What is Semiotics Anyway? A Short Primer for Writers, Part 1

I chatted with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding in 2016, about writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. Last week, I tweeted about the semiotics of MAGA hats, which got me thinking about how useful the study of semiotics is. I’ve updated this post a little; Part 2 will post next week.

Semiotics (not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition of “semiology”) is basically the study of what visual symbols mean. It examines how signs become a kind of short-hand for meaning, with the context of the specific time and culture where that meaning developed. Semiotics is related to the study of linguistics, but isn’t confined to written or spoken language. Instead, semiotics considers whether everything is a symbol, and if the display of those symbols has an extra layers of meaning which are instantly obvious to those who understand the symbol.

Imagine a billboard. There’s a message on it, and the text of the message has at least one obvious meaning. (You can read the words.) But the letters on the billboard have extra meaning, because the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has an effect on the original meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans give a different impression to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right? If it’s written in simple black letters, you’ll probably think of it as basic, or serious, or cheap, depending on the context, but if it’s written in ornately scrolled gilt lettering with an abundance of brightly painted flowers in between the words… that implies something different. You know this without even really thinking about it, because your life experience gives you a greater understanding of the extra meaning, based on context.

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. In other words, you can look at things which are not text – art, objects, fashion – and “read” their meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain historical women, as a plant, or as a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was obvious to viewers at the time as a reference to the faithfulness the couple should have during their marriage.

bowron_renaissance_vaneyck340x247

Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century understood about the dog, and probably several dozen other symbolic references as well (there’s a lot in this particular panting). They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, or later, viewers, it doesn’t give the same immediate impression.

In other words, for people alive when the painting was completed, semiotics turns this classic work of art into a meme. You knew what it meant because you’d seen the evolution of why these images had that meaning. You got the references. You could look at the painting and just know.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

Writers use the semiotics of their invented world to help their readers understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. (It’s been used on you ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t realize it.)

It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests… To fans of Star Trek.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

To use a more current example, it’s how you know something about a person based on the type of ballcap they wear:

Attribution: Jen Sorensen

When you know, you know.

(Part 2 will be published on Sunday, Feb 3, 2019. Stay tuned!)

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