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The Semiotic Square

By Louis Hébert

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski

louis_hebert@uqar.ca

1. ABSTRACT

Greimas

Algirdas Julien Greimas

The semiotic square, developed by Greimas and Rastier, is a means of refining oppositional analyses by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (life/death, for instance) to four (for example, life, death, life and death (the living dead), and neither life nor death (angels)) to eight or even ten.

This text can be found in extended version in this book:
Louis Hébert, Dispositifs pour l'analyse des textes et des images, Limoges, Presses de l'Université de Limoges, 2007.

Click here to obtain the English translation of this book.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Louis Hébert (2006), « The Semiotic Square », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec), http://www.signosemio.com/greimas/semiotic-square.asp.

2.THEORY

The actantial model, isotopy and the semiotic square are undoubtedly the best-known theoretical propositions that have emerged from the Paris School of semiotics, with Greimas as its central figure. Like the actantial model and the veridictory square, the semiotic square is designed to be both a conceptual network and a visual representation of this network, usually depicted in the form of a "square" (which actually looks like a rectangle!). Courtés defines it as the visual representation of the logical structure of an opposition (cf. Courtés, 1991, 152). The semiotic square is a means of refining oppositional analyses by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (for instance, life/death) to four (for example, life, death, life and death (the living dead), and neither life nor death (angels)) to eight or even ten. Here is an empty semiotic square.

Structure of the semiotic square

 

 

5. (=1+2)

COMPLEX TERM

 

 

 

1. TERM A

 

2. TERM B

 

9. (=1+4)

10. (=2+3)

 

3. TERM NOT-B

 

4. TERM NOT-A

 

7. (=1+3)
POSITIVE DEIXIS

8. (=2+4)
NEGATIVE DEIXIS

 

 

 

 

6. (=3+4)
NEUTRAL TERM

 

 

LEGEND:
The + sign links the terms that are combined to make up a metaterm (a compound term); for example, 5 is the result of combining 1 and 2.

2.1 CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS

The semiotic square entails primarily the following elements (we are steering clear of the constituent relationships of the square: contrariety, contradiction, and complementarity or implication):

  1. terms
  2. metaterms (compound terms)
  3. object(s) (classified on the square)
  4. observing subject(s) (who do the classifying)
  5. time (of the observation)

2.1.1 TERMS

The semiotic square is composed of four terms:

  • Position 1 (term A)
  • Position 2 (term B)
  • Position 3 (term not-B)
  • Position 4 (term not-A)

The first two terms form the opposition (the contrary relationship) that is the basis of the square, and the other two are obtained by negating each term of the opposition.

2.1.2 METATERMS

The semiotic square includes six metaterms. The metaterms are terms created from the four simple terms. Some of the metaterms have been named. (The complex term and the neutral term, despite their names, are indeed metaterms).

  • Position 5 (term 1 + term 2): complex term
  • Position 6 (term 3 + term 4): neutral term
  • Position 7 (term 1 + term 3): positive deixis
  • Position 8 (term 2 + term 4): negative deixis
  • Position 9 = term 1 + term 4: unnamed
  • Position 10 = term 2 + term 3: unnamed

2.2 AN EXAMPLE OF A SEMIOTIC SQUARE

We now have the basic framework to show an example of a semiotic square filled in. This one uses the opposition masculine/feminine:

An example of a semiotic square

 

 

Masculine + Feminine
"androgyne"
"hermaphrodite"

 

 

 

Masculine
"man"

 

 

Feminine
"woman"

 

9?

10?

 

Not-feminine
"mannish", "macha"

 

 

Not-masculine
"effeminate"

 

Masculine + Not-feminine
"real man", "macho"

Feminine + Not-masculine
"ultra-feminine",
"vamp? "

 

 

 

 

Not-feminine + Not-masculine
"angel"

 

 

The words in quotation marks are examples of concepts that can be classified under a term or a metaterm. These concepts may be represented by the words used here or by others (for example, the concept 'androgynous' could be manifested in a text by the word "androgynous", but also by the expression "he was as masculine as he was feminine"). The question marks illustrate how difficult it can be to find actual phenomena that correspond to these metaterms. More details of the square will be given later.

