Semiotics is a concept that deals with how meaning is read and understood, especially from signs and symbols (visual and linguistic codes). The term ‘semiotic’ was first used by American philosopher, C.S. Peirce (1839-1914), in the late nineteenth century to mean ‘the formal doctrine of signs’. The fundamental foundation of semiotics is the sign, which simply means, any recognized code to which there is an expected standard response.
Across cultures, different symbols and signs constitute the language, which eventually makes up the system of communication and expression. Other essential elements of a culture include non-verbal gestures, forms of dressing, and other conventionalised social activities such as eating. In essence, semiotics investigates how we see the world, and exactly how culture and environment we live in influences us unconsciously.
Examples of Semiotics
As humans, our impulsive actions and thoughts – activities we perform automatically – are often determined and influenced by a complex set of cultural codes, signs, messages and conventions. Our response to these symbols and messages ultimately depends on our ability to interpret these signals instinctively and immediately.
Everyone is a semiotician. We are all trying to unconsciously decrypt and interpret the meanings of different signs around us. Traffic lights, road signs, colors of flags, object shapes, architecture of buildings, and packaging of product are some common examples of codes, symbols and signs we see around us every day. Reading and interpreting (or decoding) these signs enables us to navigate our streets and communities safely.
For example, we automatically know how to react to the different colors of a traffic light when we see them. In fact, we already attach special meanings to some colors. Most of our reactions and responses to these colors are impulsive – without even thinking about it. The same applies to hand signals, body movement and languages, such as thumbs up or thumbs downs, hand waves, shrugs, winks, etc.
Furthermore, these signs and communication codes around us are not only the visual cues. They can also be sonic or aural signs, such as the sound of a fire alarm, police siren, car horn, whistle, etc.
However, these impulsive responses do not just happen, they are a product of conventions and memorization. These signs and symbols have been established by cultural convention over time and we have learned earlier (even as far back as childhood). Thus, we needed unconscious cultural knowledge to understand their meanings and how to react to them.
To truly comprehend and respond promptly to these symbols, signs and cues, an appropriate understanding of the context in which they are communicated is required, otherwise its real meaning may be misunderstood all together. The immediate environment in which the sign exists also determines how the sign itself is interpreted and how effective the meaning is.
In summary, semiotics is an important tool to ensure that intended meanings are unambiguously understood by the intended receivers. In cases where the intended receivers cannot understand or decode the real intention of a message and act on it, semiotics is an effective tool to help unravel the confusion, and correct the misunderstanding.