semiotics or semiology, discipline deriving from the American logician C. S. Peirce and the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It has come to mean generally the study of any cultural product (e.g., a text) as a formal system of signs. Saussure's key notion of the arbitrary nature of the sign means that the relation of words to things is not natural but conventional; thus a language is essentially a self-contained system of signs, wherein each element is meaningless by itself and meaningful only by its differentiation from the other elements. This linguistic model has influenced recent literary criticism, leading away from the study of an author's biography or a work's social setting and toward the internal structure of the text itself (see structuralism). Semiotics is not limited to linguistics, however, since virtually anything (e.g., gesture, clothing, toys) can function as a sign.
See R. Barthes, Elements of Semiology (1967); A. A. Berger, Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics (1988).