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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 also studies non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics is often divided into three branches:

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.[1] However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the life 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.[2] More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences".[3] 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.

Terminology and history[edit]

Using the Greek letters σημιωτικὴ,[4] the term “semiotics” was introduced into the English language by John Locke as a synonym for “doctrine of signs” (Latin: doctrina signorum, the oldest name for the study of what is now called “semiosis” or “the action of signs”). This was in the concluding chapter of his 1690 Essay concerning Humane Understanding.[5] There already existed in Locke’s time (and long before) the Greek term Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, to name that branch of medical science concerned with the study of symptoms of disease or σημεια—“natural signs” in today’s language.[6] Thus, a specialized study that goes back all the way to the times of Hippocrates (BC c.460–370) and Galen (AD129–c.200/210), before the notion of “sign” as transcending the nature/culture divide was introduced by Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354–430 August 28),[7] was firmly established before Locke came on the scene. Himself a man of medicine, Locke was quite familiar with this “semeiotics” as naming a specialized branch within medical science. Indeed, in his personal library were two editions of Scapula’s 1579 abridgement of Henricus Stephanus’ Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, which listed σημειωτικὴ as the name for “diagnostics”, the branch of medicine concerned with interpreting symptoms of disease (“symptomatology”); and indeed the English physician and scholar Henry Stubbes (1632–1676) had transliterated this term of specialized science into English precisely as “semeiotic” in his 1670 work, The Plus Ultra Reduced to a Non Plus (p. 75).

But "semeiotics” in this established and even ancient sense of a specialized science "was not what Locke had in mind" with his proposal of “semiotics” (σημιωτική) as a general doctrine of signs, in contrast to any special science or branch of science. In other words, Locke’s "omission" of the epsilon following the mu in his term “semiotics” was not a semantic error by someone ignorant of Greek, but was rather a "deliberate spelling" to contrast his proposal to name the general doctrine of signs (Σημιωτική, semiotica or “semiotics”) with the existing name of the specialized branch of medicine (Σημειωτική, “semeiotics”) concerned with analyzing symptoms of disease.

Full examination of the circumstances of Locke’s work confirm this point. Locke devoted utmost care in preparing four subsequent editions of his Essay up until his death in 1704. In each of these full editions,[8] his original spelling of σημιωτικὴ was retained in his proposal for “the doctrine of signs”.[9] Thus we are constrained to think that because σημειωτικὴ was already a signum ex consuetudine (a customary sign) by Locke’s time, his proposed σημιωτικὴ was quite deliberatively and contrastively a signum ad placitum, a neologism stipulated for the express purpose of naming a new science, a discipline which did not yet exist yet whose right to existence, in contrast to all existing disciplines, needed to be recognized and named accordingly, as Saussure also (26 November 1857 – 1913 February 22; but incognizant of Locke’s earlier statement) would point out.

What Locke had in mind with his proposal for the development of semiotics as a general study (what would come to be called a cenoscopic in contrast to an idioscopic science after Bentham and Peirce[10]) was the fact that the general division of science (perennial since Aristotle) into speculative (or the study of the nature of things) and practical (or the study of how we can gain some control over things, both in behavior and in technology) made no mention of the fact that the whole of human knowledge, whether speculative or practical, depends in its origins and throughout its development upon the action of signs or “semiosis”. In the five closing paragraphs (little more than the very last page) of his Essay concerning Humane Understanding, Locke proposed that, along with science as concerned with attainment of speculative truth (or “knowledge of things, as they are in their own proper beings”), and science as concerned with attainment of practical truth (or the “right applying our own powers and actions, for the attainment of things good and useful”), there is need for a science concerned with “signs the mind makes use of” both in acquiring knowledge of things and in developing control over things. For this new, “third science” Locke proposed the name “σημιωτικὴ” or, alternatively (he is explicit on the point), “the doctrine of signs”.

Many misunderstandings have arisen from the careless reading of that concluding chapter of Locke’s Essay, beginning with the claim of later linguists to “correct” Locke’s spelling of Σημιωτικὴ by inserting an epsilon after the mu, thus: Σημειωτικὴ, which transliterates as “semeiotics” rather than “semiotics”. While this “correction” can be to a limited extent justified by Greek etymology and orthography, this is true only when the orthographic considerations are introduced entirely apart from the actual philosophical context of Locke’s introduction of his term to name the new, general science. In the context of Locke’s work, intention, and time, such a correction is a misguided “correction”, a blunder, philosophically speaking. Even Juri Lotman (28 February 1922 – 1993 October 28), who introduced Eastern Europe to semiotics and adopted Locke’s coinage of Σημιωτικὴ as the name to subtitle his founding at the University of Tartu in Estonia in 1964 of the first semiotics journal, Sign Systems Studies (but did not have the advantage of examining all five of the editions of the Essay prepared in Locke’s home and lifetime), was hounded by linguists into later altering and substituting as the journal’s subtitle Σημειωτικὴ—a misguided “correction”, as pointed out above, which yet persists to the present day. One can only hope that the (mis)“correction” will likely be corrected (or re-corrected!) eventually, as the actual history of semiotics comes to be more generally and deeply understood.

