Links to Websites on Semiotics

Here is a good link for more information on semiotic theory, including summaries of the vast majority of semiotic theorists:

Here is an indepth consideration of language and meaning making:

Definition of Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of how things make meaning. Human beings frequently represent ideas using various sense-related means. For example, we might represent the idea of sadness through talking about it verbally, through writing about it, through creating a piece of music about it, through choreographing a dance about it, through painting a picture about it. Below are some examples of various types of artwork that could be said to express sadness.

As you look at, read, listen to, and watch these various ways of expressing sadness, think about what all these representations have in common, but also what makes them different. Which one seems to speak to you more significantly? How do you connect to them in similar ways and how do you connect to them differently?

Howard Gardner ( ) identifies the multiple intelligences people possess, and it is significant that many of these are related to how we take in information. You can see the multiple intelligences displayed across the artworks below and you may feel more drawn to one or two based on your own array of intelligences.

Here is a video about Ferdinand de Saussure, an early semiotic theorist.

Human Factors in Semiotics

There are several things to keep in mind:

The reason we have all these ways of expressing things is that each way of expressing has unique qualities to it. Poe's The Raven expresses sadness in a different way from the Jane Eyre text or the Picasso painting. There are forms of sadness that require painting to fully express them and other forms of sadness that require music or dance or whatever.

Remember that different people are drawn to different semiotic systems. This is a major educational point: we need to provide the same information in multiple forms so that we communicate it more completely and powerfully to our students.

Within each semiotic system are structures that provide signification, based on oppositions. Even in a blue painting, there is an opposition between blue and black, an opposition between horizontal and vertical. In music there is an opposition between tonic and dominant, between major and minor, just to name two possibilities. In language, every word has meaning based on opposition. In dance, it can be solo vs. ensemble, high vs. low, fast vs. slow, and so forth. While the substance of the meaning making--the materials, if you will--are different across all these systems, the structure of meaning making is the same, based on opposition.

Oppositions make meaning in two ways. One is through presence and the other through absence. Within presence, oppositions create tensions and resolve them, which represents much of how we experience our lives. For example, in sonata-allegro form, the overall harmonic movement is from I to V and back to I again, via the exposition in which the B theme is played in the dominant key, usually, and then the recapitulation where the B theme is played in the tonic. In life we move from the familiar and comfortable into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable frequently. We desire to move back to the familiar and feel such a sense of relief when that happens. The dominant 7 chord contains a tri-tone, the most dissonant interval in the western classical scale system. That dissonance creates an uncomfortable feeling and the return to the tonic provides a sense of consonant relief.

The development section complicates things because it moves through various keys using snippets of the various themes. It is analogous to that feeling of being lost but at the same time having something familiar to hang onto (the themes themselves). The complex nature of the development section (especially among the Romantic period composers) creates a stronger contrast between the sense of a journey into the unfamiliar and the sense of being home again with the recapitulation.

The other way in which opposition makes meaning is through what is not expressed. In every sentence, different words could be substituted. For example, we could have sentences like this:

The dog played with the red ball.
The cat played with the red ball.
The dog played with the green ball.

Dog in the first sentence is opposed to cat (or any other animal) through the choice of the word "dog" and leaving out other possible words. This type of meaning can get pretty complex, for example, in social situations where a person doesn't want to lie and say something negative and so her or she finds something positive to say that is tangential to the negative opinion. If a person is wearing some hideous clothing, you might compliment him or her on the choice of shoes or some other positive feature.

One example of this in music is the deceptive cadence where the vi substitutes for the expected I chord. The humor of PDQ Bach and Mozart's Musical Joke derives from this confounding of expectation through the presentation of something different.

All semiotic systems are conventional in that we understand what is being expressed based on our previous experiences with that semiotic system. Painting, for example, is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. There are painting conventions such as the vanishing point, that we know as the conventions of representing dimensionality. One of the interesting things David Chandler points out (semiotic reference above) is that aliens would not be able to interpret a drawing made by a human being because of not having the cultural experience with the conventions of drawing. A student who does not have experience with a particular semiotic system will have trouble interpreting messages in that system.

The interesting thing about the transition from the Romantic Period into the Modernist period in music was how Modernist music defied the conventions of tonality. The kerfuffle around Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in its first performance reflects this and shows how strongly connected we are to the conventions of any system. Modernist artists of various genres did this, whether it was Gertrude Stein using language in a much more material way than ever before (making meaning not just through the Mad-Lib-type collections of words, but also through the images the words incite and the sounds of the words), Picasso and so many others defying the conventions of representations in painting, Webern and Berg creating 12 tone music, Nijinsky creating choreography that specifically opposed the traditional ballet positions, etc.

Across semiotic systems, the message changes. Things get lost and gained in translation.

School is one gigantic exercise in moving between and across semiotic systems. The more practice kids have with being able to represent ideas in several semiotic systems, the better they will do in school.

