Semiology – the study of existing, conventional, communicative systems. Semiotics is, in short, the study of signs.
Sign – in the humanities, we use it to talk about something which stands for something else.

Three branches of semiotics:

  1. Syntactics
    • the study of the structural relations between signs
  2. Semantics
    • the study of the meaning of the signs (the relationship between the signs and what they stand for)
  3. Pragmatics
    • the study of the ways in which signs are used and interpreted

Saussure’s dyadic model of the sign

In this model, the sign consists of two inseparable elements:

  1. A signifier
    • For Saussure, a form which a sign takes;
    • For Saussure himself, in relation to linguistic signs, this meant a non-material form of the spoken word – ‘a sound-image’
    • But subsequent semioticians have treated it as the material (or physical) form of the sign, something that can be seen, heard, felt, smelt, or tasted
    • for example, the word cat, written or pronounced
  2. A signified
    • the content, the mental concept represented by the signifier (not a material thing)
    • for example, the cat itself but not an exact cat, more like an idea of a cat in general

Denotation – a relationship between the signifier and its signified.
It is usually treated as the ‘literal’, ‘obvious’, or ‘commonsense’ meaning of a sign, but semioticians tend to treat it as a signified about which there is a relatively broad consensus.

Connotation – a relationship between the signifier and its signified using a sign’s secondary meaning.
It is those socio-cultural and personal associations one has when decoding a text.

Modes of links

Charles Sanders Peirce claimed that there are three main modes of how the signifier is linked to the signified. A sign can be a combination of different modes.

  1. Symbol
    • the signifier does not resemble the signified but the relationship between them is learnt in the society
    • for example, the word ‘stop’ or the red traffic light
  2. Icon
    • the signifier resembles the signified, looks/smells/sounds/etc like it, possesses some of its qualities
    • for example, a portrait, a metaphor, imitative gestures
  3. Index
    • the signifier is directly connected (physically or causally) to the signified
    • tor example, smoke, fingerprints, pulse rate, knock on the door

Peircean triadic model of the sign

  1. A representamen
    • the form which the sign takes
  2. An interpretant
    • the sense made of the sign
  3. An object
    • what the sign stands for


A paradigm – a set of associated signifiers which are all members of some
defining category, but in which each signifier is different.
For instance, in languages, there are grammatical paradigms such as verbs or nouns.

Another example: think about the alphabet and the formation of a word. For instance, it is written D * G.
The middle * between the D and the G can be filled with several choices. We can chose different letters to place in the slot and get different words. Each of those slots make up a mutually exclusive choice.

In a given context, one member of the paradigm set is structurally
replaceable with another. The use of one signifier (e.g. a particular word or a garment) rather than another from the same paradigm set (e.g. adjectives or hats) shapes the preferred meaning of a text.


A syntagm – a combination in a certain order of interacting signifiers which forms a meaningful whole (sometimes called a ‘chain’).
For example, in languages, a sentence is a combination of words in a specific order.

Syntagmatic relationships exist both between signifiers and
between signifieds.

  • Relationships between signifiers
    • can be either sequential (e.g. in film and television narrative sequences),
    • or spatial (e.g. montage in posters and photographs).
  • Relationships between signifieds are conceptual relationships (such as an argument).

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