Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics

Signs in Use: An Introduction to Semiotics


Signs in Use is an accessible introduction to the study of semiotics.All organisms, from bees to computer networks, create signs, communicate, and exchange information. The field of semiotics explores the ways in which we use these signs to make inferences about the nature of the world. Signs in Use cuts across different semiotic schools to introduce six basic concepts which present semiotics as a theory and a set of analytical tools: code, sign, discourse, action, text, and culture. Moving from the most simple to the most complex concept, the book gradually widens the semiotic perspective to show how and why semiotics works as it does.Each chapter covers a problem encountered in semiotics and explores the key concepts and relevant notions found in the various theories of semiotics. Chapters build gradually on knowledge gained, and can also be used as self-contained units for study when supported by the extensive glossary. The book is illustrated with numerous examples, from traffic systems to urban parks, and offers useful biographies of key twentieth-century semioticians.


A summer day at the beach. A boy decides to play ducks and drakes. He finds a likely stone, tests it with his fingers, looks at the water, waits for a moment-and then throws. A dog runs next to him. It stops suddenly, sniffs a clump of seaweed, stiffens and runs off. A mosquito arrives, circles above the boy's shoulder, lands and sticks in its proboscis. Smack! Curtains!

A series of semiotic processes has taken place here. The boy, dog and mosquito have perceived certain phenomena in such a way that they refer to something else than themselves: the stone refers to impending small skips across the surface of the water; the smell of the seaweed refers to something that the dog cannot actually see; and the shoulder refers to mosquito-food for the mosquito, while an irritating itch tells the boy that a mosquito is at work. The things become signs. Some of these processes are shared by living organisms, others are specifically human. We intend to concentrate mainly on the latter in this book. But since not only humans have semiotic competence, we will always be prepared to broaden our horizon.

Let us begin by looking at what the boy does. He starts by choosing a stone. With reference to its possible flight-path it gains a particular meaning, i.e. its suitability for stone-skimming when thrown. Next, the ripples of the waves are read as indications of wind and current conditions, so they gain the meaning of being favourable for stone-skimming. Separately, the stone and the water each refer to something else (wind and current), possibly to something which is as yet not present (the game of ducks and drakes). As signs they have acquired meaning, making it possible to orient one's behaviour as a result. The surroundings have become an environment for human activity.

The dog, too, has semiotic abilities. With its sense apparatus it has selected a clump of seaweed as being especially interesting, possibly with reference to food or to a rival marking of territory. A closer sniff, however, reveals that it has interpreted the sign incorrectly: it obviously meant potential danger, and the dog took fright. When one perceives things as being signs, there is no guarantee that one does so correctly, or that one perceives all the consequences of the sign-making process. Consider the mosquito. Its registration

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