Semiotics: Language and Culture

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Linguistic and cultural semiotics investigates sign systems and the modes of representation that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies. Semiotic analysis is rarely considered a field of study in its own right, but is used in a broad range of disciplines, including art, literature, anthropology, sociology, and the mass media. Semiotic analysis looks for the cultural and psychological patterns that underlie language, art, and other cultural expressions. Umberto Eco jokingly suggests that semiotics is a discipline for "studying everything which can be used in order to lie" (1976, p. 7). Whether used as a tool for representing phenomena or for interpreting it, the value of semiotic analysis becomes most pronounced in highly mediated, postmodern environments where encounters with manufactured reality shift humans' grounding senses of normalcy.

Historical Development

That human thought and communication function by means of signs is an idea that runs deep in Western tradition. Prodicus, one of the Greek Sophists of the fifth century b.c.e., founded his teachings on the practical idea that properly chosen words are fundamental to effective communication. Questioning this notion that words possess some universal, objective meaning, Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.e.) explored the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. He suggested a separateness between an object and the name that is used to signify that object: "Any name which you give, in my opinion, is the right one, and if you change that and give another, the new name is as correct as the old," (Cratylus [384d]). Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) recognized the instrumental nature of the linguistic sign, observing that human thought proceeds by the use of signs and that "spoken words are the symbols of mental experience" (On Interpretation [1, 16a3]). Six centuries later Augustine of Hippo (354–430 c.e.) elaborated on this instrumental role of signs in the process of human learning. For Augustine, language was the brick and mortar with which human beings construct knowledge. "All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learned by means of signs" (On Christian Doctrine 1.2).

Semiotic consciousness became well articulated in the Middle Ages, largely because of Roger Bacon (c. 1220–1292). In his extensive tract De Signis (c. 1267), Bacon distinguished natural signs (for example, smoke signifies fire) from those involving human communication (both verbal and nonverbal). Bacon introduced a triadic model that describes the relationship between a sign, its object of reference, and the human interpreter. This triad remains a fundamental concept in modern semiotics. John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas, 1589–1644) elaborated on the triad, laying down a fundamental science of signs in his Tractatus de Signis (1632). Poinsot observed that signs are relative beings whose existence consists solely in presenting to human awareness that which they themselves are not. It was the British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) who finally bestowed a name on the study of signs. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke declared that semiotike or doctrine of signs should be one of the three major branches of science, along with natural philosophy and practical ethics.

Modern Semiotics

There are two major traditions in modern semiotic theory. One branch is grounded in a European tradition and was led by the Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). The other branch emerged out of American pragmatic philosophy through its primary founder, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). Saussure sought to explain how all elements of a language are taken as components of a larger system of language in use. This led to a formal discipline that he called semiology. Peirce's interest in logical reasoning led him to investigate different categories of signs and the manner by which humans extract meaning from them. Independently, Saussure and Peirce worked to better understand the triadic relationship.

Saussure laid the foundation for the structuralist school in linguistics and social theory. A structuralist looks at the units of a system and the rules of logic that are applied to the system, without regard to any specific content. The units of human language comprise a limited set of sounds called phonemes, and these comprise an unlimited set of words and sentences, which are put together according to a set of simple rules called grammar. From simple units humans derive more complex units that are applied to new rules to form more complex structures (such as themes, characters, stories, genres, and style). The human mind organizes this structure into cognitive understanding.

The smallest unit of analysis in Saussure's semiology is the sign, made up of a signifier or sensory pattern, and a signified, the concept that is elicited in the mind by the signifier. Saussure emphasized that the signifier does not constitute a sign until it is interpreted. Like Plato, Saussure recognized the arbitrary association between a word and what it stands for. Word selection becomes a matter, not of identity, but of difference. Differences carry signification. A sign is what all other signs are not (Saussure 1959).

Peirce shared the Saussurian observation that most signs are symbolic and arbitrary, but he called attention to iconic signs that physically resemble their referent and indexical signs that possess a logical connection to their referent (Peirce 1955 [1898]). To Peirce, the relationship of the sign to the object is made in the mind of the interpreter as a mental tool that Peirce called the interpretant. As Peirce describes it, semiosis (the process of sign interpretation) is an iterative process involving multiple inferences. The signifier elicits in the mind an interpretant that is not the final signified object, but a mediating thought that promotes understanding. In other words, a thought is a sign requiring interpretation by a subsequent thought in order to achieve meaning. This mediating thought might be a schema, a mental model, or a recollection of prior experience that enables the subject to move forward toward understanding. The interpretant itself becomes a sign that can elicit yet another interpretant, leading the way toward an infinite series of unlimited semioses (Eco 1979). By this analysis, Peirce shifts the focus of semiotics from a relational view of signs and the objects they represent to an understanding of semiosis as an iterative, mediational process.

