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Semiotics

signs saussure sign study

is the study of signs and of systems of signs. It has a dual origin in the work of the American philosopher C. S. Peirce and the Swiss linguist F. de Saussure (18571913; see also structuralism). The word is used more or less interchangeably with semiology, although we can, if we are anxious to make a distinction, see semiotics, following Peirce, as something pragmatic, the study of signs at work, and semiology, following Saussure, as the general science of signs. Language is the chief sign-system of most cultures, but other signs are all around us, from traffic lights to body language, from high fashion to football crowd behaviour. The impulse of semiotics is to see the human being as above all a signifying creature, one that makes meanings, and has a need to find meanings everywhere. In this sense it is related to Hermeneutics, although semiotics tends to be interested in the structure and performance of signs rather than the process of their interpretation. For the semiotician the sign is purely conventional (Saussure used the word ‘arbitrary’, which is misleading in English, since it suggests that a sign can mean anything we like), taking its sense from its place in a pattern, not from a natural link to its referent. Hence what is studied is always a signifying system: a cluster of sentences, for example, rather than individual words; the flow of traffic rather than the routes of separate cars.

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