Semiotics = the study or ‘science of signs’ and their general role as vehicles of meaning in culture.
What is a sign? Let’s ask the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure (b.1857).
Language is a system of signs.
a sign =
1. the signifier:
the form (the actual word, image, photo, etc.)
2. the signified:
the idea or concept in your head with which the form is associated.
Every time you hear or read or see the signifier (e.g. the word or image of a handphone, for example), it correlates with the signified (the concept of a handphone in your head).
Both are required to produce meaning but it is the relation between
them, fixed by our cultural and linguistic codes. which sustains representation.
Thus ‘the sign is the union of a form which signifies (signifier) and an idea signified (signified). Though we may speak as if they are separate entities, they exist only as components of the sign’ (Culler, 1976, p. 19).
Let’s think in terms of traffic lights, colours and codes again.
What is a sign? (Traffic lights again)
As we said last week, traffic lights are machines, and colours are the material effect of light-waves on the retina of the eye.
Objects like traffic lights can function as symbols, provided they have been assigned a concept and meaning within our cultural and linguistic codes. Working symbolically, they represent concepts.
So a red light works as a sign as follows:
red light = signifier
idea of ‘stop/stopping’ = signified
red light + idea of stop/stopping = sign
For traffic lights the code is traffic management, and that code links the instructions ‘to go, wait, or stop’ with the corresponding colours green, amber, red.
Such codes are cultural and linguistic.
The are cultural in the sense that they provide rules guiding conduct.
They are linguistic in as much as they are expressed in words, as well as the system of signs (the sequence and difference of green, red, amber lights).
For Saussure, signs do not have fixed meanings, but are elements of a system defined in relation to one another.
So in the traffic management code, red is not = the essence of redness
Instead, red is the colour which is not green, that comes after or before amber or green.
Signs do not possess a fixed or essential meaning. Signs, Saussure argued ‘are
members of a system and are defined in relation to the other members of that
For example, it is hard to define the meaning of FATHER except in
relation to, and in terms of its difference from, other kinship terms. like
MOTHER, DAUGHTER, SON and so on.
The simplest way of marking difference is by means of a binary opposition (red/green; black/white;yes/no;up/down). The meaning of a concept or word is often defined in relation to its direct opposite – as in night/day.
Later theorists observe that binaries (e.g. black/white) are only one, rather simplistic, way of establishing difference.
There are also the many other, subtler differences:
between black and dark grey, dark grey and light grey, grey and cream and off-white, off-white and brilliant white.
Similarly, just as there are other subtler difference between between night and day. Can you name (some of) them?
Signs and their coding change over time (for example, the colour ‘black’)
The relation between the signifier and the signified, which is fixed by our cultural codes, is not permanently fixed, and changes over time. Words and concepts shift their meanings. Every shift alters the conceptual map and thus changes the way a culture classifies and relates things to each other.
Let’s take the example of the colour ‘black’ in Anglophone cultures.
Traditionally it has been associated with concepts of darkness, evil, forbidden, devilish, dangerous, sinful, and primitive.
- His mood was very black.
- It was a black day in November when the stock market crashed.
- She had a black heart.
- There were too many blacks and they were savage and fierce.
- The black race cannot become civilized (like the white race).
- She wore her best little black dress, red lipstick and high heels.
Q: Is the word ‘black’ an essential expression of these qualities?
To answer that let’s first refer to Saussure’s theory.
In Saussure’s terms: ‘Language sets up an arbitrary relation between signifiers of its own choosing on the one hand, ,… and signifieds of its own choosing on the other’.
Not only does each language produce a different set of signifiers, each language produces a different set of signifieds: it has a distinctive and thus arbitrary way of organizing the world into concepts and categories’ (Culler, 1976, p. 23).
Saussure’s theorising allows us to think about historical changes, changes over time. Let’s look at the word “black” again.
Think of how the perception of black people in America in the 1960s changed after the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’ became a popular slogan: the signifier ‘Black’ was made to signify the exact opposite meaning (signified) to its previous associations.
A: ‘Blackness’ is not a signifier expressing essential qualities because the signified concepts can change over time (there are other reasons too, but this is a key reason).
Meaning and Interpretation
Another structuralist reason for saying that the signifier ‘black’ is not an essential expression of its traditional Anglophone signified concepts is to do with interpretation.
If meaning changes over time then it follows that ‘taking the meaning’ must involve an active process of interpretation. Meaning has to be actively ‘read’ or ‘interpreted.’
The listener is as important as the speaker in the production of meaning. The meaning we take as listeners might not be exactly the meaning which has been given by the speaker.
Class discussion: interpreting the signifier ‘black‘
- How do you think 18/19th century African Americans interpreted the sign ‘black’?
- Do you think they would have understood it the same way that white Americans understood it?
- Over time, whose interpretation came to be the one most Americans use to decode (understand) the signifier ‘black’?
- How can we describe the sign ‘Black’ in relation to the existence of different interpretations that change over time?
Language is social (not individual, not natural)
There are different levels of interpretation (or, ‘decoding’). We can begin to discuss this in terms of Saussure’s division of language into two parts: langue and parole.
- Langue (language system) consisted of the general rules and codes of the linguistic system, which all its users must share in order to communicate.
The rules are the principles which we learn when we learn a language and they enable us to use language to say whatever we want.