(Note that in Modern Greek and in some systems for pronouncing classical Greek, Σημιωτικὴ and Σημειωτικὴ are pronounced the same, with an IPA: [i] for both ⟨ι⟩ and ⟨ει⟩. For another example of coinage of a homophonous neologism in philosophy, consider Derrida's “différance” alongside the conventional spelling “difference”.)

The Peirce scholar and editor Max H. Fisch[11] claimed in 1978[12] that "semeiotic" was Peirce's own preferred rendering of Locke’s Σημιωτική. That spelling has been used by some Peirce scholars to distinguish Peirce's semiotic from others, especially from those more in the "dyadic" Saussurian tradition (signifier, signified), formerly called "Semiology", with its foundation in linguistics and its emphasis on language and symbol. Peircean semiotic is triadic (sign, object, interpretant), and is conceived of as philosophical logic studied in terms of signs that are not always linguistic or artificial, and sign processes, modes of inference, and the inquiry process in general, with emphases not only on symbols but also on signs that are semblances ("icons") and signs that are signs by being factually connected ("indices") to their objects.

In Peircean circles[clarification needed], Max Fisch (21 December 1900 – 1995 January 6), the doyen of Peirce scholarship within his lifetime, introduced the myth that “semeiotic” was Peirce’s preferred term for the doctrine of signs. So deep runs the influence of habit over logic, that not even the exposure of this myth as a falsehood[13] has so far persuaded later generations of Peirce scholars (epigones, in this matter) to abandon their preference for singling out Peirce’s work on the doctrine of signs as “semeiotic” or “semeiotics”, in contrast to all other work in “semiotic” or “semiotics”—as if the study of semiosis was not a larger project than the work of any one researcher, however key. John Deely has argued against Fisch's claim about Peirce's preference for the spelling and singular form "Semeiotic".[14] Deely cites Peirce's use not only of "Semeiotic" but also "Semeiotics", "Semiotic", and "Semeotic", which last Peirce once stated might be the best rendering.

Semiotics can no more be reduced to Peirce than geometry can be reduced to Euclid, astronomy to Galileo, or physics to Einstein, etc. Thomas L. Short in his 2007 book Peirce's Theory of Signs,[15] says in a footnote on p. xi in the Preface, "I use ‘semeiotic’, in Peirce’s occasional spelling, for his theory or theories of signs, and the more usual ‘semiotic’ for that movement which originated in Europe...independently of Peirce and that later appropriated him, with confusion all around".

Other Peirce scholars[who?] have tried to disparage the name “doctrine of signs” by associating the term “doctrine” with authoritarian and dogmatic religious teaching. But such a move presupposes considerable ignorance of the history of the term “doctrina” in the context of the Latin Age, where it was a synonym for “scientia”,[16] and where (in the 1632 Tractatus of Poinsot[17]) the irreducibly triadic character of the relation formally constituting signs as signs was originally established. Inasmuch as the latter term (“science”) in modern times came to be restricted to idioscopic investigations, while both scientia and doctrina in Latin times applied mainly to cenoscopic investigation, and in view of Peirce’s claim that semiotics belongs first to cenoscopy in its contrast to ideoscopy,[18] there is much wisdom in Sebeok’s decision to prefer in contemporary context the expression “doctrine of signs” over Saussure’s proposal for a “science of signs”,[19] even as Sebeok assimilated “semiology” to “semiotics” as a part to a whole,[20] and was involved in choosing the name Semiotica (in effect a Latin transliteration of Locke’s σημιωτικὴ) for the first international journal devoted to the study of signs.

Thus “doctrina signorum” or “doctrine of signs” is the oldest name for the general study of signs, an expression used in common by Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), John Poinsot (1589–1644), John Locke (1632–1704), Charles Peirce (1839–1914), and Thomas Sebeok (1920–2001)—i.e., from ancient times, when “sign” as a general notion was first introduced by Augustine,[21] to postmodern times, when the general study of signs as signs first became a thematic focus of general interest within intellectual culture. But given the ancient origins of sign study (in Greek medicine in particular), and given the late-modern awakening of intellectual culture to the fundamental role of signs in the whole of culture and understanding, the English transliteration, “semiotics”, of the name Σημιωτικὴ proposed by Locke against the background of medical knowledge, has quite justifiably—almost inevitably—become the most accepted generic name for sign-study.

Peirce himself, the main transitional figure in this area from a modern to a postmodern intellectual culture in philosophy,[22] would likely have had little use in his own semiotic development for provincial narrowness in trying to eliminate or belittle the oldest name for semiotic study, even as he most emphatically rejected for semiotics the understanding of “doctrine” in the latter modern sense of “dogma” (as Bergman points out[23]). Peirce’s whole idea for semiotics as the doctrine of signs was that semiosis would become the focal point for a community of inquirers, who would investigate the perfusion of signs throughout the universe for its own sake and according to its full requirements. (He would not likely have looked with admiration upon the development of a scholarly circle closed upon his personal work as something to be isolated from or within the larger semiotic community of inquiry.)

