There are many different ways meaning can be created and shared. It's important to observe all the different aspects of communication, such as language, images, and design, and consider how they can work together in context to create meaning. We call this process semiotics. This article will define semiotics, look at semiotic theory, and explain how we conduct a semiotic analysis with plenty of examples along the way.

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Table of contents

    Semiotics: definition

    Semiotics is the study of visual language and signs. It looks at how meaning is created, not just with words but also with images, symbols, gestures, sounds, and design.

    We use semiotics to look at how different modes of communication (e.g. language, visuals, or gestures) work together to create meaning in context. This means that where and when we observe signs will impact their meaning. For example, a thumbs-up gesture usually means 'okay', but if seen at the side of the road, it means the person is looking for a free ride in a stranger's car!

    Semiotics image of a thumbs-up StudySmarterFig. 1 - The meaning of the thumbs-up sign can change depending on the context.

    Semiotics can help us develop a deeper understanding of the world around us, including the media we see (e.g. films, news, adverts, novels). It helps us to recognise the whole intended meaning of something.

    Signs in semiotics

    In semiotics we analyse signs, but what exactly are they?

    In semiotics, the term signs can refer to anything that is used to communicate meaning. There is a wide variety of ways we as humans communicate meaning with each other, such as:

    • Words (e.g. the word breakfast is used to describe the meal we eat in the morning)

    • Images (e.g. the images used alongside a news article will impact the readers' understanding of that article)

    • Colours (e.g. the red light on a traffic light means stop)

    • Symbols (e.g. the exclamation mark '!' can convey a sense of surprise or excitement)

    • Gestures (e.g. a 'thumbs up' shows positivity)

    • Sounds (e.g. music played on the piano in the minor key can create a sense of sadness)

    • Fashion (e.g. clothing can reveal a lot about a person's socioeconomic status)

    The meaning of signs can differ depending on the social situation and the cultural context.

    For example, whilst the 'thumbs up' gesture has positive connotations in many countries, it is considered offensive in Greece, Iran, Italy, and Iraq. Another example is the colour yellow.

    In the Western world (e.g. the UK and the USA), yellow is often associated with springtime and warmth; however, in Latin America (e.g. Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia) yellow can symbolise death and mourning. As you can see, it's important to study signs in context!

    Semiotic theory

    The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) are widely considered the founders of modern semiotics. In the early 1900s, Saussure introduced the concept of signs in semiotics. He suggested that each sign is made of two parts; the signifier and the signified.

    • Signifier = The word, image, sound, or gesture representing a concept or meaning.

    • Signified = The interpretation of the meaning of the signifier.

    These two parts of a sign are always connected and cannot be separated.

    An example of a sign is the word 'dog'.

    • The signifier is the word 'dog' itself.

    • The signified meaning is the small furry mammal, often kept as a pet.

    A further example is this hand gesture:

    Semiotics Image of woman giving okay hand gesture StudySmarterFig. 2 - The 'okay' hand gesture.

    • The signifier is the symbol made by joining the thumb and the index finger together.

    • The signified meaning (in the Western world) is 'everything's okay'.

    Types of signifiers

    According to Charles Sanders Peirce, there are three different signifiers; Icons, Indexes, and Symbols.

    Icon signifier

    An icon is a signifier with an obvious connection and physical resemblance to the signified thing. Photographs, illustrations, and maps are good examples of icon signifiers.

    Semiotics image of the United Kingdom StudySmarterFig. 3 - Icon signifier used to represent the United Kingdom.

    This image is used to represent the United Kingdom. It is an icon signifier as it has an obvious and accurate resemblance to the physical shape of the United Kingdom.

    Index signifier

    Index signifiers are a little less obvious than icon signifiers. They are usually representations of the relationship between the signified and the signifier. The index signifier cannot exist without the presence of the signified. For example, smoke is an index signifier for fire.

    Most of us know the relationship between smoke and fire and know that there cannot be any smoke without a fire.

