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Elements of Semiotics

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski


Semiotics is the academic field dedicated to the study of signs. A sign (for example, the word "ship") may be recognized by the presence of its constituent parts, which in semiotic theories based on Saussure's, at least, are the signifier (the container, or the sign's perceptible form: the letters s-h-i-p) and the signified (the meaning or content; the notion conveyed by the signifier: 'a vessel of considerable size for deepwater navigation'). With these concepts, general semiotics allows us to describe any system of signs: texts, images, performances, multimedia productions, traffic signals, fashion, daily life, etc. There are specific semiotic systems (for text, images, multimedia, and so on) that take into account the specifics of each system of signs. This chapter is an overview of general semiotics. In the first section, we define the field of semiotics and the concept of the sign, and enumerate the basic concepts and the names of some of the better-known theorists. Then, by analysing a seemingly innocuous object, the traffic signal, we illustrate some concepts of general semiotics – notions such as sender/receiver, sending/transmitting/receiving, channel, context, referent, system, code, redundancy, noise, paradigm/syntagm, margin of safety, seme, isotopy, polysemy/homonymy/synonymy, symbolic/semi-symbolic/semiotic relationships and systems, arbitrary/conventional signs, contiguous/noncontiguous signs, single/repeated signs, successive/simultaneous signs, actualized/virtualized signs, contrast, and so forth.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « Elements of Semiotics », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),

An updated and extended version of this chapter can be found in Louis Hébert, An Introduction to Applied Semiotics: Tools for Text and Image Analysis (Routledge, 2019,



In a nutshell, semiotics (or semiology) is the field of study that is concerned with signs and/or signification (the process of creating meaning). For several years now, the field of semiotics has been gaining momentum, due to the growth of multimedia, among other things.

Semiotics is not a single theory. There are, in fact, several semiotic theories. Some prominent people are associated with semiotics, including de Saussure, Peirce, Morris, Hjelmslev, Jakobson, Barthes, Greimas, and Eco (the famed author of the novel The Name of the Rose, upon which the movie of the same name is based). Some of the concepts of semiotics are also well known: signifier, signified, referent, paradigm, poetic function, isotopy, actantial model, semiotic triangle, semiotic square, open text, etc. Here and on other pages of Signo, you will find these names and concepts, as well as others. For supplemental reading, we have the excellent introductions to semiotics written by Eco (1988), Everaert-Desmedt (1990), Courtés (1991), and Klinkenberg (2000).

The notion of the sign can be described in several ways. Some definitions are functional: For example, the broadest definition, and one of the oldest, defines the sign as something that is used in place of something else (the something else may be interpreted as a signified or a referent, as we will see later). For instance, black is worn at a funeral not just for its own sake; it also signifies death, at least in our culture. Other definitions are based on the presence of the constituent elements of the sign, which vary from one theory to another.

In those theories based on Saussure's (the renowned linguist from Geneva), the sign may be broken down into the signifier, which is the perceivable part of the sign (for example, the letters s-h-i-p) and the signified, which is the understandable part of the sign, or the semantic content associated with the signifier (for example, the meaning of the word "ship"). The signified may be broken down into semes. For example, the signified 'ship' contains semes such as /navigation/, /concrete/, etc. An isotopy is created by the repetition of one seme. For example, in "There was a fine ship, carved from solid gold / With azure reaching masts, on seas unknown" (Émile Nelligan, "The Golden Ship"), the words "ship", "masts" and "seas" all contain the seme /navigation/ (as well as others), thus forming the isotopy /navigation/.

The conventional markers shown in the table below allow us to distinguish between (1) the sign (the word) "concrete"; (2) the signified, 'concrete', that it conveys; (3) the signifier associated with this sign, concrete, which is composed of the phonemes k-o-n-k-r-E-t and the letters c-o-n-c-r-e-t-e; and (4) the seme /concrete/ (in 'knife', for example) or the isotopy /concrete/ (in "steel knife", for example). In other places, a single slash may indicate an opposition (for example, life/death). There are other conventions used in semiotics than the markers we will present and use here.

Conventional Markers
"sign" (quotation marks) signifier (italics)
'signified' (single quote marks) /sememe/ and /isotopy/ (forward lashes)

In the Aristotelian tradition, the sign is broken down into three parts: the signifier, the signified and the referent, meaning the concrete thing to which the sign refers (for example, a real horse). In using the terms "signifier" and "signified" for the first two parts of the triadic sign, we are using Saussure's terminology; other terms have been proposed that sometimes correspond to very different theoretical visions. For example, Peirce (a renowned American logician), while part of the second tradition in semiotics, proposed a novel vision (to be presented in the chapter Peirce's Semiotics). The parts of the sign he distinguishes are the representamen, the interpretant, and the object.


As in any other discipline, semiotics reveals the complexity of phenomena that seem simple on the surface. Traffic signals are an example of a simple semiotic system that is far more complex than it seems. We are speaking here of standard traffic signals, not of all the many variations in existence.