2.3 THREE LEVELS OF ANALYSIS

All in all, we can distinguish three levels of analysis:

  1. Do the objects covered by a given position on the square actually exist in reality? (For instance, in reality, one cannot be dead and alive at the same time, which is the case with our biggest nightmare, the vampire.)
  2. Can a position on the square be lexicalised more or less adequately; that is, can it be named with an existing word or expression in standard usage? For example the neutral term 'neither euphoria nor dysphoria' (that is, neither positive nor negative) can be lexicalised by the word "indifference", or better yet, by a technical neologism, "aphoria". The neutral term 'neither alive nor dead' does not have a true lexical archetype, as the words "zombie" and "living dead" refer to specific cases within this class rather than satisfactory lexicalisations. ("Living dead" is undoubtedly better classified under the complex term.)
  3. Is each position on a given square realised in the corresponding text? Generally speaking, only some of the possible positions show up in a text. Our masculine/feminine square is an abstract one; it does not describe a specific text.

2.4 HOMOGENEITY IN THE SQUARE

As with any device, a semiotic square should be explicitly coherent (the square should describe a homogeneous universe (Floch, 1985, 200)).

For instance, in our masculine/feminine square (which is based on Floch's), we chose to represent only the "natural", "spontaneous" states of masculinity/femininity (in a general sense, that is, not just biological), although they are applied to unreal beings (angels). In order to increase or decrease the number of phenomena it covers, a square may be made more general or more specific. Generalizing the square will allow us to include the phenomenon of transsexuality. A transsexual who was originally a man has gone through the state of not-manhood (castration, etc.) to reach the state of womanhood. Depending on the descriptive postures required, we can say that the transsexual is a woman in some respects (legal, for example) and a man in others (chromosomal, for example). In other words, by switching from the parts to the whole or from one part to another, we can make the classification vary.

2.5 THE SEMIOTIC SQUARE AND VERIDICTORY STATUS

The veridictory categories (true/false) can and sometimes must be part of the analysis, and therefore so are the observing subjects. For the apostles (observing subjects), Jesus (the object being observed) really did pass from life to death, and then to life. (Later on, we will see that the trajectory is more complex in reality.) For the non-believers (observing subjects), if he existed, Christ simply passed from life to death, like everyone.

Because of this, we will distinguish between reference positions or trajectories, which are defined by the observing subject who determines the ultimate truth of the text (usually the narrator), and assumptive positions or trajectories, which may be contradicted by the reference elements. For example, when stating the believers' (assumptive subject) thesis and the non-believers' (assumptive subject) thesis, the narrator (the reference subject) of a Christian essay will validate the former and invalidate the latter.

NOTE: BEING/SEEMING AND TRANSSEXUALITY

The transsexual provides another example of how the veridictory categories work. Applying the modal values of the veridictory square, one might say that the transsexual's being has not changed, and that her trajectory, like the transvestite's (which, of course, can play on an ambiguous, simultaneously male and female appearance) affects only her seeming. We can see that using the veridictory square entails moving from one part (being) of the observed object to the other (seeming).

2.6 EXPLANATIONS OF THE METATERMS

2.6.1 METATERMS 9 AND 10

Metaterms 9 and 10 are not recognized in classical semiotics, undoubtedly because the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction is followed. However, at least from a theoretical and deductive perspective, just the possibility of making assertions like "he was dead and not dead" about a zombie, as opposed to "he was dead and alive" invites us to consider the possibility that these metaterms exist.

