Study Guide

Semiotics Buzzwords

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When we see the word “sign” we usually think of road signs or hand gestures or difficult math procedures (oh wait, that’s sine). But in semiotics, the sign is anything that stands for something else. Signs can come in all varieties (pictures, words, actions, you name it) but what binds them is that they don’t just exist in their own right—they bring to mind something other than themselves.

For Ferdinand de Saussure, the sign is made up of two parts: the signifier and signified (more on that in a moment). Other theorists, meanwhile, have put their own spin on Saussure’s model. Still, what semioticians agree on is that the sign is a unit that it’s up to us to interpret.

And with that broad an idea of the sign, it’s easy to go on a tangent! (Get it? Oh wait, this isn’t the Math Shack).


This is one of the key parts of a sign, and for us as readers (or viewers), it’s step 1 when it comes to interpretation. The reason for this is that the signifier is the first thing that we see. In other words, it’s the form that a sign takes. If you’re talking about a tree, it’s the word tree. If you’re in a race, it’s when the gun goes bang and you start to run.

The signifier can come in lots of different varieties (words, picture, objects, gestures) but, in any case, it’s our job to figure out its possible meanings.


This refers to whatever the signifier brings to mind. A tree. The urge to run. Etc.

Remember, though, that it’s not the thing itself, but the concept of the thing. Take the signifier “cat”—that is, the letters c-a-t combined in that order. It’s not directly linked to our feline friend, but it succeeds in bringing up an image in our mind.

This can be related to our own experiences and opinions (some of us may find kitties adorable while others do nothing but sneeze) or by the context in which the word’s used—are we talking Cheshire Cat or Grumpy Cat? What about your favorite Lolcat?

A signifier therefore doesn’t always have just one signified, although some connections can be more common than others. What’s important to remember, though, is that the signified isn’t a thing—it’s a concept.


Unlike the signified, this is the actual thing. You say the word “cat” (signifier) to refer to some fluffy feline (signified) who looks up and meows (or glares, or lols) at you. And that one’s the referent.

It’s worth noting that the referent isn’t featured in Saussure’s model, but it has a sort of unspoken presence. Another point that Saussure makes is that the signified doesn’t always refer to an object in the world: the most obvious type of referent would be material objects, but referents can take the form of events and ideas too. Love? Indolence? Ideology? Lolz? Yup, all those abstract things count too.


This is when you speak a secret language so no one else can understand.

Or wait, is it that 4-digit thing you type in to look at your iPhone?

Sure, codes are those things. But also, as far as semiotics goes, codes are about convention: a code refers to a way of thinking that may seem natural but that, in reality, has been created within culture. This can sometimes be useful to folks producing signs: advertising, for instance, relies on dominant codes, such as signs that we all recognize as signifying money and success.

Want to convince people that your soda brand is going to make them look the coolest? Show a celebrity drinking one and people are bound to hop on the sodawagon.

It’s also important to note that there are different types of codes. This has to do with overcoding or undercoding: overcoding refers to texts that are simple, repetitive, and aimed at a wide audience (you know, mainstream stuff), making up a broadcast code. Undercoding is usually more subtle, original, and aimed at a smaller audience, forming a narrowcast code. So, wearing oversized glasses and flannel was an example of undercoding, until hipsters took over mainstream America and their style moved into the realm of overcoding.

Whatever the variety, codes play a key role in the production, interpretation and classification of texts.


Signifier and signified might sound virtually the same—all it takes is one typo for the two to play switcheroo and cue major confusion. As far as our buddy Saussure is concerned, though, the two aren’t even neighbors, let alone twins, no matter how many letters they have in common. In fact, they haven’t really got anything to do with each other.

This may seem like a weird statement, but one thing Saussure made crystally clear is that there’s no inbuilt link between signifier and signified. In fact, the relationship between the two is arbitrary. Random. Made-up. In other words, it’s purely a matter of convention: it’s through culture that this connection is established and kept alive.

Charles Sanders Peirce, another signs guy, added that there are different degrees of arbitrariness—i.e., some signs might look like or have a physical link with the thing that they represent. But usually that’s a coincidence. The main thing to remember, though, is that semiotics generally treats signs as arbitrary.


Semioticians love to distinguish between the words icon, index, and symbol. These are three signifiers most people think of as synonyms, but people who are into these definition make a big hullaballoo about how they totally have different signifieds.

