Beyond the most basic definition as ‘the study of signs’, there is considerable variation among leading semioticians as to what semiotics involves. One of the broadest definitions is that of Umberto Eco, who states that ‘semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign’ (Eco 1976, 7). Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic ‘sign-systems’ (such as a medium or genre). They study how meanings are made and how reality is represented.
Theories of signs (or ‘symbols’) appear throughout the history of philosophy from ancient times onwards (see Todorov 1982), the first explicit reference to semiotics as a branch of philosophy appearing in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). However, the two primary traditions in contemporary semiotics stem respectively from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’) (1839–1914). Saussure’s term sémiologie dates from a manuscript of 1894. The first edition of his Course in General Linguistics, published posthumously in 1916, contains the declaration that:
It is . . . possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek se¯meîon, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge.
(Saussure 1983, 15–16)