Semiology is the science of ‘signs’ and their meanings. Meanings as socially produced, negotiated through signs and codes.  In semiotics meaning may not be fixed and it is important to remember that language changes.


Signifier and Signified

A key thinker, Ferdinand de Saussure, theorised that the sign is composed of two parts: The signifier and the signified. The signifier is the physical existence or representation of the sign. The signified is the associated mental concept. Together they create the signification: referring to something in the world (the referent).

Signifier + signified = signification

The word cat/picture of a cat + noise of a cat (meow) = a cat

Denotation and Connotation


Roland Barthes is known for his work with denotation and connotation. Denotation is the surface meaning e.g. the American flag and the connotation are the suggested, inferred or associated meanings (feelings, emotions, ideas that we associate with a particular sign) e.g. power, pride, superpower, imperial and so on. Often connotations are broadly shared within a culture, but they can vary from person to person, depending on their perspective. Connotations can change over time, as seen below:

The sign Connotations before Connotations now
Swastika Good luck, positivity, love, light, life, happiness Nazis, death, genocide, hate, Jews, Germany, war
Clowns Happy, silly, funny Sinister, scary, creepy, horror, fear, film character

Icon, Index and Symbol

Charles Sanders Peirce theorised that different types of sign have different relationships to their referent:

Icon – likeness to referent (e.g. photo of fire)

Index – close links to, points towards referent (e.g. smoke is an indexical sign of fire)

Symbol – arbitrary or socially constructed links to referent (e.g. ‘FIRE’ as written on paper/as a scientific symbol/hazard warning).

I do not own the above images, they are from: and

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