Current Perspectives in Semiotics

Signs, Signification, and Communication, Volume 1

by Artur Gałkowski (Volume editor) Monika Weronika Kopytowska (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 262 Pages
Series: Łódź Studies in Language, Volume 55


This unique book, inspired by the work of Umberto Eco - one of the greatest semioticians of all times - provides a compelling overview of current developments in semiotic research, bringing together various academic voices and critical reflections on the nature and function of signs, signification, and communication. Contributors, including Eco himself, discuss the status quo of the discipline, its scope, theoretical orientations, and methodological approaches, shedding light on the cognitive and philosophical complexity of the meaning-making process and form–meaning interfaces. The book is an outcome of the SIVO Signum-Idea-Verbum-Opus project initiated by Umberto Eco’s keynote address during his visit at the University of Łódź in 2015. More theoretical insights and further explorations into contemporary semiosphere can be found in Current Perspectives in Semiotics: Texts, Genres, and Representations, published simultaneously by Peter Lang.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Series Information
  • Semiotic Perspectives on Language, Signification and Communication
  • 1 Studying Signs and Meaning-Making
  • 2 From Linguistic Turn to Mediatic Turn
  • 3 Overview of the Volume
  • Part I Interpreting Signs
  • 1 The Future of Semiotics
  • 2 Regularities and Singularities in the Encyclopaedic Labyrinth
  • 3 On the Human Self as an Investigative Object of Cognitive and Existential Semiotics
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Actual Speakers/Listeners as Immediate Objects of Linguistic Study
  • 2.1 The Monolingual Self in a Multilingual Reality of Everyday Life
  • 2.2 The Minds of Individuals as Parts of a General Human Mind
  • 2.3 Formalist Connectionism in the Domain of Cognitive Semiotics
  • 2.4 Observable Texts as Extensions of an Inferable Language
  • 3 Phenomenology of the Self in the Humanistic Turn of Neosemiotics
  • 3.1 Phenomenology as a Background of Existential Semiotics
  • 3.2 The Existence of Human Individuals in Themselves and for Themselves
  • 3.3 Individual and Social Existence of the Self in Neosemiotics
  • 3.4 Human Individual as a Person and a Subject
  • 4 Conclusion
  • 4 Form, Substance and Meaning in Hjelmslev’s Essays
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 How the Opposition Form/Substance Has Been Interpreted
  • 3 Schema, Norm, Usage
  • 4 Signs and Interstratic Relations
  • 5 Content and “Signified”
  • 6 Concepts and Semantic Variants
  • 7 Synonymy and Homonymy
  • 8 Levels of Substance
  • 9 Immediate Semiotic Substance and Passe-Partout Semiotics
  • 10 An Interpretation of Hjelmslev’s Semantics
  • 11 Note on “Hjelmslev’s Schema”
  • 12 Appendix
  • 12.1 Abbreviations for Hjelmslev’s Essays
  • 5 Sign and (Its) Object. The Material Turn in Semiotics?
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 A Sign and (Its) Object in Peirce’s Semiotics
  • 3 The Material Turn and its Connections with Semiotic Discourses
  • 4 Towards New Realism
  • 5 Questions – Possible Answers – A Few Conclusions
  • Part II Meaning and Structure
  • 6 Meaning as Form and the Form of Meaning
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Meaning as Form: Saussure
  • 3 Form, Substance, and Matter: Hjelmslev
  • 4 Meaning as the Form Conveyed by an Object: Peirce
  • 5 The Form of the Sign before Its Embodiment: Peirce
  • 7 Presuppositional Terms and Kripke’s Semantics
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Presuppositions in Semiotics
  • 2.1 P-Terms
  • 2.2 Foreground and Background
  • 2.3 A Modal Temporal Logic
  • 2.4 Possible Worlds
  • 2.5 Translation between Violi and Eco’s Language and Kripke Semantics
  • 2.6 To praise, to criticize
  • 2.7 Aspectual Information
  • 2.8 On becoming
  • 2.9 To condescend
  • 2.10 To manage
  • 2.11 To regret
  • 2.12 To remember and to forget to …
  • 2.13 To remember and to forget that …
  • 2.14 Embedded presuppositions
  • 3 Discussion
  • 4 Future Research
  • 8 Husserl, Ajdukiewicz and the Polish notation in Categorial Grammar
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Syntax as a Calculus: First Attempts in Categorial Grammar
  • 3 The Phenomenological Method and the Foundations of Syntax
  • 4 The Theory of Parts and Wholes as Theoretical Framework of Husserl’s Grammar
  • 5 The Syntactic “Connexity” and Combinatory Logic
  • 6 Non-Concatenative Models for Dynamical Aspects of Syntax
  • 9 Entrenched Linguistic Knowledge Bias in Semiotic Systems Evolution. Data from Italian Agents’ Experimental Mini-Languages
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Language Evolution
  • 3 Iterated Learning Methodology
  • 4 The “Alien Fruit” Experiment
  • 5 The Experiment with Italian Participants: Design
  • 6 Results and Discussion
  • 7 Conclusions and Further Research
  • Part III Knowledge and Culture
  • 10 Communication at the Intersection between Nature and Culture: A Global Semiotic Perspective
  • 1 Communication and Speech
  • 2 Communication among Others
  • 3 Homologies and Analogies in Zoosemiosis
  • 4 Totality and Otherness
  • 5 Otherness and Nomination
  • 6 Semiosis with Language and Semiosis without Language
  • 11 Pattern Sciences: Toward a Fractal Understanding of Cultures
  • 1 Cultures, Brains, and Maths
  • 2 Fractals and Semiotic Resemblance
  • 3 Semiospheric Symmetries
  • 4 A Typology of Symmetries in the Semiosphere
  • 5 Conclusion: Fractal Symmetries between Culture and Nature
  • 12 Culture, Mediated Experience and the Semiotics of Distance
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Culture, Communication and Mediatization
  • 3 Distance, Proximization and Mediated Interactions
  • 4 Television News as a Case in Point
  • 5 Conclusions
  • 13 Beyond the Hegemonic Centre and the Dispersed Periphery: The Semiotics of Culture in the Global Production of Knowledge
  • Index

