Where would we be without signs? Sure, we wouldn’t know when to stop, what speed to go, or to look out for reindeers with wings. But we’re not just talking road signs here. Signs are in everything we read or watch.
That’s right: we may not realize it but signs are everywhere and pretty much everything, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Literature, art, movies, TV shows, gestures, toys, furniture, menus—yep, all signs. This idea might seem strange because we’re used to only thinking about signs as, like, brightly colored boards with arrows or messages. But that’s just the beginning!
We often see meaning as something that’s just “there,” as though it’s somehow natural, but if we get into a semiotics mindset, we can see that we understand the world in certain ways based on signs we learn to recognize in an almost unconscious way.
Imagine you’re watching a Western: you probably don’t need words to flash across the screen telling you “watch for gunfights and cowboy hats and a couple cacti.” Instead, you observe the setting, costumes, character types, and so on and you quickly get the message about what sort of movie it is.
The same goes for the film noir or hardboiled detective novel: there are certain features (the cynical detective, the femme fatale, snappy dialogue) that give us the 411 on what we’re dealing with. This may seem obvious, but semiotics has shown that it’s something that we learn.
In fact, if we’re going to single out the key argument of semiotics then it’s this: the meaning of signs is never inbuilt, but, once meaning is created, it can come to seem “natural.” So things that we take for granted are actually constructed over lots of time and various architectural models.
While semioticians have come up with different ways of theorizing signs, it was the original sovereign of semiotics Ferdinand de Saussure who outlined the key model. He saw the sign as being made up of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the form that a sign takes (for example, a word) while the signified is the image that comes to mind when we read or view that signifier.
A tree, for example. (The favorite example for Ferdie and his friends, by the way.) So, if the signifier is the word “tree,” then the signified isn’t an actual tree; instead, it’s the image of a trunk and bark and leaves (or fronds, if you're tropical) that pops into our mind when we see the word “tree.”
This link between the signifier and signified might seem natural to us, but, if you think about it, there’s nothing tree-like about the word “tree.” This non-similarity, in fact, is something that characterizes semiotics: by stressing that there’s no real link between signifier and signified, semiotics has emphasized that meaning isn’t just “there”—it’s something that’s created.
We’re all born into a world that uses language, after all, and as we grow up we recognize the meanings and connections that are part of the world in which we live. Because of this, the connection between the signifier and signified becomes second nature, to the point that we sometimes think it is natural. And that’s what semiotics is for: to de-nature the natural! But trust us, it’s a lot more eco-friendly than it sounds.
Ultimately, semiotics is useful because it studies something that’s a major part of our everyday lives: language. When we see a word, we don’t just see letters on a screen or a page: we make a connection between the word and the concept that we’ve learnt to associate with that word. Semiotics is about how meaning is created and expressed in the texts that we read and view, as well as in daily life. In short, we need semiotics in order to make sense of language and communication.
One motive that’s been something of a driving force for semioticians is the desire to uncover meanings and messages that may otherwise go unnoticed. Some cultural texts may try to conceal the fact that they’re constructed: in advertising and politics, for example, the producers of texts want to get across a particular message, and they don’t want people questioning that message or seeing it as phony. So it’s semiotics to the rescue, as it emphasizes the ways meaning is constructed and showing that we should never take anything for granted.
One thing that academic types have often noted is that signs can seem “natural” because they’re such a big part of our everyday lives. The whole point of semiotics, however, is to explore signs as cultural products and to think about how they’re produced and consumed. This approach can therefore help us to not take signs at face value. And this goes for written signs too.
In some cases, getting to the root of signs may be a case of uncovering hidden agendas (this is certainly the case when it comes to stuff like advertising or political campaigns). Still, semiotics isn’t just about flagging up motives of this sort. It also invites us to engage more deeply with texts, both in terms of their structure and based on the language and imagery that they use.
Semiotics encourages our curiosity in that, when reading a text, we’re more likely to consider why the writer made certain choices. If we take on the mindset of a social semiotician, it also gets us thinking about how a text reflects the cultural setting in which it’s produced. Ultimately, though, this isn’t just about unlocking a text’s meaning: semiotics also encourages us to consider what we bring to the table as readers and how we interpret (rather than just receive) signs.
So in the end, signs can tell you a lot more than “green means go.”
To get an idea of the relevance of semiotics, just think of how many zillions of words critics and academics have written over the years about literature (and other types of texts, too). Take Shakespeare: his work attracts as much attention as ever, and this very fact helps show why semiotics is useful. It’s not like we’ve reached a point where there’s nothing left to be said; quite the opposite, people continue to analyze how language, themes, and motifs are used in works of literature.
Semiotics has therefore been useful because it gives us another way of exploring how language and meaning are encoded. The link between signifier and signified might seem clear-cut in some cases, but semiotic analysis often suggests all kinds of readings. Language isn’t always just about “saying it like it is,” but can allow theorists to pick apart a text to analyze its imagery and chains of signifiers in all sorts of ways.
Theorists may take different angles when it comes to semiotic analysis (as we’ve seen, there are all sorts of words for types of analysis within semiotics, with some theorists favoring synchronic analysis and others preferring a paradigmatic approach). But hey, this just adds to the diversity of this field of study.
Though theorists take different angles to semiotic study, semiotics has been useful because it allows us to examine the details of certain texts while also looking for connections. This can mean connections within a single text, but it’s also something that we can look into on a wider level. That allows us to analyze the ways in which texts stick to, or disrupt, literary and genre-related conventions—in fact, semiotics helps us to establish what these conventions are in the first place.