Whatever the case, the apparent contradiction in many "absurd" utterances is neutralized through the dissimilation of meanings (cf. Rastier, 1987, 143 and following). This seems to be the case with the usual opening statement in Majorcan folk tales: «Axio era y no era» (it was and was not) (cf. Jakobson, 1963, 239) and the Confucian maxim "Your son is not your son", where the dissimilations revolve around the oppositions imaginary/real and filiation/property.

2.6.2 METATERMES 7 AND 8

There are two main ways to think of the positive and negative deixes (metaterms 7 and 8). One way is to think of them as intensifying a term by affirming a semantic value and simultaneously negating the opposite of that value (for example, white and not-black). This is the perspective we used in designing our square of the feminine/masculine opposition. (A "macho" man thus overstates the so-called virile personality traits, while at the same time understating the supposedly feminine traits).

On the other hand, the negation of a term may be interpreted as weakening its intensity (for example, not-life is still life, but at a lesser intensity, as in agony). Insofar as we integrate a quantitative dimension in the analysis, we can say that the deixes represent a higher intensity of term A or B from which they are derived (for instance, life + not-death would correspond to an intense state of life, as in the prodigious vitality of some of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

2.6.3 METATERM 6

By virtue of the semiotic square's principle of homogeneity, the neutral term (metaterm 6) contains only those elements marked as 'neither one', not the elements that simply belong to the residual class of the square (for example, normally a concept like 'wealth' is simply absent from a square like life/death and does not enter into its neutral term). The "residual" class of the semiotic square incorporates all elements put into positions other than those selected by the analyst and, of course, all other elements.

2.6.4 METATERMS AND SUCCESSIVE/SIMULTANEOUS APPREHENSION

The metaterms come into play when two terms judged as distinct and different are apprehended successively vs. simultaneously. The oxymoron "black sun" (Nerval) can be counted as a complex term (light + darkness) by predication (there exists a sun that is black); conversely, in the linear (tactical) construction of meaning, it would count as two contrary terms in succession.

2.7 SEMANTIC AND SYNTACTIC USAGES OF THE SQUARE

The square may be used on a semantic ("static") level or a syntactic ("dynamic") level (distinguished by the changes in position of each object over time). In Greimasian semiotics, syntax is the sequencing or succession of semantic values. Syntactic use of the square describes the successive positions occupied by one or several objects.

2.7.1 THE SEMANTIC LEVEL

For use on the semantic level, we need to proceed as follows:

1. Set up any opposition of contraries (for example, life/death).

2. Project the sub-contraries (for example, not-life/not-death).

3. Create the various metaterms (life + death, not-life + not-death, etc.) by finding satisfactory lexicalisations for them where possible (for example, masculine + feminine = "hermaphrodite").

4. Examine the text for all ten semantic possibilities (the four terms and six metaterms). For each of the ten classes, assign the elements that manifest these possibilities. A single semiotic act - even an elaborate one like a novel - will not necessarily use all ten of the possible classes. The most frequent ones are the two contrary terms ('one or the other'), the complex term ('both') and the neutral term ('neither one').

In textual analysis, we are not bound by lexicalisations. For example, an element may fall under the class 'death' without actually appearing as the word "death". "Deceased", "last journey", etc. will do just as well. Conversely, a figurative expression like "dead tired" (or "dead battery") will not fit under 'death' unless the text is playing with double meanings - a frequent occurrence in literature.

2.7.2 THE SYNTACTIC LEVEL AND TIME

When using the square on the syntactic level, we examine the successive positions occupied by objects on a square. Increasing numbers indicate the sequence of the various positions occupied (by a single object or from one object to the next).

As in any analysis, three main kinds of temporality are likely to be involved: the temporality of the story being told, narrative temporality (the order in which events of the story are presented), and tactical temporality (the linear sequencing of semantic units, for example, from one sentence to the next).

We are also proposing a representation of the semiotic square in table form. This allows us to easily account for both the movements on the square in terms of the selected temporality and the possible interplay between the observing subjects (the narrator, characters, etc.) who are likely to see things differently.