"Sadness" Expressed Across Semiotic Systems

The following is a group of different semiotic systems, all expressing "sadness." It is interesting to see how the same feeling is expressed across painting, music, dance, poetry, and prose.

Painting by Picasso

This is Picasso's 1903 painting, "The Old Guitarist," which was painted during his "blue" period. Picasso went through two periods early in his career that were defined by the predominant colors he used in a group of paintings ("rose," and "blue). Four years later, in 1907, he would invent cubism with his seminal painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon:'Avignon

It is interesting to consider how sadness gets communicated here. Of course, we feel "blue" when we feel sad, so the color is part of it. The man's head is down. A happier person would be portrayed, perhaps, as smiling and looking straight at the viewer. This guy is emaciated and looking down. His hands are almost skeleton-like, which reminds the viewer of mortality.

Music by Chopin

This is the famous funeral march of Chopin. It is a musical way of expressing sadness, through the slow tempo and the melody in a minor key. It's almost like a slow plodding towards a cemetary.

Requiem Ballet

Here is a ballet, a requiem, representing sadness.

Poem by Edgar Allen Poe

The Raven
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!


Excerpt From Jane Eyre (narrative writing) by Charlotte Brontë

Chapter VIII

ERE THE HALF-HOUR ended, five o'clock struck; school was dismissed, and all were gone into the refectory to tea. I now ventured to descend; it was deep dusk; I retired into a corner and sat down on the floor. The spell by which I had been so far supported began to dissolve; reaction took place, and soon, so overwhelming was the grief that seized me, I sank prostratewith my face to the ground. Now I wept: Helen Burns was not here; nothing sustained me; left to myself, I abandoned myself, and my tears watered the boards. I had meant to be so good, and to do so much at Lowood: to make so many friends, to earn respect and win affection. Already I had made visible progress: that very morning I had reached the head of my class; Miss Miller had praised me warmly; Miss Temple had smiled approbation; she had promised to teach me drawing, and to let me learn French, if I continued to make similar improvement two months longer: and then I was well received by my fellow-pupils; treated as an equal by those of my own age, and not molested by any; now, here I lay again crushed and trodden on; and could I ever rise more?
“Never,” I thought; and ardently I wished to die. While sobbing out this wish in broken accents, some one approached; I started up—again Helen Burns was near me; the fading fires just showed her coming up the long, vacant room; she brought my coffee and bread.
“Come, eat something,” she said; but I put both away from me, feeling as if a drop or a crumb would have choked me in my present condition. Helen regarded me, probably with surprise: I could not now abate my agitation, though I tried hard; I continued to weep aloud. She sat down on the ground near me, embraced her knees with her arms, and rested her head upon them; in that attitude she remained silent as an Indian. I was the first who spoke: “Helen, why do you stay with a girl whom everybody believes to be a liar?”
“Everybody, Jane? Why, there are only eighty people who have heard you called so, and the world contains hundreds of millions.”
“But what have I to do with millions? The eighty I know despise me.”
“Jane, you are mistaken: probably not one in the school either despises or dislikes you: many, I am sure, pity you much.”
“How can they pity me after what Mr. Brocklehurst has said?”
“Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god: nor is he even a great and admired man: he is little liked here; he never took steps to make himself liked. Had he treated you as an especial favorite, you would have found enemies declared or covert, all around you: as it is, the greater number would offer you sympathy if they dared. Teachers and pupils may look coldly on you for a day or two, but friendly feelings are concealed in their hearts; and if you persevere in doing well, these feelings will ere long appear so much the more evidently for their temporary suppression. Besides, Jane—” she paused.
“Well, Helen?” said I, putting my hand into hers: she chafed my fingers gently to warm them, and went on:
“If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”
“No; I know I should think well of myself; but that is not enough: if others don't love me, I would rather die than live—I cannot bear to be solitary and hated, Helen. Look here; to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest—”
“Hush, Jane! you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement: the sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feebler than you. Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognize our innocence (if innocent we be: as I know you are of this charge which Mr. Brocklehurst has weakly and pompously repeated at second-hand from Mrs. Reed; for I read a sincere nature in your ardent eyes and on your clear front), and God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward. Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness—to glory?”
I was silent: Helen had calmed me; but in the tranquility she imparted there was an alloy of inexpressible sadness. I felt the impression of woe as she spoke, but I could not tell whence it came; and when, having done speaking, she breathed a little fast and coughed a short cough, I momentarily forgot my own sorrows to yield to a vague concern for her.
Resting my head on Helen's shoulder, I put my arms round her waist; she drew me to her and we reposed in silence. We had not sat long thus when another person came in. Some heavy clouds, swept from the sky by a rising wind, had left the moon bare; and her light, streaming in through a window near, shone full both on us and on the approaching figure, which we at once recognized as Miss Temple.
“I came on purpose to find you, Jane Eyre,” said she; “I want you in my room; and as Helen Burns is with you, she may come too.”