23.01.17 Semiotics in depth

Charles Sanders Peirce 


Pierce “discovered” semiotics at about the same time as Saussure. He added more detail and made semiotics fit all forms of communication, not just linguistics.






Icon, Symbol, Index

Peirce’s breakdown of signifiers:


Not like a celebrity (Icon), an icon on your computer for example. Internet icon, word document icon etc.

This kind of signifier always has a physical resemblance to the signified.

This could be roads and rivers on maps as they follow the patterns of the real landmarks. It could be all images that are not abstract. The amount that a signifier is iconic is relative – a hologram of a person is very iconic, so is a photograph, painting, drawing, while a stick person is only just iconic of a human.

Onomatopoeic words also have a (slight) resemblance to the sound they describe and are therefore iconic signifiers, whereas most words are not.



Signifiers that are symbols have no natural connection to their signifieds. They are cultural conventions that are agreed to have specific meanings in a given society. Again their context is important as the meaning can change.

All written words are symbols and all spoken words (except onomatapia) are symbols. All numbers are symbols (unless written as dots). All letters are symbols. When clothing signifies this is also symbolic. Road signs, heraldry and logos are all symbolic (bit may have iconic elements within them).



Signifiers that are indexes have an actual, physical link to their signifieds. The signifier cannot exist without the presence of the signified.

Smoke as a signifier of fire is a classic example. Symptoms of illness are signifiers of the condition. Lipstick traces on a glass, footprints, fingerprints are all indexes. Many elements of the weather are signifiers of weather conditions – such as rain, lightning, heatwaves, fog and rainbows. Smells and sounds are also indexes of the signifieds that caused them.

Indexical signifiers are used to forecast the weather, diagnose illness, and are evidence for detectives, historians, archaeologists and palaeontologists.



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