The three main signifiers for traffic signals are colours: green, yellow and red. These signifiers use only one of the five sensory channels, that is, only one of the five senses – sight. (This is not the case with olfactory signs, for example.)

Within a single system of signs, signifiers must follow the principle of providing an adequate safety margin – and we are not talking about road safety. For example, traffic signals could in theory use these three colours: dark green, medium green and light green. It is easy to see that the lower safety margin between the signifiers would also decrease safety on the road.


The colours in traffic signals are often associated (or correlated) with other kinds of visual signifiers (which correlate to the same signifieds as the colours), for example, shapes (rectangle + red, circle + green, etc.), and positions (top, middle, bottom or left, middle, right). This correlation produces redundancy, which is the process of repeating one signified, either by associating it with several different signifiers or by repeating the sign in which it is conveyed. The purpose of redundancy is to counteract what is called noise in information theory, meaning that which impedes or could impede in transmitting or correctly interpreting (receiving) the message that was produced during the act of sending. The purpose of redundancy is to ensure that the receiver (the driver or the pedestrian) can perceive the sign with no problem, even when the circumstances are unfavourable (glare, colour blindness, distraction, etc.). For instance, why does a telephone ring several times when once would suffice? To ensure that at least one of the repeated signs is perceived.


With each colour of the traffic signal we associate one signified that is distinct from the signifieds for the other colours: 'go' for green, 'prepare to stop' for yellow, and 'stop' for red.


Polysemy occurs when two or more signifieds are associated with the same signifier.


The word "polysemy" has a specific meaning in linguistics, where it indicates a lesser difference between signifieds than in the case of homonymy. For example, the signifier m-o-u-t-h may be associated polysemically with two signifieds: 'river mouth' and 'oral cavity'. In contrast, the signifier d-r-a-f-t may be associated with two signifieds that are homonymic: 'a current of air' and 'conscription in the armed forces'.

When the same signified is associated with two or more signifiers, it is called synonymy, at least in the case of linguistic signs. This would be the case with "dead" and "deceased". Synonyms can also be found in the semiotic system we are discussing, as in the sign composed of red + 'stop', which has equivalents, although they are not as prominent: top + 'stop' (in a vertical arrangement, the red light is generally located at the top) and rectangle + 'stop'.


Perfect synonymy apparently does not exist, at least, not in linguistic systems. This is evidenced by the difference in usage between signs that are synonymous. For instance, "deceased" may be distinguished from "dead" by the fact that it belongs to a higher register of language and that it is used only for humans, except in specific rhetorical usages (we don't normally talk about a dog being "deceased"). The principle of solidar ity between signifier and signified explains the lack of true synonyms. According to this principle, as soon as we change the signifier, we change the signified, and vice versa. For example, if we change the phoneme m in "moose" to a g, we change not only the signifier, but also the signified that goes with it (a moose is not a goose).


A system of signs or a relationship between elements of any kind is (1) symbolic, (2) semi-symbolic, or (3) semiotic (the word "semiotic" has a restricted, specific meaning in this context). (1) When one signifier is associated with one and only one signified, we call this a symbolic system. Traffic lights and the "language" of flowers are examples of symbolic systems (roses = 'love', tulips = 'friendship', etc.). (2) A system is semi-symbolic if an opposition between signifiers corresponds (is homologous) to an opposition between signifieds. Gestures are often semi-symbolic in nature, as in the opposition vertical movement/horizontal movement, which is homologous to the opposition 'yes'/'no'. Traffic signals meet this definition partially: while red and green are in opposition as complementary colours, yellow does not have a real opposite in this system. Be that as it may, in other contexts each of these three colours can be part of other culturally defined oppositions (either within one culture or between cultures). For example, red and black are in opposition in several cultures, particularly in Africa. (3) Lastly, other systems may be classified as semiotic. Language is such a system.


The correlation between a colour and its signified is arbitrary (unmotivated). Any signifier may in theory be joined with any signified. In order to be correctly interpreted, the sign relies on a convention. (In this sense, but only in this sense, is it motivated.) The fact that other cultures and societies (Japan, Australia) correlate yellow with 'stop' in their traffic signals proves this point. Our traffic signals are obviously somewhat motivated, since there is a general correlation (or more accurately, a homology) established in our culture between red/green and 'harmful'/'beneficial'. (This would not necessarily be the case in other cultures.) This general correlation itself is nevertheless arbitrary, however we may rationalize it. (For example, red could symbolize bleeding, and green the growth of plants; but we can also find associations that go in the opposite direction, as in the colour green and illness). Although these associations between signifiers and signifieds are theoretically arbitrary, some constraints do exist, depending on the type of signifier and the situation. For example, it is hard to imagine traffic signals using a black signifier.

Peirce distinguishes three modes of signs: iconic (a photograph, or a school crossing sign with a silhouette of a person), indexic (signs belonging to the if ... then ... type, such as smoke for fire, a cat's tail for the whole cat), and symbolic (the word "daddy"). The most arbitrary sign is obviously the symbol, which relies completely on codification: there is no similarity (icon), no contiguity or proximity (index) between "daddy" and the thing it designates. To prove our point, in French, the word used to designate the same referent is "papa". One sign may be used in several ways, for example, as a symbol of one thing and an index of another. A traffic signal, for instance, is primarily a symbol, but may also serve as an index for an invisible intersection coming up.


