Semiotics: Language and Culture
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Semiotics: Language and Culture
Linguistic and Cultural Semiotics is a branch of communication theory that investigates sign systems and the modes of representation that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies. Semiotic analysis is rarely considered a field of study in its own right, but is used in a broad range of disciplines, including art, literature, anthropology, sociology, and the mass media. Semiotic analysis looks for the cultural and psychological patterns that underlie language, art and other cultural expressions. Umberto Eco jokingly suggests that semiotics is a discipline for studying everything which can be used in order to lie." (1976, p7). Whether used as a tool for representing phenomena or for interpreting it, the value of semiotic analysis becomes most pronounced in highly mediated, postmodern environments where encounters with manufactured reality shift our grounding senses of normalcy.
The notion that human thought and communication function by means of signs is an idea that runs deep in Western tradition. The sophist, Prodicus (c. 460-395 B.C.E.), founded his teachings on the practical idea that properly chosen words are fundamental to effective communication. Questioning this notion that words possess some universal, objective meaning, Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) explored the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. He suggested a separateness between an object and the name that is used to signify that object: "Any name which you give, in my opinion, is the right one, and if you change that and give another, the new name is as correct as the old," (Cratylus, 360 B.C.E.). Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) recognized the instrumental nature of the linguistic sign, observing that human thought proceeds by the use of signs and that spoken words are the symbols of mental experience, (On Interpretation, 350 B.C.E). Six centuries later Augustine of Hippas (354-430 A.D.), elaborated on this instrumental role of signs in the process of human learning. For Augustine, language was the brick and mortar with which human beings construct knowledge. "All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learned by means of signs," (On Christian Doctrine, I:2).
Semiotic consciousness became well articulated in the middle ages, due largely to the writing of Roger Bacon (1214-1293). In his extensive tract, De Signis (c. 1267), Bacon distinguished natural signs (i.e. smoke signifies fire) from those involving human communication (both verbal and non-verbal signs). Bacon introduced a triadic semiotic model that describes the relationship between a sign, its object of reference, and the human interpreter. This triad remains a fundamental concept within the modern study semiotics. John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas, 1589-1644) elaborated on the triad, laying down a fundamental science of signs in his Tractatus de Signis, (1632). Poinsot observed that signs are relative beings whose existence consists solely in presenting to human awareness that which they themselves are not. It was the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who finally bestowed a name on the study of signs. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke declared that the "semiotike doctrine of signs" should be one of the three major branches of science along with natural philosophy and practical ethics (Locke, 1690: XXI).
There are two major traditions in modern semiotic theory. One branch is grounded in a European tradition and was led by the Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). The other branch emerged out of American pragmatic philosophy by its primary founder, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Saussure sought to explain how all elements of a language are taken as components of a larger system of language in use. This led to a formal discipline which he called semiology. Peirce\'s interest in logical reasoning led him to investigate different categories of signs and the manner by which we extract meaning from them. Independently, Saussure and Peirce worked to better understand the triadic relationship between physical signs, the objects to which they refer, and the human interpreter.
Saussure laid the foundation for the structuralist school in linguistics and social theory. A structuralist looks at the units of a system and the rules of logic that are applied to the system, without regard to any specific content. The units of human language are comprised of a limited set of sounds called phonemes, and these comprise an unlimited set of words and sentences, which are put
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Semiotics, Sign, Representation, Meaning, Interpretant, Semiosis, Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Value, Social semiotics, Indexicality
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