Too, no one understood better than Peirce that history is to philosophy (cenoscopic science) what the laboratory is to science in the specialized modern sense (idioscopic science).[citation needed] He distinguished himself among the moderns by being the first thinker educated in the modern mainstream to ignore Descartes’ advice to beware in reading the Latin philosophers antecedent to modernity, “lest in a too absorbed study of these works we should become infected with their errors”.[24] Unlike his modern forebears, and unlike most of his own followers today, Peirce did indeed read the Latins — Aquinas, Scotus, the Conimbricenses, in particular — and from them seems to have gotten some of his most seminal ideas for semiotic, most notably perhaps the Conimbricenses’ thesis that “all thought is in signs”.[25]

In sum, as Peirce recommends, if we go by the history of the terms rather than by etymology, we find two things. First, we find that the oldest common name for the development of a cenoscopic study of the action consequent upon the being proper to signs (according to the classical formula “agere sequitur esse”, or “the way a thing acts reveals what it is that is acting”) — understood as transcending both the nature/culture divide and the inner/outer divide—is “doctrine of signs” (doctrina signorum). Second, we find from John Locke that the Greek form of a name as proposed synonymous with doctrina signorum is Σημιωτική, or “semiotics”.[26]

All other variants for “semiotics” (“semeiotics”, “semeotics”, etc.), proposed on the basis of the Greek term for natural signs, σημεια (which alone were recognized in the Greek Age of philosophy from Thales, BC c. 625–c. 545, to Proclus, AD 8 February 412–485 April 17), do not serve the purpose stipulated and intended by Locke in making his original proposal. The variants, “semeiotics” most conspicuous among them, either confuse in the historical preconscious the study of signs with medical study of symptoms of disease, or are based on terms considered etymologically rather than historically.

Not all of these considerations surrounding Locke’s term in context—indeed, few of them collectively considered—enter into the explicit consciousness of students of philosophy raised in the late-modern Analytic or even phenomenological traditions of philosophy; yet all of them are at work in the preconscious dimension of understanding at work (as our postmodern philosophical era dawns) in every educated human being alive today as inheritors perforce of linguistic systems shaped by modern philosophy, indeed, yet dating back much farther than the modern traditions of philosophy and linguistics.

“Semiotics”, for this reason more than any other, perhaps, emerged by the opening decades of the 20th century as the most accurate and compelling name for the general and cenoscopic study, unconscious to ancient Greek philosophy, that began in Latin with Augustine of Hippo and culminated in Latin with the 1632 Tractatus de Signis of John Poinsot, then to begin anew in late modernity with the attempt in 1867 by Charles Sanders Peirce to draw up a “new list of categories”. Peirce aimed to base his new list directly upon experience precisely as constituted by action of signs, in contrast with the list of Aristotle’s categories which aimed to articulate within experience the dimension of being that is independent of experience and knowable as such through human understanding. The estimative powers of animals interpret the environment as sensed to form a “meaningful world” of objects, but the objects of this world (or “Umwelt”, in Jakob von Uexküll’s term[27]) consist exclusively of objects related to the animal as desirable (+), undesirable (–), or “safe to ignore” (0). In contrast to this, human understanding adds to the animal Umwelt a relation of self-identity within objects which transforms objects experienced into things as well as +, –, 0 objects.[28] Thus the generically animal objective world as Umwelt becomes a species-specifically human objective world or Lebenswelt wherein linguistic communication, rooted in the biologically underdetermined Innenwelt of human animals, makes possible the further dimension of cultural organization within the otherwise merely social organization of animals whose powers of observation can deal only with directly sensible instances of objectivity.

This further point, that human culture depends upon language understood first of all not as communication, but as the biologically underdetermined aspect or feature of the human animal’s Innenwelt, was originally clearly identified by Thomas A. Sebeok.[29] Sebeok also played the central role in bringing Peirce’s work to the center of the semiotic stage in the 20th century,[30] first with his expansion of the human use of signs (“anthroposemiosis”) to include also the generically animal sign-usage (“zoösemiosis”),[31] then with his further expansion of semiosis (based initially on the work of Martin Krampen,[32] but taking advantage of Peirce’s point that an interpretant, as the third item within a sign relation, “need not be mental”[33]) to include the plant world (“phytosemiosis”).

Peirce’s distinction of an Interpretant from an Interpreter, with the further qualification that the former need not be “of a mental mode of being”—not his demonstration that sign relations are perforce irreducibly triadic, as is commonly assumed in his following so far as the followers continue the modern tradition of ignoring the Latin Age of philosophy’s history—was actually his most revolutionary move and most seminal contribution to the doctrine of signs. Not only does Peirce’s Interpretant notion open the way to understanding an action of signs beyond the realm of animal life (study of "phytosemiosis" + "zoösemiosis" + "anthroposemiosis" = biosemiotics), which was his first advance beyond Latin Age semiotics, but it opens the way also to inquiry into the possibility of an action of signs even beyond the biosphere, a semiosis shaping the physical evolution of the universe itself in the direction of first being able to support and then actually to support life (“physiosemiosis”).

