A French theorist called Ferdinand de Saussure believed that all ways in which humans communicate, such as; flags, smoke signals, religious ceremonies and clothes could all be interpreted as if they were languages. Saussure gave this the phrase “semiotics”.

Semiotics- the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation



De Saussure regarded words as one system of signs its self. For example, the word ‘dog’ has no resemblance to the four legged animal that goes”woof”. People learn this connection between sign and its meaning as they were culturally brought up as young children to view it this way, it is a symbol.


De Saussure believed that images worked in the same way and could be categorised in three different ways.

  • The first way: he believed that images could also be seen as symbols. For example, a shot of a countries flag symbolises patriotism. Symbolic Sign
  • The second way: Images that are not like words can work through resemblance. For example, the image of a star resembles and actor or singer with a ‘star’ career. Images that communicate through resemblance is known as an icon. Iconic Sign
  • The third way: Images can communicate non-visual information through a link. For example, when smoke is seen in a film, this signifies fire. this sign is known as an index. Indexical Sign

Some signs are hard to classify and can take on all three types of classification.


De Saussure came up with the idea that there is two sides to a sign: the first, the physical form of a sign, which he referred to as the ‘signifier’. The second is the meaning the sign evokes, which is referred to as as the ‘signified’. For example, an object such as a rose is the signifying part of the sign. And the giving of a rose to another person signifies love. So, the ‘signifier’ and the signified’ combine to make the ‘sign’.

Sign- the smallest unit of meaning. Anything that can be used to communicate

Signifier- any material thing that signifies e.g. words on a page, facial expression, an image

Signified- the concept that the signifier refers to

Together, the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ make up the ‘sign’


Denotation and Connotation 

A theorist called Roland Barthes developed a method in which we can analyse and discuss the literal and potential meanings of images we see in newspapers, magazines and on screen.

The literal meaning is Denotation. Barthes defines this as as the most basic and literal meaning of a sign. Simply what can be seen

The potential meaning is Connotation. This is the secondary or cultural meanings of signs. There is a vary of potential meanings (connotations)






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