Semiotics refers to the study of sign. Umberto Eco, stating that semiotics is concerned with everything that can be used to stand for something else, refers to it as the “theory of the lie”. It draws the distinction between the signifier (the word “dog”) and the signified the actual animal) to try and understand the relation between both, that are often based on social and cultural conventions, that eventually shape our perception of the world, or according to Branston “an imaginative access to the world”. A world made of constructed signs.
Then what exactly is a sign?
According to Berger, a sign is “something that stands for something else, as a spoken or written workd, a drawn figure, or a material object unified in the mind with a particular cultural concept. In that sense the language is a system of signs. Language is not speech, it is a social institution that uses signs to communicate denotion and connotation, that is to say “primary meaning”, and more “evocative” meaning. Indeed sociocultural are not only material but can have sometimes complex meanings. Signs embody all of that.
3 types of signs are defined:
- Icon: “an icon is a sign that partake of the character of the object” (Berger), that is linked to it. For instance, a logo or a drawing of a particular objectAn icon is recognizable since it tends to fit the material embodiment of the object, to correspond to it. It has been for parodied for instance by Magritte in his famous painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” meaning “this is not a pipe”, insisting on the fact that even though signs and especially icons may look like the actual material object, we must keep in mind that it is only a representation of the reality. Icon usually embody a very graphic character.
- Index: this kind of sign is linked with the material object with a causal relation: we can for instance think of a smoke picture:
The very meaning that was constructed to fit the sign is the direct cause of its representation, in that case visual. We guess here that there is a fire or a cigarette at the very left of the image, as the source of the smoke we see. This type of sign is in a sense very indirect, since it refers to the imaginary of the individual who has to interpret it a certain way
- Symbol: A symbol, is a constructed sign, often with a high level of cultural and social history that explains its making and its acceptation in the common codes. As opposed to the two others, It may not have any visual link with the concrete meaning of the object of the signThe thumb up symbol refers to a sentiment of approval, but the connection between both is socially and historically constructed, without real concrete connection between the two of them.
What we can understand from semiotic study is that meaning is a much more complex artifact than it seems. We only rarely have a direct access to the world, and have to refer to symbols, codes, conventions… a system of sign that provides us with an interpretation of the world through a grid of multidimensional meanings. This approach is crucial in media study since media is only a representation of the reality, hence the recurrent use of many signs in this field, that has to be decoded in order to draw a complete and accurate analysis of medias, communication and production meaning in general.