To summarize: Locke did not know the Latin development of semiotics from Augustine to Poinsot, indeed; but he did know very well the difference between symptomatology as the specialized branch of medicine called Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, and the doctrine of signs he was proposing to become a general science under the name Σημιωτικὴ, “semiotics”. Hence the term he introduced needs to be kept in the form that he introduced.


Color-coding hot- and cold-water faucets (taps) is common in many cultures but, as this example shows, the coding may be rendered meaningless because of context. The two faucets (taps) were probably sold as a coded set, but the code is unusable (and ignored) as there is a single water supply.

Semioticians classify signs or sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.

To explain the relationship between semiotics and communication studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data from a source to a receiver. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognize that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e., be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994) suggested that semioticians' priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16), who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.

Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations, and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense. Peirce's definition of the term "semiotic" as the study of necessary features of signs also has the effect of distinguishing the discipline from linguistics as the study of contingent features that the world's languages happen to have acquired in the course of their evolutions.

Perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference lies between separate traditions rather than subjects. Different authors have called themselves "philosopher of language" or "semiotician". This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears a stronger connection to linguistics, while semiotics is closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory) and to cultural anthropology.

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism's apprehension of the world through signs. Scholars who have talked about semiosis in their sub-theories of semiotics include C. S. Peirce, John Deely, and Umberto Eco.

Cognitive Semiotics is combining methods and theories developed in the disciplines of cognitive methods and theories developed in semiotics and the humanities, with providing new information into human signification and its manifestation in cultural practices. The research on cognitive semiotics brings together semiotics from linguistics, cognitive science, and related disciplines on a common meta-theoretical platform of concepts, methods, and shared data.

Some important semioticians[edit]

"A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea." Peirce called the sign a representamen, in order to bring out the fact that a sign is something that “represents” something else in order to suggest it (that is, “re-present” it) in some way.[39] For a summary of Peirce's contributions to semiotics, see Liszka (1996) or Atkin (2006).

Signaling and communication between the Astatotilapia burtoni.

Current applications[edit]

Applications of semiotics include:

In some countries, its role is limited to literary criticism and an appreciation of audio and visual media, but this narrow focus can inhibit a more general study of the social and political forces shaping how different media are used and their dynamic status within modern culture. Issues of technological determinism in the choice of media and the design of communication strategies assume new importance in this age of mass media. The use of semiotic methods to reveal different levels of meaning and, sometimes, hidden motivations has led Yale's Harold Bloom to demonise elements of the subject as Marxist, nihilist, etc. (e.g., critical discourse analysis in postmodernism and deconstruction in post-structuralism).

Publication of research is both in dedicated journals such as Sign Systems Studies, established by Juri Lotman and published by Tartu University Press; Semiotica, founded by Thomas A. Sebeok and published by Mouton de Gruyter; Zeitschrift für Semiotik; European Journal of Semiotics; Versus (founded and directed by Umberto Eco), et al.; The American Journal of Semiotics; and as articles accepted in periodicals of other disciplines, especially journals oriented toward philosophy and cultural criticism. The major semiotic book series "Semiotics, Communication, Cognition", published by De Gruyter Mouton (series editors Paul Cobley and Kalevi Kull) replaces the former "Approaches to Semiotics" (over 120 volumes) and "Approaches to Applied Semiotics" (series editor Thomas A. Sebeok). Since 1980 the Semiotic Society of America has produced an annual conference series: Semiotics: The Proceedings of the Semiotic Society of America.


Semiotics has sprouted a number of subfields, including but not limited to the following:

Pictorial semiotics[edit]

Pictorial Semiotics is intimately connected to art history and theory. It has gone beyond them both in at least one fundamental way, however. While art history has limited its visual analysis to a small number of pictures which qualify as "works of art", pictorial semiotics has focused on the properties of pictures more generally. This break from traditional art history and theory—as well as from other major streams of semiotic analysis—leaves open a wide variety of possibilities for pictorial semiotics. Some influences have been drawn from phenomenological analysis, cognitive psychology, and structuralist and cognitivist linguistics, and visual anthropology/sociology.

Semiotics of food[edit]

Food has been one traditional topic of choice in relating semiotic theory because it is extremely accessible and easily relatable to the average individual’s life.[43]

Food is said to be semiotic because it transforms meaning with preparation. Food that is eaten by a wild animal raw from a carcass is obviously different in meaning when compared to a food that is prepared by humans in a kitchen to represent a cultural dish.[43]

Food can also be said to be symbolic of certain social codes. “If food is treated as a code, the messages it encodes will be found in the pattern of social relations being expressed. The message is about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, boundaries and transactions across boundaries”.[44]

Food is a semiotic regardless of how it is prepared. Whether food is prepared with precision in a fine dining restaurant, picked from a dumpster, plucked, devoured, or even consumed by a wild animal, meaning can always be extracted from the way a certain food has been prepared and the context in which it is served.

