Introduction to Semiotics (101)

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Content Summary

This content, which also includes the basic concepts of semiotics and the basic tools to analyze narrative texts, has been created with a summative approach based on the theoretical part of Hilmi Uçan‘s Yazınsal Eleştiri ve Göstergebilim book. For detailed information, you can refer to the review and application examples in the book in question.

Semiotics, also known as semiotics or semiology, with the derivation of the Greek word semeion, is a branch of science that contains many terms and describes our processes of understanding everything related to human beings. Although semiotics is a new branch of science formed by the contact of disciplines, it has a voluminous accumulation. It was simplified under the leadership of Charles Sanders Pierce in the USA and Algidras Julien Greimas in Europe and became widespread as an analysis method.

This content looks like a lecture note that prioritizes language and narrative texts based on Greimas’ thoughts. Even though the definitions of the concepts are made, it would be appropriate to stop at that part of the text for confusing terms and do an internet search, or to continue the text by making use of the books we have included in the recommended books section. Now let’s start our content and look at the historical development of semiotics.

Historical Development of Semiotics

As in other branches of art, Aristotle brought the first systematic perspective to literature. According to Aristotle, art is an imitation. Therefore, it acts as a mirror reflecting nature. The highest level activity he can do is to tell what might be. Parallel to Aristotle, Stendhal says, “The novel is a mirror carried along a road.”[1] According to this point of view, which we can call classical, works of art have certain rules, and works that comply with these rules are considered good, and those that do not comply are considered bad.

The first methods of criticism were formed around these thoughts and the author turned into a wise legend. Those who did not agree with this view approached the text in line with their subjective judgments by using the author and could not go further than looking for their own truth in the text as readers.

The great transformation started with Mallarme. While the content of the text was important until Mallarme, Mallerme first drew attention to the writing of the text and considered language as an end rather than a tool.

Semiotics can be applied to almost any area of life (source).

Semiotics can be applied to almost any area of life (source).

If we look at history, we see that people have a natural impulse to understand and tell. Therefore, the emergence of these theories and methods of criticism stems from the effort to explain and understand better. Now, in order to better understand Semiotics that emerged as a result of this effort, let’s briefly touch on the history of literary criticism, which paved the way for its formation.

1. Saint-Beuve Criticism

Saint-Beuve criticism is a method of criticism that emerged in the 19th century, researching the author rather than the text, and trying to make sense of the text with the author’s life and views. This method, which continues its effects today, has been criticized a lot because it prioritizes the author’s life story rather than the text.

2. H. Taine and Literary Criticism

Taine, leans on three basic elements while evaluating a literary work. These are race, place and period. Taine’s method of criticism is important because it brings a cause-effect-based scientific perspective to literature. However, when we consider the writers who are different from their race or the period in which they lived and who produce quality works, it is seen that this point of view is insufficient to understand the text in depth.

3. G. Lanson and Literary Criticism

Arguing that literature is made to make people sensitive, Lanson is one of the founders of the science of literary history. Lanson states that in order to understand a literary text, every piece of information must be pursued, including the life of the author, the period in which the text was produced, and other such non-textual information.

In other words, Lansonists, like Saint-Beuve, give importance to the author’s life story, like H. Taine, but also deepen all these, look at the previous works of the author and maybe even see the memoirs of another author who lived at the same time as a data source can examine. However, this method is also criticized because it goes beyond the text too much.

4. New Criticism

Between the first and second world wars, there is a humanity that has been washed with pain and has lost its direction both spiritually and materially. Literature is also affected by this, and all the indestructible rules until that day are shaken to its foundation. After the Second World War, literature offers humanity a new way of living, provides an aesthetic expression of the pain experienced, and at some point assumes a role that consoles humanity and gives hope.

In such a period, Valery and Gide say that the job of criticism is with the text. It does not deal with the author, the period in which the text is revealed, and deals directly with the text. In this period, scientists who use semiotics as a systematic analysis tool such as Gerard Genette, who analyzes the work within itself, and Julia Kristeva, who is also the founder of intertextuality, come. A.J. Greimas, on the other hand, develops this tool and reveals how to interpret and make sense of a text with semiotics.

