COM 270
Introduction to Theories of Human Communication

Lecture 12: Semiotics


A. Semiotics is the theory of signs -- it explains how signs are used to convey meanings in the human communication process.

B. Semiotics is based on the general notion that people have a natural tendency to make things in our physical environment significant -- that is, they attempt to attribute meaning to that which they observe ("Semiotic interpretive impulse")

Ex: A *black cat* is not just an animal -- it is *seen* as a*sign* of *bad luck.*


A. Sign -- something taken by social convention to represent something other than itself. Signs always stand for something ("object") to somebody ("interpretant") in some respect or capacity ("ground").

B. Charles Sanders Peirce (, one of the major forces in the development of semiology, identifies three basic types of signs.

1. Iconic sign -- something that functions as a sign because it possesses features that resemble its "object" (that which it stands for)

Ex: :-) = "Happy" because :-) resemblse that which is signified.

2. Indexical sign -- something that functions as a sign because of its sequential or causal connection to its object.

Ex: Smoke is an indexical sign for fire

3. Symbolic sign -- relationship between the sign and its object is arbitrary; it requires the active presence of an "interpretant" to make the signifying connection.

Ex: The *Peace Sign* is a symbolic sign because nothing about it resembles that which it signifies.

C. The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure ( ), considered by many to be the founder of semiology, points out that the relationship between a sign (signifier) and its meaning (signified) depends on:

1. Context ("ground")

Ex: A car's * horn *can, in one context, function as a sign for *danger,* *get going,* *hi * etc.

2. Sign system -- A sign system is a coherent set of signs that are used to represent conditions or objects in the physical world.

Ex: A * + * means something different in the mathematics sign system compared to the electronics sign system.

3. Position of the interpreter ("interpretant")

Ex: "Skull-and-crossbones" signifies danger to adults; signifies adventure and excitement to a child








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