Charles Morris (1901–1979) was a semiotician who adapted Peirce's work to a form of behaviorism. For Morris, semiotics involves "goal-seeking behavior in which signs exercise control" (Morris 1971 [1938], p. 85). Morris identified four aspects within the process of semiosis:

  1. the sign vehicle that orients a person toward a goal;
  2. the interpreter, or the subject of the semiotic activity;
  3. the designatium, or the object to which the sign refers;
  4. the interpretant, which is the cognitive reaction elicited in the mind of the interpreter.

Morris attempted to subdivide the field of semiotics into three subfields. Semantics studies the affiliations between the world of signs and the world of things. Syntactics observes how signs relate to other signs. Pragmatics explains the effects of signs on human behavior (Morris 1971).

Russian Influences

Saussure's abstraction of language as a self-contained system of signs became the target of criticism by those who saw language as a socially constituted fabric of human interchange. Language is highly contextual and humans acquire language by assimilating the voices of those around them. Language is not a fixed system but it changes as it is used through interaction with peers in modes of discourse. This philosophy, known as dialogics, was the outgrowth of intellectual development in Soviet Russia by a group whose work centered on the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975). The Bakhtin Circle, which included among its members Valantine Voloshinov (1895–1936), addressed the social and cultural issues posed by the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into the Stalin dictatorship. The group dissolved in 1929 after members faced political arrest. Bakhtin himself was not a pure semiotician, but he engaged with others, most notably Voloshinov, in the investigation of how language and understanding emerges in the process of dialogue.

Voloshinov argued that all utterances have an inherently dialogic character. According to Voloshinov, dialogue is the fundamental feature of speech. In his view, signs have no independent existence outside of social practice. Signs are seen as components of human activity, and it is within human activity that signs take on their form and meaning (Voloshinov 1986).

Another Russian, Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896–1934), applied the instrumental notion of semiotics toward cognition and learning (the relationship suggested much earlier by Aristotle and Augustine). Vygotsky identified the pivotal role language plays during the exercise of complex mental functions. In Mind in Society (1978 [1930]), Vygotsky observes how planning abilities in children are developed through linguistic mediation of action. "[The child] plans how to solve the problem through speech and then carries out the prepared solution through overt activity" (p. 28). He observed the similarity between physical tools and verbal artifacts as instruments of human activity. From his extensive and detailed observations of child development, Vygotsky concluded that higher-order thinking transpires by means of what he called "inner speech," the internalized use of linguistic signs (Vygotsky 1986).

Rhetorical Techniques and Ethical Implications

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) is probably the most significant semiologist to assume the mantle of Saussure. Barthes developed a sophisticated structuralist analysis to deconstruct the excessive rhetorical maneuvers within popular culture that engulfed Europe after World War II. Anything was fair game for Barthes's structuralist critique including literature, media, art, photography, architecture, and even fashion. Barthes's most influential work, Mythologies (1972 [1957]) continues to have an influence on critical theory in the early twenty-first century.

Myths are signs that carry with them larger cultural meanings. In Mythologies, Barthes describes myth as a well-formed, sophisticated system of communication that serves the ideological aims of a dominant class. Barthes conceived of myth as a socially constructed reality that is passed off as natural. Myth is a mode of signification in which the signifier is stripped of its history, and the form is stripped of its substance and then adorned with a substance that is artificial but appears entirely natural. Through mythologies, deeply partisan meanings are made to seem well established and self-evident. The role of the mythologist is to identify the artificiality of those signs that disguise their historical and social origins.

Barthes was critical of journalistic excesses that justified the French Algerian War (1954–1962). Skillfully, he deconstructed French journalism that had perfected the art of taking sides while pretending airs of neutrality, claiming to express the voice of common sense. Barthes observes that the myth is more understandable and more believable than the story that it supplants because the myth introduces self-evident truths that conform to the dominant historical and cultural position. This naturalization lends power to such myths. They go without saying. They need no further explanation or demystification.

American journalism is no less rich with its own mythical contributions to journalistic history. Examples include the Alamo (1835–1836), the sinkings of the Maine (1898) and the Lusitania (1915), the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964), and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (2003). In each case, the respective signifier was stripped of its own history and replaced with a more "natural" and believable narrative. These examples underscore the ethical implications of mythologies, because each was specifically instrumental in recruiting popular support behind an offensive war by making it appear to be a defensive war.

