Introducing Social Semiotics

Introducing Social Semiotics

Introducing Social Semiotics

Introducing Social Semiotics


Introducing Social Semiotics is a lively look at the ways in which different aspects of modern society combine to create meaning. These 'semiotic resources' surrounding us include obvious modes of communication such as language, gesture, images and music, but also less obvious ones such as food, dress and everyday objects, all of which carry cultural value and significance. Introducing Social Semiotics uses a wide variety of texts including photographs, adverts, magazine pages and film stills to explain how meaning is created through complex semiotic interactions. Practical exercises and examples as wide ranging as furniture arrangements in public places, advertising jingles, photojournalism and the rhythm of a rapper's speech provide readers with the knowledge and skills they need to be able to analyse and also produce successful multimodal texts and designs.The book traces the development of semiotic resources through particular channels such as the history of the Press and advertising; and explores how and why these resources change over time, for reasons such as advancing technology.Featuring a full glossary of terms, exercises, discussion points and suggestions for further reading, Introducing Social Semiotics makes concrete the complexities of meaning making and is essential reading for anyone interested in how communication works.


In traditional semiotics the concept of 'rule' plays an important role. The idea is that, just as people can only play a game together once they have mastered its rules, so people can only communicate, only understand one another, once they have mastered the rules of the game of language - and/or other semiotic modes. As a result, the 'rule book' or 'code' became the key to doing semiotics, the key to understanding how people make and communicate meaning. The rules of this 'rule book' were of two kinds. There were first the rules of the 'lexicon', the rules that stipulate what observable forms (signifiers) will be used to signify what meanings (signifieds), and second the rules of 'grammar', the rules that stipulate how signs (signifiers coupled with signifieds) go together to make messages, for example, the rule that in series of adjectives the numeratives come first, so that the three brown bears is correct, but the brown three bears is not, or the rules of colour harmony, that say that yellow and blue go well together, but magenta and blue less so. De Saussure used the term langue for the rule book, and parole for its actual use in producing speech. Langue, he said, exists:

… in the form of a sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each member of a community, almost like a dictionary of which identical copies have been distributed to each individual' so that ' language exists in each individual, yet is common to all, and … not affected by the will of the depositaries.

(de Saussure, 1974 [1916]: 19)

Again, in Roland Barthes' words:

[Langue] is the social part of language, the individual cannot by himself either create or modify it; it is essentially a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. Moreover, this social product is autonomous, like a game with its own rules, for it can be handled only after a period of learning.

(Barthes, 1967b: 14)

In this kind of formulation rules rule people, not people rules. Social semiotics sees it a little differently. It suggests that rules, whether written or unwritten, are made by people, and can therefore be changed by people. To represent them as if they can not be changed - or not changed at will - is to represent human-made rules as though they are laws of nature. On the other hand, two provisos need to be made. First, not everybody can change

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