Study Guide

Semiotics Timeline

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How It All Went Down

1690: John Locke introduces the term “semiotics”

We’re all familiar with the word σημιωτικὴ. Right? This is the Greek word used by Mr. Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to refer to the general study of signs.

In those days, science was typically divided into different approaches (namely, practical and speculative), and Locke was out to find a connection between the two. You’ll be glad to know that we don’t need to get into the details of 17th century science here, but what’s important is that Locke saw both approaches—and the development of human knowledge as a whole—as depending on the action of signs. Locke therefore drew attention to the need for a “third science” relating to the study of signs. And our favorite word “semiotics”—English letters and all—has since become the standard name for this branch of study.

1916: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics

For most people, being dead means you don’t get to publish groundbreaking books that change the future of theoretical practice across multiple disciplines. Not so for Ferdinand. After the semiotic trailblazer kicked the bucket in 1913, his former students Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye rounded up their lecture notes from classes with their favorite prof and published the Course in General Linguistics. That was before let you rank with chili peppers so all you could do was posthumously publish your dead prof’s course notes.

Anyway, this was the book that was to become Saussure’s best-known work, not to mention a pivotal twentieth-century text on linguistics. Loads of other books have been written on semiotics since then, but make no mistake—this is the great grandpappy.

1928: Establishment of “The Prague School”

A group of linguists and literary critics first met up at the Café Derby in Prague and continued to get together over the next ten years—kind of like Friends, but with slightly more intellectual Central Perk conversations and all the characters as dorky as Ross.

With Russian theorist Roman Jakobson among its members (he inspired a haircut trend called “The Roman”), the School developed structuralist methods of literary analysis and launched the journal Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague in 1929. It consequently became a well-known force in structuralism and has remained influential in areas of linguistics and semiotics. Not to mention inspiring a couple spinoffs.

1956: Thomas A. Sebeok sets up the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies at the University of Indiana

Known for his diverse areas of research (including nonverbal and animal communication), Hungarian-American semiotician Sebeok not only widened the scope of semiotics but, through his work at the Indiana, helped raise the profile of semiotics within academia.

1958: Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale

First published in Russian in 1928, Morphology of the Folktale didn’t attract much attention in the West until its English language publication in 1958. It has since become majorly influential: Propp’s analysis involved breaking up fairytales into sections and identifying common sequences (i.e., youngest son sets out in the world alone; evil dwarves try to trick him; knight in shining armor saves damsel in distress, etc.).

This method of breaking up stories into their components has inspired similar approaches to all sorts of texts, including literature, movies, TV—basically, anything that involves a story.

1964: Sign Systems Studies begins publication

Edited at the Department of Semiotics within the University of Tartu (Estonia), this journal was the first peer-reviewed academic journal to focus on semiotics (which is, like, the academy awards of academic journals). First published in Russian, it has been available in English since 1998 and is still around today.

1967: Roland Barthes’ brilliant writing starts showing up in English

There’s no doubt that Barthes is a big deal in the world of semiotics, and we have these translations to thank for bringing his writings to those of us who aren’t so hot on French.

Starting out with Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology (both translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith), English language versions continued to emerge throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s and led to Barthes’s work becoming as familiar as bread and butter in the Western world. Make that Barthes and butter, thanks.

1969: The International Association for Semiotic Studies is established

Like many of these key moments in semiotics, this one happened in France, so it was originally called the Association Internationale de Sémiotique, or IASS-AIS for short. Founding members included Roland BarthesUmberto EcoRoman Jakobson, and Julia Kristeva. Not too shabby, eh? In this same year, the Association also launched the journal Semiotica, which is still going strong today.

1969: The book series Approaches to Semiotics begins publication

Carrying on until 1997, the series consists of over 120 edited works and explores semiotics in all its varieties. However, this wasn’t the last semiotics book series that would see the light of day—it was more the Cheers-style show that set the scene for sitcoms in years to come.

1971: The Italian semiotic journal Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici (VS) is established

Umberto Eco is among the founders of this journal, which features articles by both established and up-and-coming semioticians. Seriously influential in Europe, this journal has helped establish semiotics as an area of academic study. Think Vogue, but more about analyzing the signifier “vogue” and its real-live cultural signified instead of analyzing, you know, fashion.

1973: The Toronto Semiotic Circle is founded at the Victoria College

First a Prague coffee shop, then, the world! As you can see, semiotics was going global around this time. A well-known hub of semiotic research in Canada, this association was set up to promote research and encourage communication among scholars interested in the study of signs.

It started off with just monthly meetings like any support group for underappreciated theories, but the association went on to found the International Summer Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies, which was first held at Victoria in June 1980.

1974: The International Association for Semiotic Studies holds its first world congress. That’s right, world

Held in Milan, this congress attracted an attendance of about 650 scholars and was organized by a committee that included such names as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco. Which is like having a basketball congress and Michael Jordan and Shaq show up. Or a pop congress and Madonna comes along. Or a US presidents gig and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington decide to be there.

Basically, it was a pretty big deal.

1974: Brown University establishes the United States’ first undergraduate concentration in Semiotics

With students hankering after a program in semiotics, Brown granted their wish with a program that included a diverse bunch of courses ranging from linguistics and the philosophy of language to drama, film, and creative writing.

Sounds like a short-lived craze, huh? Far from it! The program led to the founding of the Center for Research in Semiotics in 1979. It has some pretty recognizable alumni, too, including movie director Todd Haynes, pop-science writer Steven Johnson, and author Rick Moody.

1975: The Semiotic Society of America is founded

Okay, this one’s a biggie: bringing together scholars with a shared interest in the study of signs, this Society is an interdisciplinary association that holds annual conferences for scholars from around the country. Plus, since 1981, it has published a major national journal titled The American Journal of Semiotics. Pretty big deal, guys.

1986: First edition of the three-volume Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics is published

As you’ve probably noticed, semiotics can sometimes get into complex territory and has a language all of its own: signifier, signified, iconic, indexical…the list goes on. Luckily, the Encyclopedic Dictionary gives us a standard reference work in the field. Plus, since its 2010 update it features an online database too. Semiotics, meet the 21st century.

2000: Approaches to Applied Semiotics is launched

We’ve already mentioned that the Approaches to Semiotics book series ended in 1997, but the story doesn’t end there: the series was relaunched under its new title in 2000 and went on to explore topics such as global linguistics, advertising, and semiotics in language education. It carried on until…

2009: Semiotics, Communication and Cognition begins publication

Yep, after 12 years, Approaches to Applied Semiotics published its final issue (single signified of the signifier “tear”).

But dry your indexical eyes: another new book series emerged to fill the gap, focusing on modern semiotics and areas such as linguistics, philosophy, sociology, and biology (did we mention that semiotics is interdisciplinary?).

2013: Signs and Society begins publication

This journal is a joint project between the Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul, South Korea) and the Department of Anthropology and Program in Global Studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. All that may sound pretty long-winded, but it shows that semiotics is well and truly an international affair.

As for the journal itself, it invites contributions in all sorts of areas, including linguistics and literary studies among loads of other things. Basically, it aims to explore sign processes in relation to historical and social context. And that’s how semiotics is still live and kicking today!

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