- Parole consisted of the particular acts of speaking, which – using the structure and rules of the langue – are produced by an actual speaker. It is ‘the speech acts which are made possible by the language’ (Culler, 1976, p. 29).
For Saussure, the underlying structure of rules and codes (langue) was the
social part of language, which could be studied like a science because of its closed, limited nature. It was his preference for studying language at this level of its ‘deep structure’ which made people call his model of language, structuralist.
He regarded the parole as the ‘surface’ of language. There were an infinite number of such possible utterances. Hence, parole lacked those structural properties which would have enabled it to be studied ‘scientifically’.
In separating the social part of language (langue) from the individual act of
communication (parole), Saussure broke with our common-sense notion of
how language works.
Our common-sense intuition is that language comes from within us – from the individual speaker or writer; that it is this speaking or writing subject who is the author or originator of meaning. This is the intentional model of representation.
But in Saussure’s schema, each statement only becomes possible because
the speaker shares with other language-users the langue, the common rules and codes of
the language system which allows them to communicate with
each other meaningfully.
The speaker decides what she wants to say. But she cannot ‘decide’ whether or not to use the rules of language, if she wants to be understood. We are born into a language, its codes and its meanings.
For Saussure, language is a social phenomenon.
It cannot be an individual matter because we cannot make up the rules of language
individually, for ourselves. Their source lies in society, in the culture, in our
shared cultural codes, in the language system – not in nature or in the
Following Saussure, semiotics developed as a study of signs in culture, with culture being conceived of as a type of language.
Since all cultural objects convoy meaning, and all cultural practices depend on meaning. they must make use of signs; and in so far as they do, they must work like language works.
In the semiotic approach, not only words and images but objects themselves
can function as signifiers in the production of meaning. For example:
- traffic lights use red, green and amber- to ‘say something’
- Spoken language uses sounds,
- written language uses words,
- musical language uses notes on a scale,
- the language of facial expression uses ways of arranging one’s features,
- the ‘language of the body’ uses physical gesture.
- television/shouji/laptops uses digitally or electronically produced dots on a screen,
- the fashion industry uses items of clothing.
Clothes, for example, may have a simple physical function – to cover the body and protect it from the weather.
But clothes also double up as signs. They construct a meaning and carry a message.
Such signs enable clothes to convey meaning and to function like a language
-‘the language of fashion.’
How do they do this?
Reading the language of fashion.
First, we need a basic code which links a particular piece of material which is cut and sewn in a particular way (signifier) to our mental concept of it (signified). For example, a particular cut of material links to our concept of ‘a dress’ or ‘jeans’. Remember, the combination of signifier and signified is what Saussure called a sign.
Then, having recognized the material and produced a sign (dress, jeans), we can progress to a second, wider level, which links these signs to broader, cultural themes, concepts or meanings.
Roland Barthes (French Theorist, 20th C) described 2 levels of reading (or decoding/analysis).
- the first descriptive level the level of denotation (for example, the descriptions ‘dress’, ‘jeans’).
- The second level is the level of connotation.At this level signifiers enter a wider, second kind of code – ‘the language of fashion – which connects them to broader themes and meanings of our culture, such as ideas of ‘elegance’ ‘formality’ ‘casualness’.
Semiotics and the 2 level mode of reading (or analyzing)
The wider (connotative) level of meaning is no longer a descriptive level of obvious interpretation. At this level we are beginning to interpret the completed signs in terms of ‘social ideology’ – the general beliefs, conceptual frameworks and value systems of society.
Let’s look at a famous example of this kind of 2-level semiotic analysis of a representation.
In his essay ‘Myth today’, in Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes visiting the barbers’ one day, where he is shown a copy of the magazine Paris Match which has on its cover a picture of ‘a young Negro in a French unifom saluting with his eyes uplifted. probably fixed on the fold of the tricolour’ (the French flag) (1972b, p. 116).
Barthes first decodes each of the signifiers in the image into their appropriate concepts: e.g. a soldier, a uniform, an arn raised, eyes lifted, a French flag. This yields a set of signs with a simple. literal message or meaning: a black soldier is giving the French flag a salute (denotation).
However, Barthes argues that this image also has a wider, cultural meaning.
If we ask, ‘What is Paris Match telling us by using this picture of a black soldier saluting a French flag’?’, Barthes suggests that we may come up with the message:
that France is a great Emp1re. and that all her sons, without any colour discrimination. faithfully serve under her flag. and that there is no better answer to the detractors of alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressor (connotation).
Barthes argues that here representation takes place through two separate but linked processes.
- In the first, the signifiers (the elements of the image) and the signifieds (the concepts- soldier, flag and so on) unite to form a sign with a simple denoted message: a black soldier is giving the French flag a salute.
- At the second stage, this completed message or sign is linked to a second set of signifieds – a broad, ideological theme about French colonialism.
The first, completed meaning functions as the signifier in the second stage of the representation process, and when linked with a wider theme by a reader yields a second, ideologically framed ‘message’ about French colonialism and her faithful Negro soldier-sons.
Barthes calls this second level of signification the level of myth. In this
reading, he adds, ‘French imperiality is the very drive behind the myth’.
Representation exercise two: decoding the image
The following image provides the basis for another of Barthes’ famous examples of semiotic analysis. Before we turn to his analysis, let’s see what you think.
Tell us what is being represented. What do you think the image does (how does it work)? Analyze the image in terms of its signifiers, signs, denotations and connotations. Does it have a myth?