Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified

Semiotics (aka Semiology) is an academic topic, a scholarly conversation, that questions how humans use symbols/signs to communicate.

From the perspective of semiotics, the act of writing or speaking, the act of composing texts, is an act of signification. Speech and writing are code systems—linguistic and sound systems, networks of constructed relations.

Key Words: Communication; Textual Research; Textual Analysis; Symbol Analyst.


Semiotics explores how humans use and interpret signs and symbols to communicate, to learn, and to develop knowledge. 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)

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.

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).
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Works Cited

Huening, Drewq. Theories of Media, The University of Chicago, https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolindexicon.htm. Accessed 24 June 2020.

Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. (1959).  The Philosophical Library, New York City.

Meier-Oeser, Stephan, “Medieval Semiotics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/semiotics-medieval. Accessed 24 June 2020.

Peirce, Charles S.; Buchler, Justus (ed.) (1955). The Philosophical Writings of Peirce, New York: Dover.

Raposa, Michael L. “Semiotics.” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2003, pp. 801-803. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/apps/doc/CX3404200465/GVRL?u=tamp44898&sid=GVRL&xid=79c76f73. Accessed 24 June 2020.