An example of a semiotic square in table form

 

OPPOSITION : _________ / _________

No

Time

Object(s) (element placed on the square)

Object's position on the square (1-10)

Observing subject

JUSTIFICATION, COMMENT

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. APPLICATION : THE PASSION OF CHRIST

We shall adapt an example from Courtés (1991, 152-154) using the Bible. With respect to the opposition life/death, Christ goes through the following stages:

  1. Not-life + not-death: the divine existential state, beyond life and death.
  2. Life: At the Nativity, Jesus becomes human.
  3. Not-life: the agony of crucifixion.
  4. Death: He is pierced by the lance, confirming his death, and placed in the tomb.
  5. Not-death: the process of resurrection. (Is it instantaneous or does it occur over time? In the latter case, there would be an ellipsis: why, and with what effect on the story?)
  6. Life: emerging from the tomb. Other interpretations are possible: The resurrection brings Jesus back to not-life + not-death, even here on Earth, or it grants him boundless life, freed from death (life + not-death). To simplify things, we shall say that Jesus is in life, and that the Ascension is what brings him back to not-life + not-death.
  7. Not-life + not-death: beginning with the Ascension.

You will notice that this syntactic description has the advantage of eliciting some much-debated theological positions and pinpointing them within a framework. These debates are interpreted in terms of "conflicts" over different classifications on the same semiotic square. For instance, some people maintain that when Jesus was placed in the tomb, he was not actually dead, but in a state of not-life. Changes in beliefs may be represented as syntactic movement on the square, insofar as we consequently apply veridictory categories (true/false) to each position that is taken. Thus, for Thomas, Jesus is in death, not life, which he mistakenly believes until he touches Jesus' wounds.

4. LIST OF WORKS CITED

COURTÉS, J., Analyse sémiotique du discours. De l'énoncé à l'énonciation, Paris: Hachette, 1991.
FLOCH, J.-M., "Quelques concepts fondamentaux en sémiotique générale", Petites mythologies de l'oeil et de l'esprit; pour une sémiotique plastique, Paris-Amsterdam: Éditions Hadès-Benjamins, 1985, p. 189-207.
JAKOBSON, R., "Linguistique et poétique", Essais de linguistique générale, Paris: Minuit, 1963, p. 209-248.
RASTIER, F., Sémantique interprétative, Paris: Presse universitaire de France, 1987.

5. EXERCISES

A. Using the following text, locate Robinson on a semiotic square using the opposition life/death. If there are any changes in his position, indicate them.

"All those who knew me [Robinson], all without exception [including his wife], believe me dead. My own belief in my existence is opposed to that unanimous belief. No matter what I do, I cannot prevent that picture of Robinson's dead body from existing in all their minds. This alone, though certainly it does not kill me, suffices to remove me to the outermost confines of life, to a place hung between heaven and hell - in a word, to Limbo. Speranza, or the Limbo of the Pacific. This state of half-death at least helps me to understand the deep, substantive, and seemingly ineluctable relationship between sex and death. Being closer to death than any other man, I am by the same token closer to the very springs of sexuality. (Michel Tournier, Friday, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997, p. 123)

B. Use semiotic squares to analyse the following sentences:
  1. "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, [...] was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." (Paul, 2 Corinthians 1:19).
  2. "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37)
  3. "[The spiritual experience] is an immediate, intuitive experience of one-ness that transcends or dissolves the separation of subject and object". (Hans Küng).
  4. "Every year, we spend a fortune traveling abroad. What's even harder to take is this ambiguity you find, for example, with Aunt Louise, about her identity. And we don't like the buffet-style Chinese restaurants you find in North America, either.
  5. —They are neither A nor B, said one of Aunt Louise's guests, they are amphibious, impure, hybrid things...
    And immigrants, I thought." (Translation of Ying Chen, Les lettres chinoises, Montreal: Leméac, 1993, p.48).

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