Communication Semiotics
Marcel Danesi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0050


Semiotics is the discipline studying the meanings imprinted in signs and sign systems—a “sign” being defined as anything (a word, gesture, facial expression, and so on) that stands for something other than itself, to someone, in some capacity. Some call this discipline a science, others a tool or method. One of its modern-day founders, the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (b. 1839–d. 1914), called it a “doctrine,” in the sense of a set of principles. It has also been called “semiology” by Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913), another modern-day founder. The terms “significs,” coined by Victoria Lady Welby (b. 1837–d.1912), and “sematology” are also sometimes used. The term “semiotics” was adopted by the International Association for Semiotics Studies in 1969, becoming, ever since, the main one to designate the discipline. There is an ongoing debate today as to whether semiotics is, in fact, a veritable science and if it thus should encompass the study of nonhuman as well as human sign systems. This has led to the rise to prominence of “biosemiotics,” which aims to do exactly that. There are also several theoretical debates that have characterized semiotics proper for more than a century. The most important one has been whether sign construction is, in its origin, an arbitrary process, producing sign forms with no simulative connection to their referents, or if it is a “motivated” process, generating sign forms that resemble some aspect of their referents or reflect the creative processes of their congeners. These debates are discussed in several core texts and in many of the theoretical works listed here. In a basic annotated bibliography such as this one, selections have to be made, given the extensive amount of writing that has marked the field over the past century. Also, decisions have been made to classify certain works under particular rubrics, rather than others, because of the inbuilt thematic overlap of a large portion of semiotic writing. So, some listings included here under one category may be found classified under some other category elsewhere. Also, due to space constrictions, only English-language works have been listed here. This in no way implies that works in other languages are less important. On the contrary, many non-English works have been critical to the establishment and development of semiotics as a discipline. They are not included here unless they have been translated into English.

Core Texts

Several books provide good, core introductions to the field. The most comprehensive treatment remains Nöth 1990, which contains detailed descriptions of sign theories, branches, and cognate fields. Cobley 2010, an anthology with chapters written by experts on various facets of contemporary semiotics, constitutes an excellent assortment of recent theoretical and methodological work that will give the reader a good flavor of what current semiotics is all about. Cobley and Jansz 1997, Johansen and Larsen 2002, Danesi 2007, and Chandler 2007 are introductory texts that deal with the main concepts, figures, and uses of semiotics for general audiences. The underlying subtext in these books is that signs influence how we perceive reality and are constitutive of cultural groupthink. Knowing how signs work psychologically, therefore, will constitute a kind of immunization against the potential negative effects that some signs (such as the mediated ones in consumerist cultures) can bring about. Deely 1990 and the monumental anthology Posner, et al. 1997–2004 are intended for a more specialized readership. Eschbach and Trabant 1983 provides a comprehensive historical survey of semiotics.

  • Chandler, Daniel. 2007. Semiotics: The basics. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

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    Chandler’s popular and widely read text is similar to Danesi 2007 but focuses more on the ideological aspects of sign theories. It also looks insightfully into how semiotics allows us to understand social structure.

  • Cobley, Paul, ed. 2010. The Routledge companion to semiotics. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

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    Each chapter in this anthology deals with a specific facet of theoretical or applied semiotics, from current debates on sign theory to the semiotic study of the mass media. It also includes a glossary of technical terms and of major figures, thus constituting both a general overview of the field and a reference volume.

  • Cobley, Paul, and Litza Jansz. 1997. Semiotics for beginners. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

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    This delightful, “comic-book” introduction to the field—similar to other such books published by Icon—presents the main ideas and figures in the history of semiotics in simple, easy-to-follow language, accompanied by graphic illustrations, making it visually attractive to a broad audience.

  • Danesi, Marcel. 2007. The quest for meaning: A guide to semiotic theory and practice. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

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    Danesi presents the main notions and methodological practices of semiotics in a general way with examples of how these are used in cognate areas, from the study of metaphor in linguistics to an analysis of the meanings of food and clothing. He also looks schematically at text theory, codes, representation, and other relevant concepts used in contemporary semiotic theory and practice.

  • Deely, John N. 1990. Basics of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Deely’s introduction to the fundamentals of semiosis (the comprehension and production of signs) extends the traditional purview of semiotics as a “philosophical enterprise” studying human meaning systems to encompass the mental activities that signs engender. Deely also looks at how semiotics can be used to study not only human but also nonhuman sign systems, thus prefiguring the emergence of biosemiotics as a major orientation within the discipline.

  • Eschbach, Achim, and Jürgen Trabant. 1983. History of semiotics. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

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    Although many of the texts discussed above deal in schematic ways with the historical eras of semiotics and with its prominent figures and theorists, this is one of the first modern-day volumes to treat the history of semiotics integratively. It focuses primarily on the historical connection between the scientific study of language and the overall study of signs and sign systems.

  • Johansen, Jørgen Dines, and Svend Erik Larsen. 2002. Signs in use: An introduction to semiotics. Translated by Dinda L. Gorlée and John Irons. London: Routledge.

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    Johansen and Larsen present the basic notions of semiotic method with a view to showing how these can be used to decode modern-day cultural and media practices. They discuss basic sign theory and central notions such as code and text, illustrating them with examples from everyday life.

  • Nöth, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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    Straddling the line between a reference manual and an introductory text, this book has become an authoritative overview of all aspects of semiotics, from its history in antiquity to the emergence of the main theoretical models in the field. The writing is not technical, but it does require some effort to understand, as it takes a great deal of background information for granted.

  • Posner, Roland, Klaus Robering, and Thomas A. Sebeok, eds. 1997–2004. Semiotik: ein Handbuch zu den zeichentheoretischen Grundlagen von Natur und Kultur / Semiotics: A handbook on the sign-theoretic foundations of nature and culture. 4 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Intended for specialists, this four-volume collection of essays written by experts in the various fields and subfields of contemporary semiotics provides the broadest and most technical introduction to the discipline, covering everything from basic sign theory to advanced topics in biosemiotics. The volume constitutes an attempt to establish semiotics as a veritable science, rather than as a mere method, framework, or other such ancillary activity. Provides both the original German text and the English translation.

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