Meanings, Meanings and more Meanings!

Today we’re going to look at the tradition of communication theory that deals with meaning. It’s called the semiotic tradition. For anyone who’s just like me and has no idea what semiotics is, let’s take a look at the definition first.

So, semiotics has to do with how we interpret any kind of sign, verbal or nonverbal, that has more than one meaning, and how that interpretation impacts society. I guess you can say that under this tradition, the communication focus is to understand and explain the whole concept of meaning.

The semiotic tradition operates on two basic assumptions. The first is that words are a special kind of sign know as symbols. Essentially, words are representations of real world objects, or people, or even concepts.


The second is that meaning resides in people, not in words. This is just a fancy way of saying a word can have a different meaning depending on the person who uses it, and it is people who are responsible for attributing meaning to things in the first place.

It’s like how the word ‘dog’ means something different to a child, than it does to a woman who is distrustful of men. Sorry fellas, it was the first example I could come up with. But you get the point. We are responsible for the meaning we attribute to the symbols, too.

Someone had to sit down and make the dictionaries after all.

Of course, to look a little deeper into meaning itself, I’ve brought along two friends. The first is a founding father of semiotics (a.k.a semiology), a Swiss linguist by the name of Ferdinand de Saussure. An understanding of basic concepts in his linguistic theory is key for anyone studying the use of various types of signs to communicate (a.k.a Me).


p025wvg8Saussure explained that a sign, when we use it, is made of certain elements. In our minds a process allows us to combine the ‘signifier’ – the thing that gives meaning, for example the word TARDIS – and the ‘signified’ which is the mental image of that thing, a blue police box that serves as a time machine for the Doctor.

Yes, I’m Whovian.

As Saussure outlined, the connection between all ‘signifiers’ (which are image or linguistic signs) and what they are signifying – their signified object or concept – is arbitrary. In other words, there is not necessarily any logical connection between the two.

The other VIP in the semiotic tradition is Charles Sanders Pierce. In his model of signs, there are three types of signs. Iconic signs resemble the object to which they refer. So for every photographer out there, you’re walking around taking iconic signs every time that shutter clicks.

Indexical signs signify things by means of a direct relation or causality between the object being represented, and the way it came to be represented. So whenever you drink that glass of Merlot, what you’re imbibing in is an indexical sign that there were grapes.

We’ve already touched on the last type of sign Pierce talks about – symbolic signs. Symbols signify through arbitrary social convention or law and therefore must be learnt. There’s really no reason English speakers call a pillow a pillow other than because that is the symbol English speakers before us chose to represent that fluffy, sleep-inducing thing you lay your head on. So words are symbols, and we teach our children what symbols refer to in the real world.

Because this tradition was brought about by a linguist in many regards, the variations thereof tend to coincide with the field of linguistics. The semantic variation deals with how signs relate to what they stand for, or their referents. The syntactic variation consists of rules we use to combine signs (and thus their meanings) in complex ways. The pragmatic variation looks at the practical use of meaning, with emphasis placed largely on how signs affect social life.

So let’s recap.

The semiotic tradition, and all the associated personalities we discussed above are looking at the art of meaning in communication. Under this tradition, communication is viewed as a collection of diverse and meaningful signs and we aim to understand that meaning and its associated effects.

Cyndi, the Traditionalist
(who was interested to see how much Linguistics and Communication overlap)


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