I have been asked on a number of occasions how I came to write this text, and for whom. I wrote it initially in 1994 for myself and for my students in preparation for a course I teach on Media Education for 3rd year undergraduates at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. In my opinion, an understanding of semiotics is essential for anyone studying the mass media - or communication or cultural studies. No comparable text on the subject existed at the time so I rashly attempted to create one which suited my own purposes and those of my students. It was partly a way of advancing and clarifying my own understanding of the subject. Like many other readers my forays into semiotics had been frustrated by many of the existing books on the subject which frequently seemed almost impossible to understand. As an educationalist, I felt that the authors of such books should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The subject of meaning-making is of understandable fascination for a very wide readership, but most of the existing books seemed to seek to make it confusing, dull and deeply obscure.
The academic priorities which led me to write this text had consequences for its evolution. However, since I wrote the original text I have broadened its scope considerably, so that there are now frequent references not only to the mass media but also to other subjects, such as literature, art and mythology. One of the things that attracted me to semiotics was the way in which it supports my own enjoyment of crossing the 'boundaries' of academic disciplines, and of making connections between apparently disparate phenomena. I have grown with the text: its easily revisable online form has allowed me not to feel that I have 'outgrown' it. However, I am not a polymath, so there are inevitably many subjects which are neglected here. In this text I have confined myself to human semiosis, so that this is not the place to find an introduction to such branches of semiotics as that concerned with the behaviour and communication of animals (zoosemiotics). Nor do I discuss the semiotics of communication between machines. My focus is on the humanities and so there is no mathematical semiotics here either. Even within the humanities, I did not feel competent to cover musical or architectural semiotics. I know that students of some of these subjects are amongst those who have consulted the online text, which lends me some hope that they will still find the exploration of general principles of some relevance to their own priorities. The exclusion of certain subjects is not, of course, to suggest that they are any less important to the semiotic enterprise. The unavoidable selectivity of the text invites the productivity of the reader in its deconstruction. Driven by their own purposes, readers will no doubt be alert 'what is conspicuous by its absence'.
Semiotics is a huge field, and no treatment of it can claim to be comprehensive. My attempt to offer a coherent account of some key concepts is in some ways misleading: there are divergent schools of thought in semiotics, and there is remarkably little consensus amongst contemporary theorists regarding the scope of the subject, core concepts or methodological tools. This particular account betrays its European origins, focusing on Saussurean and post-Saussurean semiotics (structuralist semiotics and post-structuralist critiques) rather than, for instance, on Peircean semiotics (although some key Peircean concepts are mentioned). The focus on structuralist semiotics is intended to be of value to readers who wish to use semiotics as an approach to textual analysis. However, semiotics is far more than a method of analysing texts in a variety of media, and I hope I will also inspire the reader's enthusiasm for exploring some of the fascinating philosophical issues which semiotics raises.
Since a printed book appeared with the same title (Cobley & Jansz 1997), I feel tempted to retitle this on-line publication as Semiotics for Absolute Beginners, but have so far retained the original title. As it happens, the book mentioned has subsequently (1999) been retitled Introducing Semiotics. I always intended to write my own text, as far as my ability allowed, for absolute beginners. If you know of any way in which I could improve the text in this respect I would be happy to hear from you. The amount of 'positive feedback' generated by this on-line publication has amazed and puzzled me (as well as encouraged me), especially since it was originally produced primarily for my own students. One reason may be that exposure to a new medium seems to generate fresh interest in semiotics. Another may be that so much of what is written about semiotics is written as if to keep out those who are not already 'members of the club'. Many readers have been kind enough to report that this on-line publication is indeed useful for beginners (which is gratifying). It is certainly intended to be a 'reader's companion' in approaching more difficult semiotic texts, which so often assume knowledge of much of the jargon. I apologise to any readers who need no such introduction for the occasional oversimplification to which I have sometimes succumbed in the interests of serving my primary audience, but if they feel I have gone too far in some cases I would be keen to hear how I could rectify this.
This document - which I call S4B for short - has been developed in hypertext rather than simply transferred to the World Wide Web from a word processor. Whilst it is not radically hypertextual in its design, I have tried to bear in mind that people may initially arrive at any page within in and try to work their way through the document from their entry point. Consequently, readers who follow a simple linear route are likely to be struck by the amount of what may seem to them like repetition. I hope that this 'modular' approach is not too irritating. The use of the internet reflects my sense of the provisional nature of the text (and of my current understanding of the field 'at the time of writing'). The hypertext document is in fact my 'master copy' - my own printed copies are nearly always out-of-date since I update it whenever a useful change strikes me. In this sense, in using the text online you have access to my current personal notes on the topic. You can see how recently I revised any particular page by checking the date and time given at the bottom of the page in question, though note that the changes made are sometimes simply to the layout rather than to the text itself. You may even be reading it at a time when I am working on the text. In the light of this information you may be less surprised when you encounter material which I have not yet fully integrated into the 'flow' of the text. Some of the 'scaffolding' involved in constructing the online text is still visible. If you print the text out, remember that it was not originally written to be read in that form!