Semiotics and globalization[edit]

Studies have shown that semiotics can make or break a brand. Culture codes strongly influence whether a population likes or dislikes a brand’s marketing, especially internationally. If the company is unaware of a culture’s codes, it runs the risk of failing in its marketing. Globalization has caused the development of a global consumer culture where products have similar associations, whether positive or negative, across numerous markets.[45]

Mistranslations can lead to instances of Engrish or Chinglish, terms for unintentionally humorous cross-cultural slogans intended to be understood in English. This can be caused by a sign that, in Pierce's terms, mistakenly indexes or symbolizes something in one culture that it does not in another.[46] In other words, it creates a connotation that is culturally bound, and that violates some culture code. Humor theorists such as Schopenhauer suggest that contradiction or incongruity creates absurdity and therefore humor.[47] Violating a culture code creates this construct of ridiculousness for the culture that owns the code. Intentional humor may also fail cross-culturally because jokes are not on code for the receiving culture.[48]

A good example of branding according to cultural code is Disney’s international theme park business. For example, Disney fits well with Japan's cultural code because the Japanese value “cuteness”, politeness, and gift giving as part of their culture code; Tokyo Disneyland sells the most souvenirs of any Disney theme park. In contrast, Disneyland Paris failed when it launched as Euro Disney because the company did not research the codes underlying European culture. Its storybook retelling of European folktales was taken as elitist and insulting, and the strict appearance standards that it had for employees resulted in discrimination lawsuits in France.[49] Disney souvenirs were perceived as cheap trinkets. The park was a financial failure because its code violated the expectations of European culture in ways that were offensive.[50]

On the other hand, some researchers have suggested that it is possible to successfully pass a sign perceived as a cultural icon, such as the Coca-Cola or McDonald's logos, from one culture to another. This can be done if the sign is migrated from a more economically developed to a less developed culture.[50] The intentional association of a product with another culture is also called Foreign Consumer Culture Positioning (FCCP). Products can also be marketed using global trends or culture codes, for example, saving time in a busy world; but even these may be fine-tuned for specific cultures.[45]

Research also found that, as airline industry brandings grow and become more international, their logos become more symbolic and less iconic. The iconicity and symbolism of a sign depends on the cultural convention and are on that ground in relation with each other. If the cultural convention has greater influence on the sign, the signs get more symbolic value.[51]

Main institutions[edit]