List of Contributors

Umberto Eco †, University of Bologna, Italy

Francesco Galofaro, Politecnico di Milano, Centro Universitario Bolognese di Etnosemiotica (CUBE), Italy

Artur Gałkowski, University of Łódź, Poland

Giovanni Gobber, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy

Monika Kopytowska, University of Łódź, Poland

Massimo Leone, University of Turin, Italy

Katarzyna Machtyl, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland

Winfried Nöth, São Paulo Catholic University, Brazil

Susan Petrilli, University of Bari, Italy

Piero Polidoro, LUMSA University, Italy

Katarzyna Rogalska-Chodecka, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland

Urszula Terentowicz-Fotyga, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland

Patrizia Violi, University of Bologna, Italy

Zdzisław Wąsik, Philological School of Higher Education in Wrocław, Adam
Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland ←7 | 8→←8 | 9→

Artur Gałkowski and Monika Kopytowska

Semiotic Perspectives on Language, Signification and Communication

Abstract: This introductory chapter focuses on the main concepts, themes and theoretical approaches in semiotics. It takes as a point of departure the definition of semiotics, sign, and the process of meaning-making. Theoretical positions of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Umberto Eco, as well as other semiotic scholars are compared. The notion of communication, as seen from the perspective of semiotics and communication science, is discussed and various models of communication are presented. Theoretical and methodological developments within the discipline and interfaces with other fields of science are also examined.

Keywords: sign, semiosis, signification, communication theory, linguistic turn, multimodality, cognitive turn, mediality

1Studying Signs and Meaning-Making

The present volume, inspired by the work of Umberto Eco, one of the greatest semioticians of all times, aims to scrutinize current developments in semiotic research on the nature and function of signs, signification and communication. Contributors, including Eco himself, discuss the status quo and scope of the discipline and explore the cognitive and philosophical complexity of the meaning-making process along with form/meaning interfaces, thereby providing rationale for further semiotic investigations.