Mythologies are not limited to the realms of journalism, advertising, and the cinema, but find their way into all aspects of modern society. Science is no exception. The science educator Jay L. Lemke (1990) speaks of a "special mystique of science, a set of harmful myths that favor the interests of a small elite" (p. 129). Lemke believes that airs of objectivity and certainty in scientific discourse lend themselves to an authoritarian culture that serves to undermine student confidence. He describes linguistic practices that place artificial barriers between the pedagogy of science and common experience. He asserts that "a belief in the objectivity and certainty of science is very useful to anyone in power who wants to use science as a justification for imposing the policy decisions they favor. Science is presented as authoritative, and from there it is a small step to its becoming authoritarian" (Lemke 1990, p. 31).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) describe a "myth of objectivism" in science writing that portrays a world of objects possessing inherent properties and fixed relations that are entirely independent of human experience. Objectivist writing emerged in the seventeenth century and now assumes the dominant position in modern discourses of science, law, government, business, and scholarship. Postmodern critics point to objectivism's failure to account for human thoughts, experience, and language, which are largely metaphorical. Metaphors are pervasive and generally unrecognized within a culture of positivism. Highlighting the use of metaphors is a useful key to identifying whose realities are actually privileged in academic writing (Chandler 2002).

Barthes's role as France's supreme social critic has been taken over by the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929). Baudrillard argues that postmodern culture, with its rich, exotic media, is a world of signs that have made a fundamental break from reality. Contemporary mass culture experiences a world of simulation having lost the capacity to comprehend an unmediated world. Baudrillard coined the term simulacra to describe a system of objects in a consumer society distinguished by the existence of multiple copies with no original. People experience manufactured realities—carefully edited war footage, meaningless acts of terrorism, and the destruction of cultural values.

In an age of corporate consolidation in which popular culture is influenced by an elite few with very powerful voices, semiotic analysis is deemed essential for information consumers. Semiotics informs consumers about a text, its underlying assumptions, and its various dimensions of interpretation. Semiotics offers a lens into human communication. It sharpens the consumer's own consciousness surrounding a given text. It informs consumers about the cultural structures and human motivations that underlie perceptual representations. It rejects the possibility that humans can represent the world in a neutral fashion. It unmasks the deep-seated rhetorical forms and underlying codes that fundamentally shape human realities. Semiotic analysis is a critical skill for media literacy in a postmodern world.


SEE ALSO Peirce, Charles Sanders;Postmodernism;Rhetoric of Science and Technology.


Barthes, Roland. (1972). Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang. Originally published 1957. Fifty-four short critical reflections on mass culture in France during early 1950s. A classic work using semiotics to reveal the practices and artifacts of society as signifiers of the surface meanings and deep structures of contemporary life.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Provocative and controversial, Baudrillard describes a culture of people disenfranchised by the impotency of politics, media, and the consumer society.

Chandler, Daniel. (2002). Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge. A comprehensive introduction to semiotic theory for students of popular culture and mass communications.

Eco, Umberto. (1976). A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. In this classic text, Eco offers a theory of sign production that centers on the process of interpretation and the relationship between sign vehicles and the reality they portray. Eco's constructivist philosophy places the interpreter of signs on equal footing with the sign producer in the process of meaning construction.

Eco, Umberto. (1979). The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Nine essays that explore the differences between "open" and "closed" texts, those that hold the reader at bay and those that actively engage the reader in the co-production of meaning.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson argue that metaphor is central to language and understanding.

Lemke, Jay L. (1990). Talking Science: Language, Learning, and Values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing. Lemke portrays science as language, suggesting that to learn science, one must learn the language of science; and to learn the language, one must engage with others in active dialog about science.

Morris, Charles. (1971 [1938]). Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This classic monograph proposed three divisions of semiotic theory: syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. (1955). "Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs." In Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover. Essay originally published in 1898. Considered the founder of pragmatism, Peirce introduced a logical model which he termed "abduction", the iterative process of formulating inferences through the interpretation of signs and testing those inferences with other signs as a means of advancing an investigative inquiry.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1959). Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye; trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library. Originally published 1916. This is a summary of Saussure's lectures at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911. In this seminal work, Saussure examines the relationship between speech and the development of language as a structured system of signs.

Voloshinov, V. N. (1986). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published 1929. Good introduction to the ideas of the Bakhtin Circle. In a series of articles written between 1926 and 1930, Voloshinov emphasizes the social essence of language and he tracks the development of ideology and consciousness at the level of discursive practice.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society, ed. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published 1930. A pioneer in developmental psychology, Vygotsky argued that language is central to learning, and that the workings of the human mind can best be explained in terms of its linguistic and cultural tools.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). "The Genetic Roots of Thought and Speech." In Thought and Language, trans. and ed. Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Russian edition originally published 1934, then translated in 1962 to become a classic foundational work in cognitive science. Vygotsky analyzed the role of speech in the development of human consciousness, and the relationship of language to complex thinking in humans.