After I had installed an 'access counter' to monitor usage of the online text I was astonished to discover the number of 'hits' it generated. Furthermore, such accesses initially seemed to grow exponentially. Hits since 18th September 1995 reached 100,000 on 13th February 1999, 150,000 on 9th September 1999, 200,000 on 5th April 2000 and 250,000 on 6th December 2000. This is despite the use of automatic 'caches' which store the text locally for temporary re-use without reaccessing the orginal site. The text also generated a large number of e-mail messages from all over the world, including one of Professor Umberto Eco's own students (who shall remain anonymous) who told me that after reading this text they were able to understand him much better! My awareness that the text had a large and disparate audience contributed to the way in which it developed. Martin Ryder in the USA, who runs the most widely-used webpage of semiotic links, has suggested that my own online text was a key factor in the remarkable growth of interest in semiotics online: it was the focus, he says, for the emergence of a semiotic community. If I had believed that I think I would have been paralysed by a sense of the inadequacies of my text and of the limitations of my knowledge and capabilities to address such a task. Luckily I wasn't originally aware of any such possibility: my online audience was invisible.
Clearly, publication of academic papers on the web offers the potential of a far larger audience than that to which academics are accustomed. I urge fellow academics to retain on-line publishing rights for their papers by adding to their publishing contracts and to their manuscripts submitted for print publication a line to the effect that 'the author reserves the right to publish on-line versions of this text'. I have so far resisted the temptation to include a comment form copying readers' comments automatically to my Head of Department so that my colleagues would realize that my ventures into cyberspace are appreciated by someone! I do try to answer e-mail from readers, but am not always able to spare the time, so I hope I will be forgiven for thanking here anyone who has not received an individual reply. I continue to welcome comments and suggestions.
I occasionally get e-mail messages asking whether any payment is due in return for the use of this resource. Unless you propose to distribute copies no payment or licence is required. However, if you want to support the site and are feeling generous are some options you might consider:
You do not have to ask my permission to include a link to it from a webpage. You may also store a copy on your own PC for personal use. However, please do not store a 'local copy' on a server or store and distribute the text on a CD. I am happy to negotiate official mirror sites.
In quoting from the text of Saussure's Course in General Linguistics that the translation used is that of Roy Harris (Saussure 1983), although, following the practice of John Sturrock in using this translation (Sturrock 1986, 31, 32), I have retained the terms 'signifier' and 'signified' rather than use Harris's translation of signifiant as 'signal' and signifié as 'signification'. Whilst it is far more recent (1983) than the Wade Baskin translation (1959), Harris's translation is rarely cited in the texts which most students are likely to encounter. I have therefore cited page references for Baskin's translation (the 1974 edition) alongside those for Harris's translation. The status of the French 'original' is problematic, since not only was it first published posthumously in 1916 (Saussure having died in 1913), but it was not written by Saussure himself - being a compilation based on notes taken by his students from lectures delivered between 1907 and 1911.
The main text is periodically updated (sometimes intensively). The on-line text is now available in English in the frozen form of print. The online version has special advantages: notably, for the writer revisability, for the reader, being able to 'search' the text and for both, the 'connections' made possible by hypertextual links. However, the main problem for the reader (other than the discomfort of extended reading from the screen) may be that it doesn't stand still long enough to get to know it - one can 'know one's way around' a book precisely because it remains as constant as a map (unlike the terrain it depicts). The book version has now been published by Routledge under the title: Semiotics: The Basics. The online text will continue to be available. For details of the printed book, click here. Note that it will be cheaper to buy the book than to print out the online version, and that the book will be much tidier to shelve and easier to browse!
|Up until 2001 there was only one official printed version of this text. By curious circumstance that book is not in the language in which the text was originated. An authorized Spanish translation - Semiótica para Principiantes - by Vanessa Hogan Vega and Iván Rodrigo Mendizábal is available in the series Pluriminor from Ediciones Abya-Yala, Av. 12 de Octubre 14-30 y Wilson, Casilla 17-12-719, Quito, Ecuador in association with Escuela de Comunicación Social de la Universidad Politéchnica Salesiana (1998, 146 pp, with bibliography, ISBN 9978-04-429-9). This was based on the text as at mid-June 1998 (Chandler 1998). There is now also a Korean translation and an Arabic one. A Polish translation is underway (Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen). If there is a demand for translations into other languages I would be pleased to suggest this to my British publishers.
There is a 1999
Greek language translation online by Professor Maria Constantopoulou of the
Athens University of Economics and Business, to whom I am deeply
indebted. Print publication in Greek is currently being negotiated.
US mirror site for Semiotics for Beginners is at
It is run by Martin C Messer in North Carolina. Thanks Martin! Note that this
site is not always up-to-date.
There is also an earlier version of Semiotics for Beginners for
Palmsize PCs running WindowsCE with the Starbuck bookreader.
This can be found at:
http://www.adbosch.demon.nl/starbuck.htm. Offers to produce other
specialized versions are also welcome.
I would like to thank Professor Dr Winfried Nöth of the University of Kassel for his useful comments on 'articulation' and 'empty signifiers'. Dr David Mick of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has also been particularly kind in keeping me updated with his own papers on the semiotics of advertising which have been a very useful source of ideas and observations.