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Semiotic Theory

José J. Riera


Have you wondered why black is used traditionally as the color of mourning in most Western countries?  Or why the eagle symbolizes strength and power in various societies?  Semiotics may provide some useful insights to answer these questions. Leech and Onwuegbuzie (2008) define semiotics as a science that explores the relationships between signs, including talk and text, and their intended specific meanings. In essence, semiotics is the study of “signs” and of anything that stands for or represents something else. The term semiotics is derived from the Greek words semeio (interpreter of sign) and tikos (pertaining to). The main proponents of this theory were Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), a Swiss linguist who studied the meaning of signs within a particular group or society, and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), an American philosopher and logician who studied how signs shape our individual understanding of physical reality.

An expert or student of semiotics is called a semiotician. Semioticians study how signs are used to convey meaning and to shape our perceptions of life and reality. They pay close attention to how signs are used to impart meaning to their intended recipients and look for ways to ensure that their meaning comes across effectively. Their work can have practical applications in everyday life, such as designing more intuitive road signs and easier-to-navigate marketing surveys. Semioticians also study how messages are used to influence people’s behavior, such as when providing educational content in the classroom and when managing their emotions during times of crisis.

Previous Studies

Semiotic Theory (ST) has been used extensively for educational purposes, particularly in research studies on language instruction and acquisition. For example, Qadha and Mahdi (2019) used semiotic materials such as illustrations, everyday objects, and gestures to make language learning more interesting and effective. In their study of English language learners (ELLs) in Saudi Arabia, they obtained significantly higher vocabulary-acquisition test results from those students receiving semiotic instruction (i.e., taught new vocabulary words along with images) than from those receiving traditional classroom students where no semiotic aids were provided. Similarly, in a study of Turkish 7th graders, Kuzu (2016) observed that teachers using cartoon caricatures as semiotic tools achieved higher student comprehension and content grasp in their writing courses than those using traditional Turkish classroom instructional methods. These studies point to the pedagogical benefits that semiotic methods can add to grasping the meaning of new words and evaluating text, thanks to the use of graphical aids and body language (Qadha & Mahdi, 2019). The pedagogical benefits of using semiotic tools were noted further by Ollerhead (2018), when she observed that immigrant ELLs in Australia who were taught with the aid of emoticons, colors, and other semiotic educational materials improved their English vocabulary and learning engagement meaningfully because those semiotic tools allowed them to engage all their senses and faculties more thoroughly in the learning process.

Model of Semiotic Theory


Within the context of Berger and Luckman’s (1966) grand theory of social constructionism, the ST model consists of three concepts (i.e., sign, context, and meaning), a construct (i.e., semiosis) and the proposition that signs that convey precise context can trigger appropriate responses from an intended recipient, as shown in Figure 1 and described below.

Model of Semiotics Theory


The semiotics model consists of three main concepts. The first concept is sign.  According to De Saussure (1916), a sign is composed of both the form it takes in physical reality (called a signifier) and how it is conceived or interpreted by its viewer (the signified). A sign must have both; it is the integrated whole that results from the combination of the signifier and what is signified (Saussure, 1983). A sign can be manifested in many ways, including sounds, smells, and body language.

The second concept is context. According to Bowcher (2018), in semiotics, context refers to those aspects in a conversation or interaction that provide relevant and specific meaning to the particular exchange that is occurring. This enables the recipient in this exchange to make proper sense of the interaction and derive the intended meaning from it.

The third and final concept is meaning. In cognitive semiotics, Zlatev (2018) proposes that meaning is the relationship between the recipient of a sign and their personal experience of the world around them. This means that meaning is created when the recipient makes sense of the sign by connecting and interacting with their surrounding reality.


In this model, the construct semiosis refers to the relationship between the sign, the context, and the meaning. Peirce (1873) described semiosis as any process that involves signs, including the production of meaning. Within the context of the semiotics model above, semiosis describes the interplay and interaction between the concepts of sign, context, and meaning.


As shown above, the semiotics model proposes that a sign, when provided with precise social and cultural context, can convey the sender’s intended meaning more effectively and thereby increase the likelihood of prompting an appropriate response from the recipient. This means that a sender should pay close attention to providing relevant and adequate context when using visual cues or illustrations to ensure that the recipient understands the sign’s intended meaning clearly. By providing such context when sharing visual messages, the sender can enhance the recipient’s comprehension and response to the information they receive, whether they are participating in a lesson or being asked to complete a particular request, for instance.

Using the Model

In Research 

In consumer marketing research, the semiotics model can help researchers understand which visual signs might convey desirable psychological effects on shoppers to incorporate them contextually in their advertising copy. In archeology and civilization research, the semiotics model can help to increase understanding of how humans have made meaning of deities and divinity through the ages by examining visual representations in religious paintings.

In ethnographic research, the semiotics model can help to analyze how different cultures have interpreted certain catastrophic events (e.g., volcanoes or earthquakes) in the review of their historical records and literature.

In Teaching Practice

The semiotics model could help teachers in communications classrooms to better explain the use of darker shades to fan racial fears in Time Magazine’s O. J. Simpson’s 1994 magazine cover. In addition, the semiotics model may help urban planning teachers to explain the importance of incorporating visual and cultural context that is generally understood by drivers to design more intuitive road signs. Further, the semiotics model could help fashion and merchandising teachers to educate their students on which design features of clothing convey specific social and cultural semiotic cues (e.g., wide shoulder pads to convey power).


Semiotics can help us to understand why certain signs are interpreted differently in different cultures and different geographies. For instance, the American “OK” hand sign may be considered rude in Brazil, while the concept of mobile home is understood differently in the United Kingdom. Therefore, semiotics emphasizes the importance of providing appropriate social and cultural context for a communicant so that the message does not get “lost in translation.” It also helps people to think deeply about the meaning that is attached to colors, images, sounds, and events and to consider how perceptions may have been predetermined by people and other external factors.


Bowcher, W. L. (2018). The semiotic sense of context vs. the material sense of context. Functional Linguist, 5(5), 1-19.

Kuzu, T. S. (2016). The impact of a semiotic analysis theory-based writing activity on students’ writing skills. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research16(63), 37-54.

Leech, N. L., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2008). Qualitative data analysis: A compendium of techniques and a framework for selection for school psychology research and beyond. School Psychology Quarterly23(4), 587-604.

Ollerhead, S. (2019). Teaching across semiotic modes with multilingual learners: Translanguaging in an Australian classroom. Language and Education33(2), 106-122.

Qadha, A. M. & Mahd, H. S. (2019). The use of images for teaching abstract words versus concrete words: A semiotic study. Arab World English Journal10(3), 287–298.

Zlatev, J. (2018). Meaning making from life to language: The semiotic hierarchy and phenomenology. Cognitive Semiotics, 11(1), 1-18.


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Semiotic Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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