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  Semiotics (originally semiology or semeiology: Greek, ‘study of signs’), in linguistics, is concerned with the mechanisms of communication, with signs and the way they function systematically to convey meaning. The exact nature of the sign relationship is controversial, but almost all theories recognize at least two components, sometimes referred to as the representamen (‘sign vehicle’), and the object (what the sign stands for).

The founder of semiotics, the US philosopher C.S. Peirce (1839 - 1914), showed how the communicative purpose of a sign is dependent on the kind of relationship between representamen and object. He identified three kinds of signs: ‘iconic’, ‘indexical’ and ‘symbolic’. ‘Iconic’ signs represent what they refer to: an example is the sign showing a ferocious dog and meaning ‘Beware of the dog’. ‘Indexical’ signs can only be interpreted by reference to what is being ‘pointed at’ in a given context: the word ‘me’, for example, means something quite different when I use it and when you use it.

It has been argued that iconic and indexical relationships dominate our ordinary use of language. However, the recognition of language as a unique sign system is in some large measure due to the symbolic functions words embody. ‘Symbolic’ signs, Peirce\'s third category, are quite independent of the objects (any objects) to which they refer; their meaning is established by convention, and nothing in the nature of the sign resembles or refers to any specific object. Numerals and letters of the alphabet are obvious examples, but most words in a language clearly do come into this category.

Peirce\'s original categories applied principally to language. It was the Swiss philosopher , Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913) who broadened semiology (as he called it) to include methods of communication of all kinds. His ideas are not only crucial to modern linguistics and to such literary-critical disciplines as psychoanalytical criticism and structuralism, but play an important part in modern anthropology, media studies and sociology. KMcL MS

Further reading Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics; , Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction.



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