    Semiotics Danger of death image StudySmarterFig. 4 - Danger of death image found on some household products.

    Many of you will have seen this image placed on the back of potentially dangerous household products, such as bleach.

    The image is not a literal representation of what can be found in the bottle (i.e. the bottle of bleach isn't full of bones!); instead, it represents the relationship between the product and the user (i.e. if someone were to drink the bleach, they could die).

    The understanding of index signifiers can either be natural or learned. For example, most of us know from a very young age that a frown suggests a person is unhappy. On the other hand, we have to learn that the skull and crossbones (shown above) represent death.

    Symbol signifier

    Symbol signifiers are the most abstract of the three, as there is no apparent connection between the signifier and the signified. Symbol signifiers can differ from country to country, and we have to take time to teach and learn their meaning.

    Examples of symbol signifiers include the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation.

    For example, there is no physical or literal connection between the pound symbol (£) and money itself; however, it is a symbol that everyone in the UK will understand.

    Icon and index signifiers can also become symbol signifiers over time. Sometimes the thing that the icon or index signifier represents changes or becomes outdated, but the signifier is so well-known that it remains.

    Semiotics Image of caduceus StudySmarterFig. 5 - The image of the caduceus signifies medicine.

    This is an image of the staff (stick) carried by the Greek god Hermes. The original image can be traced back to 4000 BC and is believed to have associated meanings with trade, liars, and thieves.

    However, today we associate this symbol with medicine, and even though there is no obvious link between the image and medicine, this sign can be seen in pharmacies and hospitals all over the world.

    Types of signified meaning

    Just like how there are three different types of signifiers, there are also three different types of signified meaning. They are: denotative meaning, connotative meaning, and myths.

    Denotative meaning

    A sign's denotative meaning is its literal meaning. These are the obvious meanings everyone knows, i.e., the meaning found in the dictionary. For example, the denotative meaning of the word 'blue' is a primary colour between green and violet in the colour spectrum'.

    Connotative meaning

    A sign's connotative meaning includes all of its implied and associated meanings. For example, the connotative meanings for the word 'blue' include feelings of sadness, representations of the sky and the ocean, and symbolism of trust, loyalty, and wisdom.

    The interpretation of a sign's connotative meaning usually depends on the individual, and the understanding can differ from person to person.


    A sign's mythological meaning is usually very old and has been passed down through many generations. Mythological meanings are often religious or cultural and include many things seen in our daily lives, such as norms, values, and manners.

    An example is the yin and yang image, which has many mythological meanings in Chinese cultures, such as balance, femininity, darkness, and passivity.

    Semiotics Image of yin and yang StudySmarterFig. 6 - The yin and yang image.

    Semiotic analysis

    Although the process of semiotic analysis has undoubtedly been around for many years, modern-day semiotic analysis in linguistics was introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in the early 1900s.

    Semiotic analysis is when we take a medium of communication (e.g. a novel, a blog, a poster, a textbook, an advertisement etc.) and interpret the denotative, connotative, and mythological meaning of all of the signs together in context.

    We can use semiotic analysis when conducting discourse analysis. For example, when analysing a news article, it's important to not only consider the words used, but also how the words work alongside the images, colours, and advertisements also used. The combination of these different signs could potentially have a different meaning than viewing them on their own.

    Semiotics examples

    One example of semiotics is the use of a red stop sign on a street. The sign itself is a symbol that represents the concept of "stop" and is universally recognized as such. The colour red is also a signifier of danger or caution, which adds to the overall meaning of the sign. This is an example of how semiotics is used to convey meaning through the use of symbols and signifiers.

    Let's take a look at two more examples of semiotic analysis. We'll start with an easy one and then look at something a little more in-depth.

    Semiotic example 1:

    Semiotics, Image of an exit sign, StudySmarter

    Fig. 7 - The combination of the arrow, colour, and image gives this sign its meaning.

    What do you think this sign means?

