What is Semiotics? - Definition & Examples Video

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  • 0:00 Defining Semiotics
  • 2:17 Understanding Meaning-Making
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Diedra Taylor

Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.

Discover what semiotics is and learn how words make meaning. You'll also become familiar with the importance of Ferdinand de Saussure to linguistic studies and literary theory, including his semiotic model of the signified and signifier.

Defining Semiotics

Have you ever thought about why certain words mean what they do? In an age when 'mouse' can mean a little rodent or a computer device, it's easy to question exactly what words mean and how we make sense of them. This question of meaning is at the heart of semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of sign systems. It explores how words and other signs make meaning. In semiotics, a sign is anything that stands in for something other than itself. This lesson focuses primarily on linguistic signs.

The word 'semiotics' dates back to ancient Greece, but its use in modern linguistics was propelled in the 19th century with the research of Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure was a Swiss linguist who contributed greatly to the study of semiotics, also sometimes referred to as semiology.

Scholars of modern linguistics understand that words do not have innate meanings. That is, when we say the word 'rabbit', it is not because those sounds or letter symbols have anything to do with the qualities of a small, furry herbivore. In fact, the word, sounds, and letters are all unrelated to the creature we call rabbit, except that humans have assigned a value to them.

Because people have developed the ability to assign meaning with words, we are able to describe abstract meanings. This means we have words for things that we may not be able to actually see in front of us. Furthermore, the history of a word may not directly influence what it means to someone. As an example, we can use the word 'cool' without any thought or reference to temperature. The usage is separate from its history.

For Saussure, language itself makes meaning rather than simply conveying meaning. Therefore, our experience is influenced by the language we use to describe it. This meaning-making is why the theories of Saussure have become important to literary theory. When we understand that language is a sign system and not just a naming of objects, we read and discuss literary works differently. We are able to analyze the various meanings embedded in a text and how one text influences another.

Understanding Meaning-Making

Saussure developed a widely used model of semiotics. In order to understand his model, one must recognize the difference between what he called la langue (language) and la parole (speech). La langue is the set of language rules that every speaker understands, including how to make sounds into words and words into sentences. La parole is the actual utterance made by a person.

You can think of communication like swimming. La langue is the swimming pool, and la parole is the water. To be conducive to swimming, water needs a structure to hold it together, like speech needs the structure of our language system (la langue). The words we speak (la parole) make sense based only on the structure that holds them together, just like water can only be used for swimming if something contains it.

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