Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified

Semiotics is a theory of communication.Review scholarship on how humans use and interpret signs to communicate, learn, and to develop new knowledge,

Semiotics: A totem pole has faces with many different meanings

What is Semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, as well as their use and interpretation. Semiotics explores how humans use and interpret signs and symbols to communicate, to learn, and to develop knowledge.

This interdisciplinary field, which encompasses linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology, seeks to understand how meaning is created, transmitted, and interpreted through various types of symbolic systems.

Key Concepts: Communication; Symbolic Thinking; Textual Research; Textual Analysis; Symbol Analyst.


Semiotics has a robust intellectual history. Since antiquity, philosophers and linguists have theorized about the nature of signs, interpretation, and meaning, including Cicero, Augustine, Locke, Peirce (Raposa 2003).

Augustine is sometimes credited as the founder of semiotics, the study of signs. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote

  • “a sign is a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses
  • “all instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learnt by means of signs” (Meier-Oeser, Stephan)

Ferdinand de Saussure

Others point to Ferdinand de Saussure as the father of semiotics. In his lectures to his students at University of Geneva between 1906 to 1911, Ferdinand de Saussure theorized that signs are (1) a signifier (i.e., a word or symbol) and (2) a signified (i.e., an underlying meaning associated with the signifier.

Saussure’s theory emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the relationship between the signifier and the signified, which means that the meanings attached to signs are not inherently linked to their physical form but are instead determined by cultural conventions and social agreements.

Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce explored the role of signs in interpretation. He theorized signs can be categorized in three ways: (1) an icon; (2) an index; (3) a symbol.

iconAn icon physically resembles the signified. Example: a photograph
indexAn index somehow suggests, references, or indicates the signified in three possible ways: Track, Symptoms, Designations (Peirce qtd. in Huening 2020). (1) Tracks tend to have cause/effect relationships: the scent of cigarette smoke, a runner’s footprint on the beach. (2) Symptom: a fever may suggest an infection; a column of smoke, fire; a thermometer, the temperate. (3) Designation: a pointed finger, the word this, finger at you
symbolSymbols are arbitrary. Their usage is guided by convention. For example, alphabetical language is a social historical convention. “Any ordinary word, as ‘give,’ ‘bird,’ ‘marriage,’ is an example of a symbol” (Peirce 114).

Symbolic Systems

Symbolic systems are sets of symbols or signs that convey meaning and facilitate communication. They are essential in various domains, including language, mathematics, and computer science.

  1. Written language: Written language is a system of symbols representing spoken language, allowing people to communicate through written or printed text. Examples include the Latin alphabet (used in English, French, Spanish, and other languages), the Cyrillic alphabet (used in Russian and other Slavic languages), and the Chinese logographic system.
  2. Visual language: Visual language refers to the use of images, colors, shapes, and other visual elements to convey meaning and communicate ideas. Examples include art, photography, graphic design, and data visualization.
  3. Mathematical symbols: Mathematics uses a set of symbols to represent numbers, operations, relationships, and functions. Examples include numerals (e.g., 1, 2, 3), operators (e.g., +, -, ×, ÷), and variables (e.g., x, y, z).
  4. Computer code: Computer code is a symbolic system used to write programs and algorithms that instruct computers to perform specific tasks. Examples include programming languages such as Python, Java, C++, and JavaScript.
  5. Musical notation: Musical notation is a system of symbols that represent pitch, rhythm, and other musical elements, allowing musicians to read and perform compositions. Examples include the staff, clefs, notes, rests, and time signatures.
  6. Body language: Body language is a non-verbal communication system that uses facial expressions, gestures, posture, and other body movements to convey meaning and emotions. Examples include smiles, frowns, crossed arms, and eye contact.
  7. Sign language: Sign language is a visual communication system that uses handshapes, movements, and facial expressions to represent words and concepts, enabling communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Examples include American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and International Sign (IS).
  8. Semaphore: Semaphore is a signaling system that uses flags or other visual devices to represent letters, numbers, or symbols, facilitating communication over long distances. Examples include maritime semaphore and railway signaling.
  9. Morse code: Morse code is a symbolic system that represents letters, numbers, and punctuation using sequences of dots and dashes (or short and long signals). It can be transmitted through various means, such as sound, light, or touch, and is often used in telecommunication and navigation.
  10. Chemical symbols: Chemical symbols are a system of abbreviations used to represent elements and compounds in chemistry. Examples include the periodic table of elements (e.g., H for hydrogen, O for oxygen, C for carbon) and chemical formulas (e.g., H2O for water, CO2 for carbon dioxide).

Recommended Reading


Huening, D. Theories of media. University of Chicago, Retrieved June 24, 2020, from

De Saussure, F. (1959). Course in general linguistics. The Philosophical Library.

Meier-Oeser, S. (2011). Medieval semiotics. In E. N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved June 24, 2020, from

Peirce, C., & Buchler, J. (eds.) (1955). The philosophical writings of Peirce. Dover.

Raposa, M. L. (2003). Semiotics. In J. W. V. van Huyssteen (ed.), Encyclopedia of science and religion (Vol. 2, pp. 801-803), Macmillan Reference USA.

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