    Although there are no words here, most people around the world will recognise this as an emergency exit sign. The combination of the colour green (which has connotations with 'go'), the arrow pointing left (a universally recognised icon signifier), and the image (an index signifier which shows the relationship between going left and exiting through a door), creates the semiotic meaning of the sign.

    You may have also seen this similar image before:

    Semiotics Image of exit sign StudySmarterFig. 8 - The colour green helps people recognise the exit.

    Using the same colours helps activate individuals' prior knowledge, adding to the sign's meaning.

    Semiotic example 2:

    Semiotics Uncle Sam Propaganda StudySmarterFig. 9 - Propaganda posters can convey many different meanings.

    When conducting a semiotic analysis of things such as posters, newspaper articles, book covers etc., try asking yourself the following questions:

    • What are the key signifiers and what do they signify? Consider the language, images, colour, and general design.
    • What are the potential denotative, connotative, and mythological meanings of the signs?
    • What is the context?

    Let's apply these questions to the above poster from World War 1.

    • The two men are shaking hands. The handshake gesture signifies 'unity' and 'welcoming'.

    • The two men are shaking hands across this globe. This could signify a 'bridge' between the two countries.

    • The term 'come across now' is an imperative sentence, creating a demand and a sense of urgency.

    • The image of the soldier makes it clear what type of person the Americans are hoping to attract.

    • The American man wearing a suit has connotative meanings of wealth and class.

    • The context of the time (during WordlWar 1) and the image of the man in uniform make it clear what 'You're needed' is referring to.

    Semiotics and language teaching

    Semiotics and teaching a first or second language often go hand in hand; this is because teachers will use images, signs, hand gestures, and visual aids (e.g. flashcards) to help them convey meaning.

    Semiotics is particularly useful in second language teaching as many signs are recognisable worldwide, meaning they make excellent teaching aids.

    Take a look at the following images for example:

    Semiotics image of the word dog StudySmarter Fig. 10 - Flashcards without a signified meaning are not very useful.

    This image would be fairly meaningless to a Chinese speaker learning English as there is only a signifier and no signified meaning.

    Semiotics Teaching flashcard of the word dog StudySmarterFig. 11 - Flashcards with images can help with the learning process.

    However, this image, which contains both the signifier and the signified, should be easily understood by the language learner.

    Semiotics - Key Takeaways

    • Semiotics is the study of visual language and signs. It looks at how meaning is created, not just with words, but also with images, symbols, gestures, sounds, and design. Semiotic analysis is when we analyse all of the meanings of all of the signs together in context.
    • In semiotics, we analyse signs in context. The term signs can refer to anything that is used to communicate meaning.

    • The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) are widely considered the founders of modern semiotics.

    • According to Charles Sanders Peirce, there are three different types of signifiers; Icons, Indexes, and symbols.

    • There are also three different ways signs can be interpreted: the denotative meaning, the connotative meaning, and the mythological meaning.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Semiotics

    What is semiotics?

    Semiotics is the study of visual language and signs. It looks at how meaning is created, not just with words, but also with images, symbols, gestures, sounds, and design. In semiotics, we study the meaning of signs. 

    What is an example of semiotics?

    An example of semiotics is how we associate the thumbs-up gesture with positivity. However, it's always important to consider the meaning of signs in context. For example, the thumbs-up is considered rude in some cultures!

    How can we make use of semiotics in teaching the English language?

    Semiotics and the use of signs can be extremely useful when teaching English, either as a first or second language. By using recognisable signs (e.g. images of animals and hand signs) we can easily convey meaning without the use of words. 

    What is semiotic analysis?

    Semiotic analysis is when we take a medium of communication (e.g. a novel, a blog, a poster, a textbook, an advertisement etc.) and interpret the denotative, connotative, and mythological meaning of all of the signs together in context. Semiotic analysis was formally introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in the early 1900s. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these are correct pairings?

    Which of these is NOT an abstract noun?

    Which of these is NOT a concrete noun?


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