Back in 1976, in his “Introduction” to A Theory of Semiotics, Eco underlined the need for a general semiotic theory which could be applied across diverse contexts and disciplines as “a unified method of approach to phenomena which apparently are very different from each other, and as yet irreducible” (1976: 8). Such a theory, in his view, should account for the functioning of signs in fields as varied as zoosemiotics, codes of taste, languages (natural, written and formalized), kinesics and proxemics, aesthetic texts, visual communication, text theory or mass communication (1976: 9–14). And the explanation behind such a vast potential and wide-ranging applicability of semiotics is, according to Eco, the fact that, firstly, it “is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” (1976: 7) and, secondly, “all aspects of culture can be studied as the contents of a ←9 | 10→semiotic activity” (ibid.: 22). Earlier, Ferdinand de Saussure (1916/1983: 15–16) attributed a similar function to a science he called semiology:1

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from Greek sēmeion “sign”). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them.

Seeing a sign as a two-fold entity, he was predominantly interested in the relationship between the signifier and the signified, established on the basis of a system of rules (la langue). His main focus was on the nature (structure) of signs and relations among them, with meaning of concepts regarded as relational and stemming from opposing concepts in a set of binary oppositions. Signs for him belonged to conventional systems of meaning, and language was the most important of the systems of signs (Saussure 1916/1983: 15).2

Peirce defined a sign as “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (CP: 2.228). Meaning was thus seen as contingent on the interface of the three elements: a sign, its object and its interpretant (CP 5: 484). A sign then could stand for something only by virtue of being mediated by an interpretant, which is another sign, thus starting a process of unlimited semiosis. Arguing that the universe is “perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs” (cit. in Sebeok 1977: vi), Peirce distinguished three kinds of signs, namely icons, signifying by resemblance, indexes, signifying by cause and effect, and symbols, signifying on the basis of convention. As observed by de Gramont (1990: 250), “working separately and on different continents, Peirce and Saussure each inaugurated a revolution in our understanding” of meaning, establishing two major theoretical traditions. The Saussurean semiological tradition was continued by Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen School, which had major influences on the work of Greimas, Barthes and Metz. The semiotic tradition of Peirce was reflected in the writings of Morris, Richards, Ogden and Sebeok. This theoretical revolution, as chapters in the current volume demonstrate, has not been without controversies and challenges. In the early 1970s it reached its peak, Violi argues (Chapter 2, this volume), as the main concepts within semiotic theory – sign, code, meaning and semantic space – “underwent a radical reformulation under the influence of Eco’s work”.3 ←10 | 11→

Even though Eco found Saussure’s distinction between signifier/signified useful in the sense that it “has anticipated and promoted all correlational definitions of sign function” (Eco 1976: 15), he argued that the signified, being left “half way between a mental image, a concept, and a psychological reality” (ibid.: 14–15), lacked a clear definition. He was also critical of Saussure’s insistence on “strictly conventionalized systems of artificial signs” and the resulting distinction between “intentional artificial devices” and “other natural or unintentional manifestations” not deserving the status of a sign (something Eco calls “fetishized threshold” [ibid.: 19]). Peirce’s theory is regarded by Eco as “more comprehensive and semiotically more fruitful” (ibid.: 15) in that his definition of a sign can be interpreted in a non-anthropomorphic way, rather than limiting the sign’s constitutive qualities to those being “intentionally emitted and artificially produced” (ibid.). Such an interpretation has important implications for the debate about the existence and character of semiosis and communication within the biological sphere, as demonstrated by Petrilli who uncovers the “difficulties involved in getting free of anthropocentric, logocentric, and phonocentric perspectives” (Chapter 10, this volume).

Since Eco’s intention was to “establish a semiotic theory able to take into account a broader range of sign-phenomena” (ibid.: 16), his definition of a sign is even more inclusive.4 For him:

A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. (Eco 1976: 7)

Such a definition makes it possible to account for natural and non-intentional signs, and also clarify the status of stimuli or signals. Likewise, the way in which Eco characterizes the scope and role of semiotics opens up new theoretical horizons as far as meaning and interpretation are concerned. In his words,

semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth; it cannot be used “to tell” at all. (ibid.) ←11 | 12→

