relationships between individual works and between individual arts (such as painting and literature) and thus about the semiotic features of art as a whole. Because this critical problem again causes the investigator to consider other aspects of culture, all of semiotics emerges as a unified discipline.



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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The theory of signs and symbols, entities that represent some other thing; it includes syntactics, pragmatics, and semantics.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


, semeiotics
the scientific study of the symptoms of disease; symptomatology
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005