First of the triad is the icon. No, not David Bowie or Madonna or Michael Jackson. An icon, in semiotics land, is a sign that looks like or imitates the thing it’s referring to. For example, a cartoony picture of a smoking cigarette with a red “X” through it is an icon of smoking not happening. When you see that sign, you pretty much know not to light up in that area.


An index is similar, but instead of having a picture that directly depicts an idea, you have to make your own mental leap to figure out the link between the image and the message behind it.

Like road signs with various arrows on them. A “No U-turn” sign isn’t an index because the U-shaped arrow doesn’t have lines on it that make it look like, well, a road, but when you see it hanging next to the traffic light where you’re planning on pulling a U-ie, you know you better make a few rights instead (at least if there’s a cop following you).


Here’s where the arbitrary thing comes in. There’s no exact reason why we associate hearts and candy and teddy bears with love. Or at least, that reason isn’t natural—it’s because Hallmark decided to sell those things in bulk around February 14th every year so that people would spend money on mass-produced symbols of affection.

Symbols aren’t always so cynical, but they are the ones with the least obvious link between signifier and signified; it’s a link that’s been constructed over time.

The no-smoking sign icon, the U-turn index, and the symbols of Valentine passion are easy ways to distinguish these three types of signs, but there are lots of others where the dividing line isn’t quite so clear. What you should keep in mind is that there are multiple types of signs and semioticians love to define them in different ways in their forms of analysis.

Multiple forms of analysis, you might ask? Beyond your wildest dreams, dear Shmooper!

Synchronic Analysis

First thing’s first: synchronic refers to something as it exists in one particular point in time. Think synchronized swimming: at any moment, all the swimmers had better look exactly the same if you take a photo.

So, this type of analysis focuses on a sign system as it exists at a particular moment in time. It’s not about changes over the years, but how language is used in a given context. A study of ancient Greek would be one example of synchronic analysis. So would a study of regional dialects in the modern day. Both are about the language at a specific moment in time.

Synchronic analysis is therefore useful in uncovering shared codes and genre conventions, but it has been criticized for being static and failing to consider history as a process. Some people prefer swimming to get from point A to point B instead of as a watery dance, no matter how sassy it can look.

Diachronic Analysis

In contrast to synchronic analysis, this approach focuses on how language and signification change over time. One example is the use of slang. Slang is the sort of language that may seem cutting-edge (or groovy, or sweet, or baller, or rad) at the time, but as the years go by, new words and phrases take over in popularity. Like some of the text speak used these days—will people still communicate in lol’s and omg’s and wtf’s in thirty years time?

Diachronic analysis is useful in highlighting that language is something that’s always changing, and recognizing the importance of social context. Still, like its synchronic cousin, it has been criticized; in this case, for failing to explain how changes come about. So we need another form of analysis? TMSY! (Too much semiotics, yo).

Syntagmatic Analysis

Um, what?

Okay, one step at a time. Syntagmatic has to do with the relationship between different words that are used one after another to create a structure with language.

Still not clear? Well, you know how you put together an outfit or combine different courses to make up a meal? In semiotic terms, we’d see these combos as syntagmatic. You know you can’t wear a green hat with purple shoes, and the dessert course usually is supposed to come after the ratatouille.

The same goes for language: syntagmatic analysis focuses on the relationship between the core ingredients that make up a text. This can mean that you analyze the chain of signifiers contained within a text, or even just within a sentence. In both cases we’re analyzing how signifiers are combined, the overall aim being to reveal the text’s underlying conventions.

It helps to remember that syntagmatic relations work in horizontal way—elements are combined like links in a chain, with word + word + word (and so on) forming a sentence. Just like you pass your dinner plate horizontally across the table—because if it’s vertical, that’s dinner for the dog. And canines totally prefer synchronic to syntagmatic as far as analysis goes.

Paradigmatic Analysis

Yup, another form of analysis. This sort goes beyond the text’s surface to consider the choices that the producer of the text made and what other choices were available at the time. For example, there’s usually more than one word that we could use when putting together a sentence—it’s not like we’re dealing with the math shack where there’s just one right answer and the rest are wrong.

Language is much more diverse than that, and paradigmatic analysis is about exploring the possibilities open to us and the consequences of replacing one word with another. In contrast to syntagmatic analysis, we’re dealing with vertical model here—it’s kind of like rummaging through a pile of clothes and picking something out from all the stuff that’s available. So, the whole horizontal vs. vertical thing is all about tracing the use of words based on how they work together, or how they were selected individually.

So now that we’re versed in all possible forms of analysis, let’s get semiotic!

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