A sign (1) may be of any duration, (2) may or may not be followed by a silence of any duration, and in the case where a sign is not isolated (a single sign), it will yield to another sign or else be repeated (a repeated sign).

To illustrate, traffic signals use single signs and repeated signs (blinking lights). In the "language" of traffic signals, a silence would be hazardous (as in the sequence "green light" → no light → "yellow light" → no light → "red light", for instance). The absence of a sign does not constitute a sign in this case, as often happens in other semiotic systems; for safety reasons, there do not seem to be any traffic lights with only one colour (as in the hypothetical case where the absence of red would mean 'go', rather than a green light). For similar reasons, someone decided it would be wise to insert an intermediate sign, "yellow light", between the two opposite signs, "red light" and "green light". The yellow light is intermediate in two ways: It is intermediate in time (being in the middle of the sequence, and we shall come back to this) and of course, its meaning is intermediate. In semiotics, it is what we call a neutral term, that is, a sign indicating the absence of two opposite terms. Its meaning is 'neither one'.


All languages are composed of signs and rules, with some degree of constraint on what combinations of signs may be used. Some of these constraints are temporal. Two events (two signs, in this case) can be (1) concomitant (they are simultaneous – they appear and disappear at the same time); (2) successive (immediately or with a time lapse); or (3) partially concomitant (with one starting later than the other, but before the first one ends).

In the "language" of traffic signals, as in real language, two signs cannot be produced at one time. At least in the oral manifestation of language, phonological reasons explain this rule: It is not possible to pronounce two phonemes at once. With traffic lights, this possibility is excluded for reasons of safety and coherence: the signs may only be produced in succession, with no concomitance and no silence. We can say that the signs are mutually exclusive: only one sign may be actualized (present) at a time; the other two must remain virtualized (in absentia). This eliminates the possibility of what we call a contrast, which is the simultaneous presence of two opposite signs ("red light" and "green light").

A paradigm is a set of equivalent virtualized signs, from which one sign is chosen to be actualized in a syntagm. A syntagm is a group of signs that succeed each other in time. (For example, a sentence is a group of words, and in this respect, a syntagm; there are other syntagms without temporal succession, such as a painting.)

Traffic signals have only one paradigm, composed of only three signs. They function with a syntagm that necessarily has three temporal and three spatial positions. At each position in time, only one sign is actualized. At each position in space (left, middle and right, if horizontal) only one sign, and always the same sign, is actualized. Undoubtedly for reasons of safety and cost, the option of using one bulb that changes colour is not encouraged (although there are pedestrian signals in which the signs "walk" and "don't walk" are located in exactly the same place). Out of all the possible combinations, only one is permitted: "green light" → "yellow light" → "red light" →, and so on. The signs are not equal in duration: The yellow light does not usually last as long as the other two, and the relative duration of the red and green lights is regulated according to the amount of traffic on each road involved. And here we enter into the wonders and the horrors of programming traffic signals, both individually and sequentially (synchronizing them). Semiotics can lead us with no warning into some distressingly mundane realms.


Since we have already illustrated the main concepts of semiotics in the previous section, a brief (and slightly risqué) application will suffice here: We shall examine the colour system for women's and girls' underwear (a more complex and structured system than that of men's underwear). This is a matter of specifying the semes (the elements that make up a signified) associated with these colours, which are the signifiers. We shall focus on the colours of underwear that have relatively specific signifieds (white, tan, red, etc.) rather than the colours that have fuzzy signifieds (turquoise, emerald, and brown, for example). We have selected the following colours: White, tan, red, pink and black.

The following table shows the main semes that can be associated with each colour, in our opinion. It goes without saying that this analysis is a relatively rough one, and that we could refine it with many more details. (For example, white underwear is not spontaneously associated with youthful ingenuity if it is made entirely of lace.) The plus sign indicates that a seme is present, and the question mark indicates that it may be present.

Semes associated with the colours of women's underwear
SIGNIFIER white tan red pink black
/girl/ + +?
/woman/ + + + +
/everyday/ + + +?
/athletics/ +
/special occasion/ + + +
/passion/ + +
/romantic/ + +
/passé, tacky/ + +?
/chic, classic/ + +? +
/ingenuous/ + +
/sexual confidence/ + +
other sememes /purity/ /provocative/ /soft/


ECO, U., Le signe, Brussels: Labor, 1988.
EVERAERT-DESMEDT, N., Le processus interprétatif: introduction à la sémiotique de Ch. S. Peirce, Brussels: Pierre Mardaga Publishing, 1990.
KLINKENBERG, J.-M., Précis de sémiotique générale, Brussels: De Boeck University, 2000.


Given the automobile colours white, red, black, and grey as signifiers, find the elements of meaning (semes) that may be associated with them.

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