The Emergence of Semiotics

F. de Saussure defined language as a system of signs in his work titled General Linguistics Lessons in the 20th century and made language a candidate of science. While explaining this unique branch of science, he also mentioned the functions of language and put forward the first definition of semiotics himself as follows:

“A science that studies the life of signs in the midst of social life.”[2]

According to linguistics, the author composes the text with the code system of a language, and those who know that language understand the text by decoding it because they have the ability to decode that code. However, this decoding work must be done with care, because every little detail of language in the work is a building block that leads the reader to the main theme of the text. If these details are not paid attention to during the reading process, it will be impossible for us to understand whether the text we read is dictating something to us or is conveying a narrative.

A.J. Greimas described the decoding work by using the tools of semiotics and enabled us to interpret the text based on objective criteria as much as possible. The objectivity here, of course, is not a sharp objectivity that serves as a litmus paper on the literary text. However, Greimas’ method is one of the few ways we have to describe the process of text making and to place criticism on scientific foundations. Now let’s examine what is needed to be able to do a text analysis with semiotics.

Text Analysis

1. Text Appearances

a. Pragmatic View

It focuses on the purpose for which the text was produced. He thinks that this purpose will also be useful in terms of understanding the text. In order to reveal the practical view of the text, it is also necessary to determine the perspective used by the author to convey the narrative. The author can use three types of focus to convey his narrative in a text.

(Kaynağı hem kitapyorumlara hem de’a ekle) Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, [1972] 1980), 186; Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 3rd ed., trans. Christine van Boheeman (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 146; Niederhoff, Burkhard: “Focalization”, Paragraph 8. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University [view date:3 February 2020].

– Zero Focalization

Zero focualization is a narrator’s point of view, where the author who produces the text knows everything in the story he tells, and can see and change everything, almost like a God.

– Internat Focalization

It is a narrative point of view where the author knows everything in his narrative, but this cognition is limited to the hero’s cognition. In other words, the narrator knows what the hero is thinking, but he has no knowledge of the deep feelings and thoughts of the other characters that no one can penetrate.

– External Focalization

It is an almost objective point of view, in which the author tells only the events like an observer and does not include his own interpretation.

b.Thematic View

It expresses the view that reveals the subject of the text. The place, time, characters and their behaviors carry great clues to reveal the subject of the text. In the thematic view, after many topics in the text appear, the main topic of the text is determined and it is called the main theme of the text.

c.Narrative View

It reveals how the text should be understood from the context. Expressions, ironies, etc., that change the direction of thought while looking at the narrative view. Indicators should be taken care of.


The main thing that distinguishes the literary text from the non-literary text is that the literary text offers a different reading opportunity from the ordinary text. The deviation distinguishes the literary text from ordinary language. For example, Kafka actually tells the story of an insect in his novel Metamorphosis. However, here, the insect symbolizes non-sociality by undergoing a linguistic deviation, and the reader reads in line with this knowledge.

3. Intertextuality

Each text alludes to the previous ones. In fact, humanity has been telling and writing the same things since the first texts. Betrayal, love, passion, ambition… Only the way they are told and their arrangement changes. Therefore, each text alludes to each other. Julia Kristeva define  intertextuality as: “An intertextual text is not a repetition of a previous text, but an endless process, a textual movement.”[3]

An intertextual text should have features that can both form a source for new texts and refer to previous texts. However, as it can be understood, intertextuality is a very difficult field to examine theoretically. Because the intertextuality of a text is directly related to the reading experience and intellectual level of the reader who reads that text. So much so that in order to be able to read and understand some authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, it is necessary to have a serious text background and to be able to connect with previous texts. Therefore, creating an objective intertextual analysis method is a challenging task.


After Saussure introduced the definition of semiotics in his General Linguistics Lectures, one of the Russian formalists, V. Propp, in his research on Russian tales, determined that these tales actually proceed with the same system, only the characters, the places and the functions of these characters change. After this important step, A.J. Greimas came and revealed the functioning of the text in his work called La Semantique Structale and developed a method describing the meaning-making work. Semiotics became well-known and popularized in the world with this analysis proposal of Greimas.

