Semiotics: Barthes does it, but what is it?

Semiotics means, literally, the science or study of signs.

The word semiotics comes from the Greek semeion (sign or mark) and semeiotikos (interpreter of signs, or sign reader). It is sometimes called, particularly in Europe, semiology (–ology meaning science or discourse), as in Barthes’ Mythologies.

“The basic goal of semiotics,” as Marcel Danesi writes, “is to identify what constitutes a sign and to infer, document, or ascertain what its meanings are” (Of Cigarettes 9).

What is a “sign”? According to semiotics, a sign is any object of interpretation, that is, anything that we take as signifying (standing for) something else. That could include, for example:

words, pictures, diagrams, gestures, facial expressions, musical notation, clothes, monuments, flags, television commercials, traffic signs, emoticons, fingerprints, arithmetical and algebraic notation, Morse code, semaphor, color-coding, architectural details that remind us of other times and places (e.g., Greek columns), ad infinitum…

As Danesi remarks, a sign must have distinctive physical structure, must refer to or denote something, and evokes particular thoughts, ideas, and feelings in people (9-10).

Where semiotics comes from:

Semiotics includes various approaches drawn from various traditions. Barthes’ approach is Saussurean, which means it draws mainly from Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist and author of the Cours de linguistique générale, or Course in General Linguistics (assembled by his students from his lectures and notes and published posthumously in 1916). The Cours is considered a landmark in linguistics, that is, in the study of language.

In the Cours, Saussure proposes that language, instead of being “peripheral to [our] understanding of reality,” is in fact central; that “our understanding of reality revolves around language” (Cobley 255). In other words, language shapes our very perceptions. In addition, Saussure argues, words do not refer outward to some reality “outside” of language, but instead refer to one another; that is, language is a system that is based on differences among words, not on referentiality. (This argument is one of the cornerstones of structuralism, and has been expanded upon by Derrida and other poststructuralist theorists.)

There’s more: the Cours also posits a general “science of signs,” or sémiologie, of which linguistics would be only a part. This semiology (as the term is usually translated into English) would study “the life of signs within society” (Clarke 124) or “the life of signs as part of social life” (Cobley 259). Saussure concentrated on the linguistic sign, that is, spoken and written words; later scholars, though, extended his ideas to a more general theory of communication.


In Saussurean semiology, a sign results from the correlation between the signified and the signifier (Cobley 264-265; Barthes, Elements 35-48; Danesi 10). What does this mean?

  • The signified (from the French signifié) is the concept represented by the sign. In Barthes’ example of the roses (Mythologies, p. 113) the signified is “passion.” In Danesi’s example of smoking cigarettes, the signified might be “sexuality” or “jazz clubs” (10).
  • The signifier (signifiant) is the thing that does the representing, more specifically a concept, mental image, or word (sound-image) that does the representing. In Barthes’ example, the signifier is the idea of “roses.” In Danesi, the shape of a cigarette (as opposed to a cigar or pipe) may be said to be a signifier.
  • The sign is, as Barthes says, the “concrete entity” that brings together the signified and the signifier. In his example the sign is an actual bunch of roses. In other cases the sign could be another object–for example a specific instance of cigarettes–or a word, a sound, or an image, etc.
  • In Elements of Semiology, Barthes defines signification as “the act which binds the signifier and the signified, an act whose product is the sign” (Barthes, Elements 48).

Second-order semiology:

Barthes points out (here is where things get complicated!) that a sign in one system may become a signifier in another; in other words, it is possible for one sign to serve as an element in another sign (see Mythologies 115).

1. Signifier 2. Signified


So, in Barthes’ example from Mythologies (116), a magazine cover showing a black man in uniform giving a salute not only signifies that a black man in uniform is giving a salute but also signifies, as Barthes says, “French imperiality,” that is, the idea that “France is a great Empire, that all her sons…faithfully serve under her flag.” If the magazine cover tells us that a black soldier is giving the French salute (the first order of signification), it also implies that France is something worth saluting (a second order of signification). In other words, when we see a close-up of a soldier saluting, with his eyes uplifted, we may assume, based on past experience, that he is saluting the flag of his country (first order of meaning), and this sign may then signify to us other concepts, that is, other signifieds, such as empire, loyalty, or equality (second order of meaning).

Barthes says that our cultural “myths” function exactly this way, taking signs from a system and transforming them into signifiers in another system, what he calls a metalanguage, meaning language about language or language on top of another language (115). Though the sign in its original system may be rich with specific meaning, when “appropriated” for use in a cultural myth it becomes merely the form of another message. Myth, says Barthes, distorts or “deforms” or empties out the specific meaning of a sign and uses that sign to give form to some other concept, something that “outdistances” the meaning (123). In a similar vein, we might say that, in Scholes’s Budweiser example, signs of sport (baseball) and leisure (beer) become signifiers of a larger, more amorphous concept: America. The specific meanings of a baseball game supply the form for a larger ideological narrative, one of the American Dream.

Danesi argues (20) that the three tasks of the semiotician are:

  1. To unravel the history of signs.
  2. To expose the sign-based processes behind perceptions of normalcy.
  3. To study how “the particular system of signs in which one has been reared influences worldview.”

Denotation vs. connotation:

Here’s a useful distinction that Barthes sometimes uses:

  • Denotation (adj. form denotative): the literal or ostensibly “objective” meaning of a text/image/message (“This is a picture of a house”).
  • Connotation (adj. form connotative): an implicit or not-so-obvious meaning of a text/image/message, often emotive or ideological in nature (“The house in this picture is dark and scary”).


Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. NY: Hill and Wang, 1968.
— . Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. NY: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Clarke, D. S., Jr., ed. Sources of Semiotic. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.
Cobley, Paul, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.
Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

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