Centre for Languages and Literature

The Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University


Semiotics, translated as the science of signification, is often said to derive from two sources, the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.


It is, in particular, the latter tradition which has gone through a rich development in our century, beginning in Russia and in Czechoslovakia during the first decades, then encountering a new vigour in France and Italy in the fifties and the sixties, and finally diffusing over the whole world, notably to Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, and Spain, in Europe, and to USA and Latin America. With the single exception of Denmark, the Nordic countries have been newcomers to this game. At present, in the best work, the philosophical rigour of Peirce has been intimately united to the empirical approach found in Saussure.


Above all, semiotics is a peculiar point of view: a perspective which consists in asking ourselves how things become carriers of meaning. Thus, the task of semiotics involves the determination of criteria which may help separate different sign types and other kinds of signification. Well-known instances of such typologies are Peirces trichotonomy icon/index/symbol and the opposition between the analogue and the digital. Both these distinctions turns out to be insufficient, if not inadequate, when they are confronted with actually existing system of signification.


One reasons for this is that one and the same sign instance may play several different parts at the same time: a picture may represent something, express something, refer to its own material character, allude to something, be a metaphor or constitue some other type of indirect sign for something. Since semiotics is interesting in finding general rules and regularities, it tries to describe these phenomena as generic functions in some kind of system.


But it must be admitted that these generic functions are modified by the contexts in which they appear. Therefore, semiotics is not only called upon to describe similarities and dissimilarities between different ways of conveying signification, but equally the different ways in which several systems of signification collaborate at the transmission of meaning (spoken and written language, gestures and facial expression during a chat or as part of a theatre representation or a film; that which may be conveyed by new media such as the computer, etc.). In contrast to the abstract approach characterising earlier semiotics, semiotics of culture looks at similarities and convergences between different systems of signification in historically existing cultures.


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