A world organisation of semioticians—the International Association for Semiotic Studies, with its journal Semiotica—was established in 1969. The larger research centers together with extensive teaching program include the semiotics departments at the University of Tartu, Aarhus University, and Bologna University.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Caesar, Michael (1999). Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-7456-0850-1. 
  2. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Syntactics
  3. ^
  4. ^ Today, using Greek, one can either write (a) σημιωτική or (b), as Locke did, σημιωτικὴ (with the accent in the other direction, from up left to down right). The form (a) is modern Greek, (b) is ancient Greek. However, there is a tricky part that only good classicists are aware of: when term (b) is followed by any kind of punctuation mark, it takes the form (a). This is a rule all but the most sophisticated of Greek scholars effectively ignore.
  5. ^ The title page from the 1689/1690 first edition of Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding is reproduced on p. 2 of the anthology Frontiers in Semiotics, ed. J. Deely, B. Williams, and F. E. Kruse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), while on pp. 3–4 is reproduced the whole of Locke’s concluding “Division of the Sciences” chapter, where he introduces, in §4, σημιωτικὴ as his proposed name synonymous with “the Doctrine of Signs” (italics in that original) for the development of the future study of the ubiquitous role of signs within human awareness. In the 1689/1690 original edition, the “Division of the Sciences” chapter was Chapter XX. In the 4th ed. of 1700, a new Chapter XIX “Of Enthusiasm” is inserted into Book IV, after which the Chapter XX of the 1st ed. becomes Chapter XXI for all subsequent editions. — See the “Historically Layered & Annotated References” in John Deely, Why Semiotics? (Ottawa, Canada: Legas, 2004), 71–88, esp. 77–80 for the editions of Locke’s Essay from 1689 through 1716. Now it is an important fact that Locke’s proposal for the development of semiotics, with three passing exceptions as “asides” in the writings of Berkeley (1685–1753), Leibniz (1646–1716), and Condillac (1715–1780), “is met with a resounding silence that lasts as long as modernity itself. Even Locke’s devoted late modern editor, Alexander Campbell Fraser [3 September 1819–1914 December 2], dismisses out of hand ‘this crude and superficial scheme of Locke’” (see “Locke’s modest proposal subversive of the way of ideas, its reception, and its bearing on the resolution of an ancient and a modern controversy in logic” in Chap. 14 of Deely’s Four Ages of Understanding, pp. 591–606). Just how deep the misconstrual, deliberate or indeliberate, of Locke’s spelling and notion for σημιωτικὴ runs in modern scholarship can be garnered, by way of example, from an examination of the 1975 Oxford University Press supposedly critical edition prepared and introduced by Peter Harold Nidditch (15 September 1928–1983 February 12). Nidditch tells us, in his “Foreword”, p. vii, that he presents us with “a complete, critically established, and unmodernized text that aims at being historically faithful to Locke’s final intentions”; p. xxv tells us further that “the present text is based on the original fourth edition of the Essay”, and that “readings in the other early authorized editions are adopted, in appropriate form, where necessary, and recorded otherwise in the textual notes”. The term σημιωτικὴ appears in that 1700 4th edition, the last published (but not the last prepared) within Locke’s lifetime, with exactly the spelling and final accent found in the 1689/1690 1st edition. Yet if we turn to the final Chapter XXI of the 1975 Oxford/Nidditch edition, we find on p. 720 not σημιωτικὴ but rather do we find substituted (silently) the medical σημειωτική spelling (and with final accent reversed). Nowhere does Nidditch provide us with any note or explanation of this displacement from Locke’s original text and intention. Is it not time, now that Locke’s proposal has finally achieved thematic status in the postmodern intellectual culture, that lexicographers recognize the difference between σημιωτικὴ as a signum ad placitum proposed by Locke to name a general science and σημειωτικὴ as already in Locke's day a signum ex consuetudine established in naming a specialized branch of medicine? With that recognition together with the actual development of Locke’s proposal as witnessed today (“For though there is of course a long history behind the semiotics of today”, as Susan Petrilli pointed out in her 2008 Sebeok Fellow Address, “still there is a sense in which semiotics is, as a widespread intellectual movement, a phenomenon more ‘of our time’ than it is of any time past”—“Semioethics and Responsibility”, The American Journal of Semiotics 24.4, p. 3), σημιωτικὴ, semiotics (in contrast to semeiotics, σημειωτικὴ), becomes a signum ex consuetudine in its own right—the established and proper postmodern name for the doctrine of signs as a cenoscopic development first made possible (consult work cited in note 7 below) with Augustine’s generalization of signum across nature and culture alike.
  6. ^ For the Greeks, “signs” occurred in the world of nature, “symbols” in the world of culture. Not until Augustine would a thematic proposal for uniting the two under the notion of signum as transcending the nature/culture divide and identifying symbols as no more than a species (or sub-species) of signum be formally proposed. The best monograph study on this question so far remains the work of Giovanni Manetti, Le teorie del segno nell’antichità classica (Milan: Bompiani, 1987); trans. by Christine Richardson as Theories of the Sign in Classical Antiquity (Bloomington, IN: Indi¬ana University Press, 1993). Classic also is the article by Luigi Romeo, “The Derivation of ‘Semiotics’ through the History of the Discipline”, in Semiosis 6, Heft 2 (1977), 37–49. See Andrew LaVelle’s discussion of Romeo on Peirce-l at [1].
  7. ^ See John Deely, Augustine & Poinsot: The Protosemiotic Development (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2009) for full details of Augustine’s originality on this point.
  8. ^ 2nd ed. 1694; 3rd ed. 1695; 4th ed. 1700; 5th ed. 1706, but preparation completed before Locke’s 1704 death.
  9. ^ John Deely, “On the Word Semiotics, Formation and Origins”, Semiotica 146.1/4 (2003), 1–49 (winner of 23rd Mouton d’Or Award for best essay in the field published in the calendar year); Why Semiotics? (Ottawa, Canada: Legas, 2004).
