In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Semiotics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Greimas Imprint
  • Literary Pragmatism

Literary and Critical Theory Semiotics
Stéphanie Walsh Matthews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0024


Semiotics, the study of signs, has experienced a great rise in interest since the 1990s primarily through its application in the interpretation of literary texts and, by extension, culture. The role of semiotics in literary criticism is to establish key theoretical models that can provide insights so that the connection of the texts to broader meaning structures within literary practices can be better understood. In the late 19th century, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913) put forward the proposal of a discipline, called sémiologie, to study and elucidate the nature and function of signs, focusing on language as the main system of signs, but also suggesting the extension of its purview to embrace nonverbal signs. A continent away but almost contemporaneously, the American philosopher, Charles S. Peirce (b. 1839–d. 1914) also described a science of signs (a “doctrine”) that he called semeiotics (using the same spelling of John Locke before him). Since these two proposals, semiotics has developed into a sophisticated and productive discipline for studying all aspects of the production and interpretation of signs—known as “semiosis.” As it pertains to literary works, semiotic analysis has been grounded on several streams of thought, including the so-called Russian Formalists, the Tartu School, and the school of Algirdas Greimas. From these foundations, semiotics has become a major tool of literary criticism since it connects the literary text to the “universe of signs” and thus to the network of sign systems that interact to imbue the text with its particular, historically based meanings. Literary critics in the semiotic tradition typically extend the literary text to a larger reading of the culture in which it was created and to the more universal structures that are inherent within it. European schools of literary semiotics have focused on the rhetorical structure of texts, seeing this as the main vehicle into the nature of literary texts.

General Overviews

The sign is analyzed within two fundamental frameworks as established by Saussure and Peirce. Introductions to the field, such as Chandler 2002 and Nöth 1990, typically see these two models as incompatible. Saussure’s model is binary—based on how the signifier (form) is intrinsically connected to the signified (referent/concept)—while Peirce’s is triadic—connecting the sign (representamen) to its object (referent) through the filter of the interpretant (meaning that is processed individually, culturally, and contextually). But, as Sebeok 2001 and works by other authors have implicitly shown, the two models can be seen as complementary, depending on the analytical task at hand. Moreover, the expansion of Saussurean notions, such as the Semiotic Square (see Danesi 2007) shows that amalgamation of the models is not only feasible, but also practical. Such amalgams allow semiotics to embrace larger domains of investigation (O’Neill 2008), including the new media and modalities of expression that are unfolding in the Internet age. Perhaps it is in Coquet 1973 that one can trace the first interdisciplinary approaches to literary texts, followed by Courtés 1976, in which narrative structure is approached as systematically as one would approach any other semiotic expressive phenomenon. The principles of literary semiotics are then organized in Greimas and Courtés 1982, which remains an important source today. Culler 2001 is also critical as a work that demonstrates that literary texts cannot be analyzed insightfully without recourse to semiotics.

  • Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203166277

    This texts introduces key concepts in semiotics, including its basic models and main theoretical frameworks. See chapter 6, “Textual Interaction,” for a more focused approach to semiotics and texts.

  • Coquet, Jean-Claude. Sémiotique littéraire. Tours, France: Mame, 1973.

    This rich study and analysis of famous literary works by Claudel, Camus, Apollinaire, and Rimbaud, through an a priori linguistic-structuralist approach, identifies key elements of semantic discourse to discuss the semiotic object in literary texts.

  • Courtés, Joseph. Introduction à la sémiotique narrative et discursive: Méthodologie et application. Paris: Hachette, 1976.

    In providing a guide and a method to the construction and structure of stories, Courtès’s sémantique and discursive approach is accurately illustrated and introduced.

  • Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of the Sign. London: Routledge, 2001.

    As noted in the preface by Mikael Bal, this work provides concise insights into the intrinsic role of semiotic analysis in literary analysis. Bridging New Criticism’s criticism with post-structuralism, this book demonstrates literature’s key function as an index of culture both historically and discursively.

  • Danesi, Marcel. The Quest for Meaning: A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

    An excellent resource for a synchronic development of semiotic inquiry, historically and methodologically, that also includes a lexicon of key terms and clear illustrations and examples to support more difficult concepts.

  • Greimas, Algirdas, and Joseph Courtés. Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

    A fundamental resource, originally written in French, that concretizes polemic approaches to semiotic applications and shows how interdisciplinarity is the crux of semiotic analysis, which can be subdivided into fields such as sociosemiotics, ethnosemiotics, etc. and that embraces key disciplines, such as anthropology, linguistics, rhetoric, and cultural analysis.

  • Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Routledge, 2003.

    This text provides a complete guide to structuralism and its intrinsic ties to semiotics. By surveying Vico, Lévi-Strauss, and Piaget, to name a few, Hawkes shows how the underpinning of relations in signs justifies its important role in semiotics.

  • Johansen, Jørgen Dines, and Svend Erik Larsen. Signs in Use. Translated by Dinda L. Gorleé and John Irons. London: Routledge, 2002.

    A pedagogical guide to semiotics that further defines the field and its uses. The book also introduces the relationship of code to sign and how semiotics distinguishes nature and culture in practical ways.

  • Nöth, Winfried. Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

    This book provides an excellent list of references for all matters of semiotic inquiry, and it gives a detailed assessment of each branch of semiotics and its major researchers.

  • O’Neill, Shaleph. Interactive Media: The Semiotics of Embodied Interaction. London: Springer-Verlag, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-84800-036-0

    Including a terrific synthesis of the history of semiotics and its various interactions with other disciplines, this text also offers an innovative approach to considering semiotics in design, embodiment theory, and interactive media.

  • Scholes, Robert. Semiotics and Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

    This text divides semiotics into two ideologies: the positivistic (where literary semiotics serves to explain meaningful production by combining Peirce’s semiosis with Saussure’s sign in action) and the deconstructionism of Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, etc., destabilizing the referential role of language and of semiosis in general.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A. Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

    An essential and empirical understanding of scientific semiotics, focusing on the cross-species nature of semiosis and highlighting the unique properties of human semiosis.

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