According to Danesi and Perron (1999: 45), this is a very pertinent definition of semiotics as it highlights human ability to represent the world in any way, even misleading and deceitful. What they call “capacity for artifice” allows us “to conjure up nonexistent referents” or refer to the world without any circumstantial evidence (ibid.). Hence, Eco’s preoccupation with “authentic fake” being a response to people’s urge for the real. His Travels in Hyperreality, an account of a trip to America, is a critical semiotic reflection on imitations and replicas displayed in public spaces such as museums and theme parks where “absolute unreality is offered as a real presence” (1998: 7) and where “[e]verything looks real, and therefore it is real; in any case the fact that it seems real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed” (ibid.: 16). This observation becomes particularly relevant in the context of contemporary mediatized culture and social reality co-constructed by the media (see Kopytowska, Chapter 12, this volume; also Kopytowska 2015a, 2015c). The notions of “post-truth” and “fake news”, which became widespread soon after Donald Trump’s election campaign, and was named 2017’s word of the year, may be a case in point here (cf. Corner 2017).

For Eco, communication, which involves sign production and transmitting the code, is preceded by and contingent upon signification, which involves coding. In other words, “every act of communication to or between human beings […] presupposes a signification system as its necessary condition” (ibid.: 9). For this reason, it is impossible “to establish a semiotics of communication without a semiotics of signification” (ibid.).5 And, more generally, semiotics, “which studies all cultural processes as processes of communication”, must be examined in terms of its underlying structure, or its system of signification (ibid.:8). Eco then sees signification and communication as both culturally and socially constitutive, arguing that “the whole of culture must be studied as a semiotic phenomenon” (ibid.: 22).6 At the same time, it could be argued that since conventions and symbols, which are key to meaning-making, are established by and within cultures and societies, signification and communication are also culturally and socially constituted.

Let us, however, go back to the notion of communication in a broader context, also as it is seen from the perspective of communication science. While ←12 | 13→definitions of communication vary depending on theoretical and methodological orientations and the emphasis placed upon various aspects of the whole process, most of them include four basic elements: sender, recipient, mode or vehicle, and message. In general terms, communication is seen either as a process in which A sends a message to B upon whom it has an effect, or as a negotiation and exchange of meaning in which messages, people-in-cultures and “reality” interact so that meaning can be produced and understanding can occur. According to Danesi (2002: 207), the former approach is predominantly adopted by communication theorists, whereas semioticians are more preoccupied with what a given message means and how this meaning is created.7 For Cobley (2001: 5) communication is a form of semiosis which involves exchange of messages, while signification, being linked to meaning, “is that aspect of semiosis which is concerned with the value or outcome of message exchange”.

The prototypical transmission model of communication developed by Shannon and Weaver (1949), consisting of information source, transmitter, channel, receiver and destination, as well as noise, and “widely accepted as one of the main seeds out of which Communication Studies has grown” (Fiske 2010: 5), reduces communication to a process of transmitting information. It is this transmission view, i.e. the idea that “communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey 1989: 15) that many available models of communication reflect. For example, building upon this model, Lasswell (1948) argues that to understand the processes of mass communication we need to study: “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect”. Though his model addresses the issue of the effect, i.e. an observable and measurable change in the receiver that is caused by identifiable elements in the process, it does not deal with meaning generation.

Transmission models are related to what has been called the “conduit metaphor” of communication, entailing that language functions like a conduit, transferring thoughts from one person to another (cf. Reddy 1979: 290). In the context of mass communication, for example, other key metaphors associated with such models are those of the “hypodermic needle” and of the “magic bullet” (cf. Lasswell 1927). In transmission models the source is seen as an active decision-maker determining the content of the message, while the receiver passively absorbs information. Though the “feedback loop” was added by later ←13 | 14→theorists, the assumption has remained that meaning is contained in the message rather than in its interpretation, thereby defining decoding as a mirror image of encoding, and leaving no room for the receiver’s interpretative frames of reference. Likewise, context (situational, social, institutional, political, cultural, historical) as well as the social aspects, intentions, or power relations are not considered in transmission models; nor is the nature of the medium, which can affect both the form and the content of the message. Kopytowska (Chapter 12, this volume; also Kopytowska 2014, 2015b, 2018, forthcoming), for example, demonstrates how the properties of the television medium impact on meaning generation.