  10. ^ i.e., critical control of objectification (“cenoscopy”) that provides the basis and framework for the later and further development of human knowledge by the use of experiments and the mathematization of experimental results (“ideoscopy”).
  11. ^ Max Fisch compiled Peirce-related bibliographical supplements in 1952, 1964, 1966, 1974; was consulting editor on the 1977 microfilm of Peirce's published works and on the Comprehensive Bibliography associated with it; was among the main editors of the first five volumes (published 1981–1993) Writings of Charles S. Peirce; and wrote a number of published articles on Peirce, many collected in 1986 in Peirce, Semeiotic, and Pragmatism, Ketner and Kloesel, eds., Indiana University Press: catalog page, Bloomington, IN, 480 pages. See Charles Sanders Peirce bibliography.
  12. ^ Fisch, Max H. (1978), “Peirce’s General Theory of Signs” in Sight, Sound, and Sense, ed. T. A. Sebeok. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 31-70.
  13. ^ John Deely, "Clearing the Mists of a Terminological Mythology Concerning Peirce”.
  14. ^ Deely, John (October 2008 draft), "Clearing the Mists of a Terminological Mythology concerning Peirce", Arisbe PDF Eprint.
  15. ^ Short, T. L. (2007), Peirce's Theory of Signs, Cambridge University Press. PDF Eprint.
  16. ^ “When I had recognized”, Peirce observes in his letter of 23 December 1908 to Lady Welby, that “the history of words, not their etymology, being the key to their meanings...I accordingly recognized that, in order that the lines of demarcation between what we call ‘sciences’ should be real, in view of the rapid growth of sciences and the impossibility of allowing for future discoveries, those lines of demarcation can only represent the separations between different groups of men who devote their lives to the advance of different studies...” (in Semiotics and Significs. The correspondence between Charles S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby, ed. Charles S. Hardwick, p. 79). The history of the expression “doctrine of signs”, thus, not some etymological stipulation or association, is what determines its appropriateness in the naming of semiotics.
  17. ^ John Poinsot, Book I, Question 3, esp. 154/20–30 (i.e., p. 154, lines 20–30), Tractatus de Signis, trans. and ed. John Deely with the assistance of Ralph Austin Powell (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985; corrected 2nd ed. with new materials, South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013).
  18. ^ Peirce 1908: 482: “I have learned that the only natural lines of demarcation between nearly related sciences are the divisions between the social groups of devotees of those sciences; and for the present the cenoscopic studies (i.e., those studies which do not depend upon new special observations) of all signs remain one undivided science”—Draft of a letter dated 1908 December 24, 25, 28 “On the Classification of Signs”, in The Essential Peirce (1893–1913), Volume 2, ed. Nathan Houser, André De Tienne, Jonathan R. Eller, Cathy L. Clark, Albert C. Lewis, D. Bront Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).
  19. ^ Thomas A. Sebeok, Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs (Lisse, Netherlands: Peter de Ridder Press, 1976; corrected reprint Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985), “Foreword”, p. ix: “The expression doctrine of signs, for the title of this collection, was selected with deliberation to emblematically align the arguments embodied in these eleven essays with the semiotic tradition of Locke and Peirce rather more closely than with others that prefer to dignify the field—often with premature strategic intent—as a ‘theory’ or even a ‘science’. For Locke, a doctrine was hardly more than a body or system of principles or tenets loosely constituting a department of knowledge. Things, Actions, and Signs were for him “the three great Provinces of the intellectual World, wholly separate and distinct one from another”. The mind makes use of signs both in the contemplation of things and in actions for the attainment of its ends; moreover, it does so for “the right ordering of [the one and the other] for its clearer Information”. The business of the doctrine of signs, or semiotics, he asserted at the very end of his ‘celebrated essay’, was to consider matters such as these”. See further “Doctrine”, terminological entry for the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok et al. (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1986), Tome I, p. 214.
  20. ^ The whole anthology, Frontiers in Semiotics, cited in note 5 above, was devoted to the documentation of this “pars pro toto” move of Sebeok.
  21. ^ See n.7, above.
  22. ^ The fullest statements of this idea to date remain “Charles Sanders Peirce and the Recovery of Signum”, Chap. 15 in John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 611–668 and The Red Book at [2].
  23. ^ Mats Bergman, Peirce’s Philosophy of Communication (New York, NY: Continuum, 2009), 47ff.
  24. ^ René Descartes 1628, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind”, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross in 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1931), vol. I, p. 6.
  25. ^ See Mauricio Beuchot and J. Deely, “Common Sources for the Semiotic of Charles Peirce and John Poinsot”, Review of Metaphysics XLVIII.3 (March 1995), 539–566. Also John P. Doyle, ed. and trans., The Conimbricenses. Some Questions on Signs (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press); bilingual critical edition of the “De Signis” section of the Conimbricenses’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, in Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis et Societatis Jesu. In Univer¬sam Dialecticam Aristotelis Stagiritae. Secunda Pars (Lyons: Sumptibus Horatii Cardon, 1607).
  26. ^ In Latin transliteration, Locke’s proposal becomes Semiotica. No such transliteration occurred in Latin’s time as a living language; but it is hard to avoid suspecting some synchronicity in the choice of this term by Sebeok and his editorial colleagues (including Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Juri Lotman, among others) to name the first international journal devoted to semiotics.
  27. ^ See “Umwelt”, Semiotica 134–1/4 (2001), 125–135; Special Issue on “Jakob von Uexküll: A paradigm for biology and semiotics” Guest-Edited by Kalevi Kull.
