Symbolism and semiotics: a primer

Ve Sidra Magni - Symbolism and Semiotics primer - Ve Magni
What do symbols mean? Some are easy to interpret: a stop sign means stop. A green light means go. A red circle with a slash means, “Not this thing.”

What about symbols whose meaning is less straightforward? A flag, for example. We can all agree on what a national flag objectively is: a readily identifiable symbol meant to represent a nation. But what does the flag mean? Does it mean patriotism? Is its connotation inherently positive, or inherently negative? If the symbol is flipped upside-down, the flag is meant to represent something entirely new. If flown lower, again new. If dropped on the ground, new. And in its destruction, this one symbol has the power to strike a great chasm between people born on the same land it is meant to represent in one place while barely raising an eyebrow in another. Why? Because symbols are not meaning.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and the “meaning-making” processes that shape the reactions we have to the symbols we create. While early scholars such as Plato believed that a signifier must bear some direct connection to the object or concept it signifies, linguistic philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure posited that the connection between an object and the meaning we give it need not, psychologically speaking, be so literal. Or as I like to put it, we invented words so that we didn’t have to keep pointing at stuff all the time.

“Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world.” – Translator Roy Harris, on Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology

But does that mean that the constructs we create mean anything? Literally, no. Nothing we’ve created that is used as a reference to something else has any meaning on its own. All of the flags of the world, going back to that highly-charged example, would be meaningless to anyone with total amnesia, or to an isolated culture. Someone with an understanding of the symbology of flags would have to explain to them, “This is what a flag is. This is what it’s supposed to mean. And this is what it’s supposed to mean when you do this with it, so don’t do that or it’s disrespectful,” otherwise what might someone with amnesia who found a large swath of fabric use it for? Probably not patriotism.

What about after we learn the given meaning of a word, object or other symbol? Only then does it truly mean anything. A baby doesn’t understand what the word “No” is. They recognize the sudden change in their parent’s tone, that the smile has suddenly left the parent’s face. And what did the smile mean before the baby associated it with comfort, warmth and food? Arguably more than any word that is used to emphasize a change in mood, something people from all cultures can typically recognize without the need for additional signifiers.

When any other sound or symbol could be substituted and convey the same meaning, though, you’ve found the event horizon of semiotics: anything that can be substituted for something else and an identical meaning relearned by the target has no meaning on its own. Likewise, anything that can be analyzed to the point where its meaning disintegrates into the mere concepts behind its formation is also an illusion. The baby could hear any sound instead of “No”, and indeed that sound and its written symbol is different in many languages. Since it’s possible to learn the word “love” in so many languages, the word itself is proven a mere signifier for what we know is one of the most meaningful experiences of life.

Would the pureness of love mean as much to us if we hadn’t so many externally created words, stories, and symbols to heighten its value? The richness of semiotics lies in its nuance, after agreeing that everything we use to communicate that isn’t inherently understood is a mere construct of our psychology and imagination.

My own linguistic creation, what I call The Mystery Language, explores the visual nature of language and symbolism and how easy it is to apply meaning to anything we want. Meaning is both a flurry of imagination and an oppression of a lifetime’s bias and pain, but in learning to step back from the signs we have created, we can learn to see so much more behind them.

For more on semiotics and meaning:

Wikipedia Semiotics
A video primer on Ferdinand de Saussure
Robert M. Sapolsky: The Strange Power of Symbols, in the News and the Lab

See also:

Hyperreality and simulacra: a primer