Semiotics  

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This page Semiotics is part of the linguistics series. Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
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This page Semiotics is part of the linguistics series.
Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
Iconologia  (1593) by Cesare Ripa was an emblem book highly influential on Baroque imagery
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Iconologia (1593) by Cesare Ripa was an emblem book highly influential on Baroque imagery
Les Poires, and Charles Philipon's use of it as a defense in a censorship trial is an example of legal semiotics
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Les Poires, and Charles Philipon's use of it as a defense in a censorship trial is an example of legal semiotics

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

Semiotics, also called semiotic studies and including (in the Saussurean tradition) semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically. However, as different from linguistics, semiotics studies also non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics is often divided into three branches:

  • Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning
  • Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
  • Pragmatics: Relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences – such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics (including zoosemiotics).

Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences. Charles Morris adds that semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designata and the objects which they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis, that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which occur in the functioning of signs.

Etymology

Coined by John Locke from Ancient Greek σημειωτικός (sēmeiōtikós, “fitted for marking, portending”), from σημειοῦν (semeioun, “to mark, interpret as a portend”), from σημεῖον (semeion, “a mark, sign, token”), from σῆμα (sema, “mark, sign”).

History

The importance of signs and signification has been recognized throughout much of the history of philosophy, and in psychology as well. Plato and Aristotle both explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine considered the nature of the sign within a conventional system. These theories have had a lasting effect in Western philosophy, especially through Scholastic philosophy. More recently, Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, has argued that semiotic theories are implicit in the work of most, perhaps all, major thinkers.

Early theorists in this area include Charles W. Morris. Max Black attributes the work of Bertrand Russell as being seminal.

Semiotics is usually defined as the study of signs, or more generally meaning, the polysemy and popularity of the term “cognitive”, just about any semiotic theory from those of Peirce and Saussure to those of Eco (1999) and Hoffmeyer (1996) – could qualify as a cognitive semiotics. In the last two decades of the century, researchers from developmental and cognitive psychology (Bates, Bruner, Tomasello) and linguistics (Langacker, Talmy, Lakoff) turned increasingly to “experiential” notions such as joint attention, metaphor, and narrative.

See also




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