  28. ^ Cf. Heidegger 1927, in the 1962 trans. by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, Being and Time (New York, NY: Harper & Row), p. 487: “The distinction between the being of existing Dasein and the Being of entities, such as Reality, which do not have the character of nothing with which philosophy may tranquillize itself. It has long been known that ancient ontology works with ‘Thing-concepts’ and that there is a danger of ‘reifying consciousness’. But what does this ‘reifying’ signify? Where does it arise? Why does Being get ‘conceived’ ‘proximally’ in terms of the present-at-hand and not in terms of the ready-to-hand, which indeed lies closer to us? Why does reifying always keep coming back to exercise its dominion?” This is the question that the Umwelt/Lebenswelt distinction as here drawn answers to.
  29. ^ Thomas A. Sebeok, “The Evolution of Communication and the Origin of Language”, lecture in the 1984 June 1–3 International Summer Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies 1984 Colloquium on “Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Communication Systems”, published under the title “Communication, Language, and Speech. Evolutionary Considerations”, in Sebeok’s I Think I Am A Verb. More Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs (New York: Plenum Press, 1986), pp. 10–16. For subsequent context, see the “Afterword” to the volume of Sebeok’s Semiotic Prologues, ed. John Deely and Marcel Danesi (Ottawa, Canada: Legas, 2012), pp. 365–383; version online at [3].
  30. ^ Detailed demonstration of Sebeok’s role as the “Maestro” of the global emergence of the doctrine of signs as semiotics is recorded mainly in the three recent volumes. First, Semiotics Seen Synchronically. The View from 2010 (Ottawa: Legas, 2010)—a panoramic survey of the 20th century intellectual culture within which what we call “semiotics” today developed, countering the “Saussure vs Peirce” myth and demonstrating Sebeok’s central role in the international development of semiotics. Second, Semiotics Continues To Astonish. Thomas A. Sebeok and the Doctrine of Signs (Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 2011)—a 526-page assemblage of essays, vignettes, letters, pictures attesting to the depth and extent of Sebeok’s promotion of semiotic understanding around the world, including his involvement with Juri Lotman and the Tartu University graduate program in semiotics (currently directed by Kalevi Kull). Third, Sebeok’s Semiotic Prologues (Ottawa: Legas, 2012)—a volume which gathers together in Part I all the “prologues” (i.e., introductions, prefaces, forewords, etc.) that Sebeok wrote for other peoples’ books, then in Part 2 all the “prologues” that other people wrote for Sebeok—an astonishing landscape of some 410 pages in which the international development of semiotics is on sparkling display.
  31. ^ See Thomas A. Sebeok, “Communication in Animals and Men”, review article covering three books: Martin Lindauer, Communication among Social Bees (Harvard books in biology, No. 2; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. ix + 143); Winthrop N. Kellogg, Por¬poises and Sonar (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. xiv + 177); and John C. Lilly, Man and Dolphin (Garden City, New York: Doubleday), in Language 39 (1963), 448–466.
  32. ^ Martin Krampen, “Phytosemiotics”, Semiotica, 36.3/4 (1981), 187–209.
  33. ^ Peirce c.1907: Excerpt from “Pragmatism (Editor [3])”, published under the title “A Survey of Pragmaticism” in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol. 5, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), 5.473. See also the part of Peirce’s letter of to Lady Welby dated 23 December 1908, in Semiotic and Significs: The Correspondence between C. S. Peirce and Victoria Lady Welby, ed. Charles S. Hardwick with the assistance of James Cook (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), pp. 73–86. And “Semiosis: The Subject Matter of Semiotic Inquiry”, Chap. 3 of Basics of Semiotics by John Deely (5th ed.: Tartu, Estonia: Tartu University Press, 2009), 26–50, esp. 31 & 38– 41).
  34. ^ For Peirce's definitions of signs and semiosis, see under "Sign" and "Semiosis, semeiosy" in the Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms; and "76 definitions of sign by C. S. Peirce" collected by Robert Marty. Peirce's "What Is a Sign" (MS 404 of 1894, Essential Peirce v. 2, pp. 4-10) provides intuitive help.
  35. ^ See Peirce, excerpt from a letter to William James, March 14, 1909, Collected Papers v. 8, paragraph 314. Also see under relevant entries in the Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms. On coincidence of actual opinion with final opinion, see MS 218, transcription at Arisbe, and appearing in Writings of Charles S. Peirce v. 3, p. 79.
  36. ^ He spelt it "semiotic" and "semeiotic". See under "Semeiotic [etc.] in the Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms.
  37. ^ Peirce, Collected Papers v. 2, paragraphs 243-263, written c. 1903.
  38. ^ He worked on but did not perfect a finer-grained system of ten trichotomies, to be combined into 66 (Tn+1) classes of sign. That raised for Peirce 59,049 classificatory questions (59,049 = 310, or 3 to the 10th power). See p. 482 in "Excerpts from Letters to Lady Welby", Essential Peirce v. 2.
  39. ^ Ryan, Michael (2011). > The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-8312-3. 
  40. ^ Dewey, John, (1946, February 14), “Peirce's Theory of Linguistic Signs, Thought, and Meaning”. The Journal of Philosophy, v. 43, n. 4, pp.85-95.
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  44. ^ Douglas, Mary. 1971. "Deciphering a Meal". In: Clifford Geertz (ed.) Myth, Symbol and Culture. New York: Norton, pp. 61–82.
  45. ^ a b Alden, Dana; Jan-Benedict Steenkamp & Rajeev Batra. (1999). "Brand Positioning Through Advertising in Asia, North America, and Europe: The Role of Global Consumer Culture", Journal of Marketing 63 (1), 75-87.
  46. ^ Chandler, Daniel. (2001/2007). Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge
  47. ^ Spotts, H. Weinberger M. & Parsons A. (1997). "Assessing the use and impact of humor on advertising effectiveness: A contingency approach", Journal of Advertising, 26 (3), 17-32
  48. ^ Beeman, William. (1981). "Why do they laugh? An interactional approach to humor in traditional Iranian improvisatory theater: Performance and its effects". Journal of American Folklore, 94 (374), 506-526.
  49. ^ Bartlett, Katharine T. (2004). "Only Girls Wear Barrettes: Dress and Appearance Standards, Community Norms, and Workplace Equality". Michigan Law Review: 2541–2582. 
  50. ^ a b Brannen, M. (2004). When Mickey Loses Face: Recontextualization, Semantic Fit, and the Semiotics of Foreignness, Academy of Management Review, 29 (4), 593-616
  51. ^ Thurlow, C. & Aiello, G. (2007). "National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry", Visual Communication, 6(3), 305–344
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