Semiotics is the study of meaning-making. This includes the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically. However, as different from linguistics, semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics is often divided into three branches:

• Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning
• Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
• Pragmatics: Relation between signs and sign-using agents

Semiotics is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the life sciences – such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics (including zoosemiotics).




Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences". Charles Morris adds that semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designata and the objects which they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiosis, that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena which occur in the functioning of signs.


Using the Greek letters σημιωτικὴ, the term “semiotics” was introduced into the English language by John Locke as a synonym for “doctrine of signs” (Latin: doctrina signorum, the oldest name for the study of what is now called “semiosis” or “the action of signs”). This was in the concluding chapter of his 1690 Essay concerning Humane Understanding. There already existed in Locke’s time (and long before) the Greek term Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, to name that branch of medical science concerned with the study of symptoms of disease or σημεια—“natural signs” in today’s language.

Thus, prior to Locke, and before the notion of “sign” as transcending the nature/culture divide was introduced by Augustine of Hippo, a specialized study that goes back to Hippocrates and Galen was firmly established. Himself a man of medicine, Locke was familiar with this “semeiotics” as naming a specialized branch within medical science. In his personal library were two editions of Scapula’s 1579 abridgement of Henricus Stephanus’ Thesaurus Graecae Linguae, which listed σημειωτικὴ as the name for “diagnostics”, the branch of medicine concerned with interpreting symptoms of disease (“symptomatology”).

Yuri Lotman, who introduced Eastern Europe to semiotics and adopted Locke’s coinage of Σημιωτικὴ as the name to subtitle his founding at the University of Tartu in Estonia in 1964 of the first semiotics journal, Sign Systems Studies (but did not have the advantage of examining all five of the editions of the Essay prepared in Locke’s home and lifetime), was hounded by linguists into later altering and substituting as the journal’s subtitle Σημειωτικὴ—a misguided “correction”, as pointed out above, which yet persists to the present day. One can only hope that the (mis)“correction” will likely be corrected (or re-corrected!) eventually, as the actual history of semiotics comes to be more generally and deeply understood.


Semioticians classify signs or sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.

To explain the relationship between semiotics and communication studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data and-or meaning from a source to a receiver. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognize that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e., be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994) suggested that semioticians' priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16), who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.


Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations, and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense. Peirce's definition of the term "semiotic" as the study of necessary features of signs also has the effect of distinguishing the discipline from linguistics as the study of contingent features that the world's languages happen to have acquired in the course of their evolutions.

From a subjective standpoint, perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference lies between separate traditions rather than subjects. Different authors have called themselves "philosopher of language" or "semiotician". This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears connections to linguistics, while semiotics might appear closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory) and to cultural anthropology.

Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism's apprehension of the world through signs. Scholars who have talked about semiosis in their sub-theories of semiotics include C. S. Peirce, John Deely, and Umberto Eco. Cognitive Semiotics is combining methods and theories developed in the disciplines of cognitive methods and theories developed in semiotics and the humanities, with providing new information into human signification and its manifestation in cultural practices. The research on cognitive semiotics brings together semiotics from linguistics, cognitive science, and related disciplines on a common meta-theoretical platform of concepts, methods, and shared data. Cognitive semiotics may also be seen as the study of meaning-making by employing and integrating methods and theories developed in the cognitive sciences. This involves conceptual and textual analysis as well as experimental investigations. Cognitive semiotics was initially developed at the Center for Semiotics at Aarhus University (Denmark), with an important connection with the Center of Functionally Integrated Neuroscience (CFIN) at Aarhus Hospital. Amongst the prominent cognitive semioticians are Per Aage Brandt, Svend Østergaard, Peer Bundgård, Frederik Stjernfelt, Mikkel Wallentin, Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, and Jordan Zlatev. Zlatev later in co-operation with Göran Sonesson established CCS (Center for Cognitive Semiotics) at Lund University, Sweden.

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