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

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Classic Texts
  • Theoretical Works
  • Reference Manuals
  • Associations
  • Journals
  • Book Series
  • Structuralism
  • Post-Structuralism

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Communication Semiotics
Marcel Danesi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0050


Semiotics is the discipline studying the meanings, uses, and functions of 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 designate this discipline as a science, others as an analytical tool or a critical 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. Debate is ongoing today about whether semiotics is a science and if it 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. Several theoretical debates have also 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 sensory, experiential, or affective connection to their referents, or if it is a “motivated” process, or generating sign forms that do. This basic debate is discussed in several core texts and in many of the theoretical works listed here. In a general annotated bibliography such as this one, selections must be made, given the extensive amount of writing that has marked the field over the past century. Also, decisions have to be made to classify certain works under particular rubrics, rather than others, because of the built-in 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, 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 English translations.

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, major figures, and the relevance of semiotics to cognate fields. Cobley 2010 and Trifonas 2015 are collections of chapters written by experts on various facets of contemporary semiotics. They contain excellent chapters on theoretical, applied, and methodological work that will give the reader a good overview of what semiotics is all about. Johansen and Larsen 2002, Danesi 2007, Chandler 2007, and Berger 2014 are introductory texts that deal with the main concepts, figures, and uses of semiotics for general audiences. The underlying objective in these books is to show that signs influence how we perceive reality and are constitutive of cultural groupthink. The implication is that knowing how signs work psychologically will provide a kind of cognitive immunization against the potential negative effects that signs can engender. The best overview of the field is Nöth 1990. 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.

  • Berger, Arthur Asa. 2014. Signs in contemporary culture: An introduction to semiotics. CreateSpace Independent.

    This is a revision of one of the most popular introductions to the field, originally published in 1980. Berger’s text is a clear and comprehensive one that shows concretely how sign theory can be used by anyone to understand the culture in which they live.

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

    Chandler’s popular and widely read text focuses on basic notions and analytical techniques, as well as on the ideological motivations behind specific sign theories. It also looks insightfully into how semiotics allows us to understand the sign-based constitution of social systems and behaviors.

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

    Each chapter in this anthology deals with a specific facet of theoretical or applied semiotics, from 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.

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

    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.

    Deely’s introduction to the fundamentals of semiosis (the comprehension and production of signs) deals with the traditional description of semiotics as a “philosophical enterprise” studying human meaning systems as part of philosophy. Deely also looks at how semiotics can be used to study nonhuman communication, thus prefiguring the emergence of biosemiotics as a major orientation within the discipline.

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

    DOI: 10.1075/fos.7

    Although many of the texts listed in this section involve brief discussions of the history of semiotics, this is still the only book treating 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.

    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.

    Straddling the line between a reference manual and an introductory text, this book is still the most authoritative introduction to semiotics, from its history in Antiquity to its branches and applications. The writing is nontechnical, 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.

    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 sign theory to advanced topics in biosemiotics. The volume establishes semiotics as a veritable science. It provides both the original German text and the English translation.

  • Trifonas, Peter Pericles, ed. 2015. International handbook of semiotics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    This anthology is a broad survey of semiotics and its applications, from literary studies and the visual arts to contemporary media and the natural sciences. This volume complements Nöth 1990 and Cobley 2010. The chapters are written by experts in each of the areas, but they are composed in a nontechnical style so that anyone interested in semiotics can easily read them and glean from them any implications that are relevant to their objectives.

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