Semiotics is the science of signs. A sign is something we must interpret to understand its sense. For our purposes the most important type of sign is the word. All words are signs, but not all signs are words. Other types of signs include emojis, road signs, pictograms, smoke signals, Morse code, hand gestures, and much, much else besides.
There are different types of signs that require different types of interpretation. Signs usually contain at least two of the qualities listed below and most signs contain all three to various degrees.
Some signs are primarily iconic. This means that they resemble the thing they are meant to denote. For example, onomatopoetic words such as ‘woof’ or ‘bang’ resemble sounds; drawings of characters in comic books are understood to represent human beings because they look like human beings (or talking ducks or whatever); a happy emoji has an immediately recognizable facial expression; and so on.
Other signs are chiefly indexical, which means that they indicate something, like a connection between cause and effect, or a desire to define something. For example, ‘smoke’ can be an indication of ‘fire’; a pointing finger indicates whatever object is being pointed at; a word balloon in a comic book indicates who is talking; and certain words, like ‘this’ and ‘there’ indicate objects, places, persons and so on.
Finally, many signs are, first and foremost, symbolic. These are signs where there is no form of resemblance or logical connection between the sign and what it signifies. For these types of sign we have to learn what they mean through acquainting ourselves with certain conventions. Words are symbolic signs, because we have to learn them to understand them. Obviously, this class of sign is the most important one when we discuss how language is used representatively in literature.
Sign = signifier and signified. The signifier is the part of the sign that attempts to express meaning, i.e., the word, the emoji, the Morse signal; The signified is what the sign refers to, i.e., what it stands for. The word ‘horse’ is the signifier and the hooved oats-fancier who gallops around in fields is the signified of the sign horse.
- Iconic signs resemble the signified.
- Indexical signs point to the signified.
- Symbolic signs rely on convention.
So, how do these traits appear in different signs? If we take the word ‘woof,’ for example, it is primarily iconic because it is similar to the sound a dog makes when it barks. Second, it is indexical in that it indicates the presence of a dog in the same way that ‘moo’ is an index for a cow and ‘bang’ might be an index for a gun. Thirdly, the word ‘woof,’ onomatopoetic as it may be, it is still a word, and if it appears in print you need to know how to read in order to understand it. ‘Woof’ is therefore also symbolic.
Because all signs are to greater or lesser degrees iconic and indexical and symbolic, interpreting them is not straightforward. Words have multiple meanings, denotations and connotations because it is ultimately up to the receiver of the sign to make sense of it. Only if we have seen the thing an iconic sign is meant to resemble, will we be able to understand its sense. Only if we know that smoke comes from fire will we be able to infer that something is burning when we see smoke. And only if we have learned to read will we be able to understand a message conveyed to us in words.
When we hear or read a phrase, such as ‘vintage car,’ different pictures form in different persons’ minds. Some might think of a black Model-T Ford from before WWII. Some might envision a red 1960s Ferrari. Others, for whom old cars are not very interesting, might form only a vague idea of what such a car would look like.
Taking all of this into consideration, one would be excused for wondering why human communication works at all. To lead a normal conversation begins to seem difficult and to write a novel that anyone would understand seems impossible. Yet, in everyday use, as well as in literature, the quirks of language tend not to represent any major problems, at least as long as we stay on the surface level (which we will do only for a while). For the most part, we communicate quite satisfactorily, and in novels, poems and plays, the vagaries of language can often be an advantage rather than a problem, as long as the author or poet know what they are doing.
In the following, we will look at some examples of how works of literature mimic reality.