Ferdinand Saussure Calls the Science of Signs Semiology. What Is Meant by This and How Useful Is This Science to English and Media Studies?

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Some semioticians see semiology as Arthur Asa Berger phases it "as the queen of the interpretive sciences, the key that unlocks the meanings of all things great and small." (1998, p 4). Although this could arguably be something of an over statement, in relation to the study of English and media studies it is crucial , for it deals with how we as readers generate meaning from texts. In this essay, I hope to explain how the study of semiotics has evolved, and how and to what effect it can be applied to linguistics.

Semiology, as it is known today, did not truly come be until the 19th Century, with the works of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce coined the word semiotics to describe his system, which was concerned with three different forms of signs - iconic, indexical, and the symbolic. Where as in his book A Course in General Linguistics, Saussure, identified the relationship between the stimulus or object, which he called the signifer and the concept or our association with this stimulus, calling it the signified. He also recognised that this relationship is arbitrary; it was this realisation that opened the way for development of the science, for:

‘A science that studies the life of signs with society is conceivable; it would be a part of a social psychology and consequently of general psychology… (it) would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them.' (Saussure 1966, p16)

Meaning that all types of media could be studied as "sign systems".

Saussure also recognized the fact that concepts or signifieds, have meaning because the relationship between the signifiers is one of binary opposites. For example if you say the word ‘up' people automatically know you do not mean down. Neither word can exist with out the other, as Berger states:

‘Finding meaning without discerning polar oppositions is like listening to the sound of one hand clapping.' (1998, p22)

It is this idea of there can be no presence of one thing without the absence of its opposite, that has formed the back bone to the Structuralist view of semiotics. Therefore Structuralists believe meaning is generated through the choice of paradigms (words or opposites) and the way they are put together to create a syntagm (sentence or narrative), to create what Saussure called ‘the syntagmatic axis of language'.

This concept helps in the study of English and media, for it makes us aware of we can create any interpretation we like of an event through our use of signifiers. Language does not reflect an already existing reality; it is a tool for your interpretation of reality. This brings in the idea of the relationship between signifiers and signifieds being arbitrary, for if there is no natural relationship between the two, the meanings that we create must be part of some learned code, and are therefore full of ideology.

Saussure was also responsible for the creation of the terms synchronic and diachronic. A synchronic analysis looks at the structure of the text, in a given moment of time, where as a diachronic analysis is concerned with the historical development of the language in the text. Although he coined both terms, as a structuralist he was only interested in the synchronic and the langue, i.e. the rules we must use in order to communicate. Therefore one could say that he, and all structuralists, strive to understand the rules and conventions – langue, which dictate the production of meaning or parole, rather than the parole itself - the performance, one's interpretation of the rules of structure.

This structuralist view point gives us a frame work in which to find meaning in all kinds of text. For example Claude Levi – Strauss used synchronic, or paradigmatic analysis in order to decipher myth. Berger writes:

‘According to Levi – Strauss (1967), myths are composed of fundamental or minimal units, "mythemes" that combine in certain ways to give messages…What is most significant about myths is...
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