What is Semiotics?

Semiotics is defined in the oxford English dictionary as “The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation” (semiotics, 2017). This is the first time I have come across semiotics so I use this essay to explore where it came from and what other subjects it is related to.

One of the earliest times a word relating to semiotics appeared was in Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s ‘A Course in general linguistics’, “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology” (de Saussure, 1974, p. 16). He goes on to define a sign by splitting it into two components, the signifier and signified. The signifier is the literal sign: sound, image, text and the signified is the concept or idea that the sign is referring to. Depending on your definition It may be misleading to call semiotics a science Daniel Chandler, in his book ‘Semiotics: the basics’ explains that it has “no widely agreed theoretical assumptions, models or empirical methodologies” (Chandler, 2006, p. 4).

Saussure does give a sort of framework to work from when he defines the sign as being made from the signified and the signifier. Using this definition of a sign it is possible to break down and compare different signs and debate their connotations, denotations with some level of logical progression.

I found it helpful to see linguistics as a subset of semiotics, it being the study of perhaps our most valued sign system language. It is interesting to step back and look at language like this, comparing it to our other sign systems such as mathematical notation, music, or body language. Looking from this perspective it is easier understand what Chandler means when he says “To decline the study of signs is to leave to others the control of the world of meaning which we inhabit.” (2006, p. 11).


Chandler, D. (2006) Semiotics: The basics, Vol. 2. 2nd edn. LONDON: Taylor & Francis.

de Saussure, F. (1974) Course in general linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. 2nd edn. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Peirce, C.S.S., Hartshorne, C. and Weiss, P. (1932) Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, volumes I and II, principles of philosophy and elements of logic. 4th edn. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1935-1961.

semiotics. (2017). In: Oxford, 1st ed. [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/semiotics [Accessed 15 May 2017].