"Treachery of Images" Magritte

Overview Edit

Semiotics is the structure of meaning making between culture and a symbol. It is how communication of ideas can be expressed without words. Semiotics often differs cross-culturally, where different items can convey different meanings, inherently tying meaning making to a particular culture.

Definition and History Edit

Semiotics is the study of how meaning is created in signs, which loosely is, “something that is used in place of something else.” Signs are not just signs in the typical sense of a road sign or a sign outside a shop denoting it's services. A sign is any cultural symbol, for instance, white being worn on weddings, and black at funerals. In Western societies white is a symbol of purity and black is a symbol of death. However in a different culture, in this case Japanese, white is the color worn by the dead at funerals. The meaning making is based on cultural context. Hebert also talked about theories based on Saussure (renowned linguist from Geneva) and how it further breaks down the semiotic process. There is a signifier and the signified. One is the perceived sign, while the other is the understandable part of the sign. He goes on further to break it down into semes and isotopies, in which the signified can be broken down into these semes categories, while repeated semes create an isotopy.

The study of images and their messages is called semiology. Semiology began with the French linguistic, Ferdinand de Saussure. His study was Course in General Linguistics, and it set the standard for how signs were interpreted. He broke this down into two components: one, relating to sound, which he called the signifier, and the other related to the conceptual aspect, and this was called the signified. The signified is not a material object, but rather the idea of an object that one thinks about when someone hears the signifier. The signifier establishes the tangible aspect of language. These two ideas work together to complete a single sign.

Semiotics was progressed by the American philosopher, Charles Pierce. He studied the impression of signs and their underlying meanings.

These theories show how signs connect ideas and beliefs to particular cultures. They offer windows into a culture and are particularly vital to writing across media because a symbol can be used to convery a complex idea. Semiotics is, in it's most basic form, cultural shorthand, and can be very powerful when utilized correctly in the context of the culture it appears in.


Examples Edit

An example of this concept would be how we read signs. For example, Hebert talks about in his explanation of semiotics that traffic signs use different sequences to tell the viewer what to do. Each color is vastly different from the other to make it clear that all mean something different. These colors are red, yellow, green, and are very different as opposed to someone using dark green, medium green, and light green to convey different meanings. The timing of these signs also give hints to the viewer on what they mean. For example, yellow is in the middle, so one knows that its the intermediate between the two. But red is nothing other than the color red, because of it's ties to the concept of "stop" in traffic lights, the color red has taken on the meaning of "stop". Red does not inherently mean stop, it has gained it through a cultural context. Hebert calls this a neutral term, in which a “sign indicating the absence of two opposite terms, its meaning is ‘neither one.’”

Another example in real world is how color can be perceived differently amongst cultures. White, in our culture, seems to identify with ideas of purity, innocence, cleanliness, etc. Part of this association we have with this color is why brides wear white; it’s pure. However, this can be totally different in other cultures. White is what Indian cultures consider to be associated with death and funerals, while red is thought to bring the bride luck. Instead of wearing white, they wear red wedding dresses. Different cultures may have different meanings for colors, symbols, etc.

Both examples draw parallel to Drucker's article on the use of language in different physical context to communicate the authors' message more effectively. For instance, a classical example would be a 'STOP' sign telling drivers to halt their cars before the signage. Such signs are usually placed at junctions where the traffic is relatively chaotic and heavy. The effect of the "STOP" sends a very clear message - one should step on the brake of he vehicle without further questions. However, it is also easily comprehensible that the "STOP" sign is associated with some form of danger should one choose to disregard it. This also illustrates the semiotics, or the meaning-making process, between the physical placement of the sign and the language written on the sign itself. Stuart Hall also examines how the letters S-T-O-P are in fact symbols in and of themselves, as they are just pictorial representations of sounds, brought together in a symbol, the word stop, which conveys the meaning of "stop" as we know it. While the same concept of stop is represented in German by the letters H-A-L-T-E-N, thus how different languages are in their own way built on symbols to convey meanings. 

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Citations Edit

Selfe, Cynthia L., The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing, College Composition and Communication, Vol. 60, No. 4 (JUNE 2009), pp. 616-663

Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners." : Introduction. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Hebert, Louis. "Elements of Semiotics." Introduction to Semiotics / Signo. Signo, n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Drucker, Joanna, Language in the Landscape, Landscape, Vol. 28. No. 1, 1984

 Hall, Stuart. Representation. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2013. Print.