Semiotic approaches, seeing communication as a mutual negotiation of meaning, rather than a linear transfer of messages from transmitter to receiver, arose partly as a kind of response to the inadequacies of the transmission model of communication.8 Jakobson’s model (1960) apparently has similarities with both the linear and the triangular models, and bridges the gap between the process and semiotic schools. Despite adopting a linear process as its skeleton, Jakobson relates the message to the “reality” that it is about and argues that the communication process consists of two dimensions: the perceptual or receptive, and the communicating or means and control dimension. The addresser sends a message to the addressee. The message refers to something other than itself, i.e. context. The two other factors are contact, i.e. the physical channel and psychological connections between the addresser and the addressee, and a code, a shared meaning system by which the message is structured. The model is intended to show that messages and meanings cannot be isolated from the constitutive contextual factors.9 While Jakobson’s (1960) model concerned mostly interpersonal communication, Hall (1973) proposed a model of mass communication which gave an equal status to both decoder and encoder thereby highlighting the importance of active interpretation within relevant codes; he pointed out that “decodings do not follow inevitably from encodings” (Hall 1980: 136). Seeing the process of encoding and decoding as “socially contingent practices”, Corner argued they are “certainly not to be thought of as ‘sending’ ←14 | 15→and ‘receiving’ linked by the conveyance of a ‘message’ which is the exclusive vehicle of meaning” (1983: 267–268). The rationale behind this argument, as already mentioned, is that meaning is a social product, and language as well as other modes of communication, which do not happen in a vacuum, are socially and culturally shaped. Hence, Kress’ (2001: 67–68) emphasis on the motivation in sign-making and the importance of the notion of context. Contexts are not objective, but interpreted or constructed, and strategically and continually made relevant by and for participants.10 The notion encompasses participant categories, a number of setting dimensions, such as time, place, speaker position, special factors related to physical environment, as well as such socio-cognitive dimensions as socially shared or personal knowledge or other beliefs in the form of implied meanings and presuppositions (cf. van Dijk 1997). Communication is thus naturally a kind of cooperative process in the context of interpersonal and institutional power relations which involves interpretation of the intrinsically dynamic uses of signs meant to achieve specific aims. The dynamic and intentional nature of this process is also highlighted by Wąsik who observes that:

those who study the semiotics of human communication might see discourse as a material manifestation of language and culture in sensible meaning bearers, defined in terms of text-like objects, playing the semiotic functions of indicating, signaling, appealing, symbolic, iconic, i.e., pictorial or mimetic signs in nonverbal and verbal behavior of communication participants. (2011: 52)

The question of how people make (and interpret) signs in various social settings is particularly salient in social semiotics, an approach to communication strongly influenced by the work of Michael Halliday (1978), Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress (1979, 1988), and based on the assumption that semiotic systems can shape social relations and society itself. One of the tenets of the social semiotic theory is that semiotic resources, which are socially conditioned and culturally shared options, are created with certain purposes in mind and used by communicators in a dynamic process continually adapted to social encounters. Focusing on both production and interpretation of texts, social semiotics investigates their potential, functions, and consequences. In the words of Kress (2001: 72), “sign is central and sign is the result of intent, the sign makers’ intent to represent their meanings in the most plausible, the apt form”. ←15 | 16→

2From Linguistic Turn to Mediatic Turn


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
meaning and structure semiosis knowledge and interpretation semiotic systems culture mediated experience
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 258 pp., 29 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Artur Gałkowski (Volume editor) Monika Weronika Kopytowska (Volume editor)

Artur Gałkowski is Associate Professor of Italian and French linguistics at the University of Łódź, Poland, where he is the Head of the Department of Italian Studies at the Institute of Romance Philology. His research interests cover various issues in onomastics, semiotics, foreign language teaching, and translation, on which he has published numerous articles, edited volumes, monographs, and book chapters. Monika Kopytowska is Assistant Professor in the Department of Pragmatics at the University of Łódź, Poland. Her research interests revolve around the interface of language and cognition, identity, and the pragma-rhetorical aspects of the mass-mediated representation of religion, ethnicity, and conflict. She has published internationally in linguistic journals and volumes.


Title: Current Perspectives in Semiotics