The academic study of semiotics attempts to identify and explain the signs used in every society in the world.
“The more you know, the more you see.”
• Aldous Huxley
Origins: 397 B.C. From semeion, the Greek word for sign. Augustine, Greek philosopher and linguist, first proposed the study of signs. To Augustine, signs were the link between nature and culture.
A sign is simply something that stands for something else. Any physical representation, from a gesture to an orange jacket, is a sign if it has meaning beyond the object itself. Consequently, the meaning of any sign must be learned.. If you do not understand the meaning of the orange jacket, it is not a sign for you.
THREE TYPES OF SIGNS: Icons, Indexical signs, and Symbols.
Icons: The easiest to interpret because they most closely resemble the thing they represent.
Indexical: These signs have a logical, common-sense connection to the thing or idea they represent, rather than a direct resemblance. A footprint, for example, and represent the person who made the impression. Smoke can represent fire, and so on.
Symbols: The most abstract, symbols have no logical or representational connection between them and the thing they represent. More than the other two types of signs, symbols need to be taught. For this reason, social and cultural considerations influence them greatly. Words, numbers, colors, flags, costumes, religious images are all examples. Because they often have deep roots in the culture of a particular group, symbolic signs usually evoke a stronger emotional response than iconic or indexical signs.
IMAGES: A COLLECTION OF SIGNS
Codes: French Philosopher Roland Barthes described the chain of associations or signs that make up a pictures narrative. The common term for this “chain of associations” is codes. Through its history and customs, a society develops a complex system of codes. Individual signs are thus combined to communicate complicated ideas. Berger suggests four types of codes: metonymic, analogic, displaced and condensed.
Metonymic: A collection of signs that cause the viewer to make association or assumptions. An advertisement showing an expensive room, with nice furnishings, subdued lighting, and a fire glowing in the mantle would communicate metonymically the prospect of romance or comfort for upper-class residents.
Analogic: A group of signs that cause the viewer to make mental comparisons.
Yellow writing paper might remind the writer of the yellow peel of a lemon because of the similar color.
Displaced: Codes that transfer meaning from one set of signs to another. The Washington Monument as a phallic symbol, for example.
Condensed: Several signs that combine to form a new, composite sign. The quick editing techniques of music videos mix together many different types of colors, graphics and imagery. Within the culture the message is intended for, the condensed code has relevant meaning, But for those outside the culture, the images are often confusing, without purpose. (Is this why the older generations don’t get the music videos?)
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