Word and image
Word and image

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2 Semiotics

2.1 Some semiotic concepts

The first Reading in this course outlines some useful terms from semiotics, which will occur throughout this course. Semiotics is a well-established approach to the study of language and other forms of communication which are socially and culturally meaningful. Its fundamental premise is that we use signs – words (both spoken and written), images, clothing, gesture – to communicate meaning. Much of semiotics has its roots in Formalism, developed in the early twentieth century, which saw language not just in terms of its constituent parts but in terms of how its individual elements are related. Formalism focused on the form and structure of language, the message for its own sake, and evolved into structuralism in the 1920s and 1930s. A semiotic framework is applicable to language, images, photographs, diagrams – any aspect of the text which can be seen to carry meaning. Semiotics also helps to account for meaning created by letterforms, typeface and page layout – often highly creative elements of the text which lie outside what linguists often admit as ‘language’.

Activity 2: Some semiotic concepts (Reading A)

Click on the link below to read ‘Signs and myths’ by Jonathan Bignell, which first outlines some basic concepts in semiotics: Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of semiology, and Charles Peirce's theory of semiotics (both theories are now usually conflated as ‘semiotics’). Bignell then explains some of the main concepts you will need for the rest of this course.

Signs and myths [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


In semiotics, the basic unit of communication is the sign, which for Saussure is made up of a signifier (for our purposes here, the linguistic or visual representation) and a signified (the concept it represents). Signs are always culturally situated – they mean to members of a language community or wider society – which is why Saussure calls them ‘arbitrary’. For Peirce, the sign also comprises signifier and signified, but he divides signs themselves into three types. Symbolic signs are those where the signifier does not resemble the signified – meaning is arbitrary and culturally learnt and understood (such as the use of the colour red for a Stop sign, or a linguistic sign – the word ‘cat’ for the animal). Iconic signs are those where a resemblance can be perceived, such as a portrait of someone. Indexical signs often have some kind of causal relationship between signifier and signified: smoke is an index of fire.

In a moment I will move on to look at how these concepts and others from Bignell, such as denotation and connotation, may be applied to word and image in literature, but first we take a look at how these semiotic ‘nuts and bolts’ can be applied to an advertisement.

Activity 3: Signs in an advertisement

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Take a look at the image shown in Figure 2, ‘Baby McFry’. What signs seem meaningful to you, and how do you interpret the image?

Figure 2
Figure 2: Baby McFry (Adbusters)


As a single image, Baby McFry is iconic – a photograph of a toddler. On the level of denotation, then, we could say it denotes that particular child, wearing those particular clothes, at the particular time the photograph was taken. On the connotative level, though, the image is complex. It is made up of component signs. Connotations evoked by signs are not universal – different people may read any image in different ways. Images also require some interpretative effort on the part of the reader: the more time you spend looking at them, the more you will probably see. For example, you may look at Baby McFry and immediately recognise the McDonald's corporate logo (known as the ‘Golden Arches’, due to the shape of the letter M). It is one of the best known logos in the world. You might then decide that the bib and hat are significant – for you, these may connote pleasure, distaste, or neither, but quite possibly a feeling you associate with a trip to McDonald's.

Bignell also discusses codes in his reading, a discussion which relates to the principle of selection and combination. Signs are selected from a paradigm – a set of possible signs in a given category, such as nouns, jackets, colours. Here we have a white (not Asian or Black for example) child (not a man, not an adolescent, not a grandfather), with a McDonald's bib (not a different bib), and so on. These are combined along the syntagm – in a sentence, this would be the linear order of the words, but in an image it is the spatial arrangement. Because on the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes elements have been selected and combined, it is often illuminating to consider what elements were not selected, and how a different combination would have changed the meaning.

All the advertisement actually shows (denotes) is a fairly plump-looking baby, probably between 12 and 18 months old, wearing a McDonald's bib and a paper hat with an image of chips printed on it. So it would be quite possible to read this as an advertisement for McDonald's itself, or as a children's party invitation, or a family snap.

But this image is an ‘anti-advertisement’ or ‘subvertisement’ produced by Adbusters, a network of artists and activists concerned about ecological and commercial issues. They are known for their anti-consumption campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day, and TV Turnoff Week, as well as for their parodies of advertisements by international corporations, such as this one. This multimodal text condenses into a single image current and ongoing concerns about the activities of large multinational corporations, and the amount of contextual information we need to read it is enormous.

McDonald's is a global brand; many people know that it has been targeted by anti-capitalism activists, who raise concerns about the environmental damage they believe stems from the production of ‘fast food’; by those who want to replace what have been termed ‘McJobs’ with better long-term career options and pay for young people; by health professionals concerned with the projected rise in obesity attributable, in part, to excessive consumption of fast food; and by those concerned that the global expansion of McDonald's rides roughshod over local cultural traditions. When viewing this advertisement, you may or may not have access to all of this background information. Your interpretation of this spoof advertisement therefore depends on your recognition (or not) of at least some of the current controversies, your attitudes towards them, and perhaps your attitudes to advertising in general. Your experience of such texts (and indeed any other text) is dependent also on your cultural context, and social and political factors: you may be fully aware of the opposition to McDonald's but think it entirely unreasonable. We return later to this point in Reading B, where the meanings of the words and images in postcolonial picturebooks are discussed.

I now turn to some ways in which semiotic analysis can illuminate the creative nature of visual elements of literature and poetry. The remainder of this section looks firstly at visual aspects such as letterforms, punctuation and layout, and secondly at concrete poetry. Section 3 broadens out to consider literary works of fiction which use illustrations and images to convey meaning, although there will be some overlap between the two sections.

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