4th International Semiotics and Visual Communication Conference Poster (source)

4th International Semiotics and Visual Communication Conference Poster (source)

The analysis method developed by Greimas began to be used not only on written texts, but also in fields such as media and education, after arts such as painting, photography and cinema. The ever-expanding aspect of the concept of text has made semiotic analysis usable in many fields. Now let’s look at the basic concepts we need to learn before we can do a semiotic analysis.

1. Basit Concepts

Fiction and narrative are different concepts. Fiction expresses the chronological and semantic arrangement of a story. Narrative, on the other hand, is formed as a result of narrating this fiction through a narrator.

a. Fiction and Narrative

Fiction and narrative are different concepts. Fiction expresses the chronological and semantic arrangement of a story. Narrative, on the other hand, is formed as a result of narrating this fiction through a narrator.

b. Enunciative and Utterance

An utterance is actually similar to a sentence, but unlike a sentence, it does not have to declare a judgment. A small unit with meaning may also be called an utterance, depending on the context. So much so that sometimes “Shall we go home tomorrow?” in response to the sentence “Door?” Even the word or silence can be called an utterance because it has meaning. The work of forming these utterances is also called utterance.

In other words, if the enunciative is to write the text, the resulting is utterance. A utterance is a product that emerges at the end of an enunciative.

c. Discourse and Narration

The most fundamental difference between discourse and narration is this: Discourse is the writer and the text he constructs. In narration, there is the author, the narrator chosen by the author, and the text that is formed in this way.

d. Narrative Utterance

In order to understand the narrative utterance, it is necessary to know the meaning of the word actor. According to A. J. Greimas:

“The actant is “the person who does or is exposed to an action.”[4]

A narrative utterance requires at least two actants. These actants are one subject and object, two subjects, two objects, etc. can occur in different forms. Greimas divided these narrative utterances, which are formed with at least two verbs, into two as state utterances and action utterances.

“This dress goes well on her.” A situational utterance because the sentence indicates a stationary action.

“This kid is going to school.” The sentence is a verb utterance because it reveals a moving action.

e. Writer and Narrator

Author and narrator are different concepts according to contemporary linguistics and semiotics. The author throws himself out of the text with the narrator he chooses and brings the text to the fore. When Roland Barthes talks about the death of the author, he states that the readers should no longer identify with the author, but focus only on the text, because the reader who identifies with the author agrees with what the author says and does not take the responsibility of thinking. However, the reader, who is aware that the narrator is a super identity established by the author, acquires a great tool in order to understand the text he reads. For this reason, it is necessary to do more text applications in which the author is deleted in order to get rid of the author’s position of wisdom and to increase the success of reading comprehension.

f. Function of Language

Language assumes different functions depending on the type of text presented. While language has an aesthetic function in a literary text that is put forward for aesthetic purposes. In another type of text, the referential function may take on the function of call or emotion.

2. Structure of Text

F. de Saussure described language as a system in his General Linguistics Lectures, which formed the basis of linguistics. Those who came later made small additions to this system and started to call it a structure. However, it was A. J. Greimas who gave the final shape to the concept of structure.

Greimas thought that structure was of great importance for understanding the universe, and he argued that in order to understand one’s environment, one must distinguish between differences. According to Greimas, it was only in this way that it was possible for man to separate himself from the world and to perceive what objects were.

From this point of view, he revealed that meaning arises from oppositions, but there are also similar aspects between objects or subjects. For instance, black became meaningful with the presence of white. Black and white were separated from each other as they were two almost opposite colors, but they were both in a correlation as a color. These relations are shown in semiotic analysis in a very similar way to mathematics as follows.

“V = decomposition

Λ = composition”

3. Levels of Semiotic Analysis

Semiotic analysis is basically done in a two-layered way, superficial level and semantic level. The superficial level includes two more levels, namely the narrative level and the discourse level. The deep level consists of a single level, the semantic-logical level. The schema below shows the levels used when making a semiotic analysis.

Levels of Semiotic Analysis

Levels of Semiotic Analysis

a. Narrative Level

Now, so that we can do our first semiotic analysis, let’s explain these levels and the concepts we will use at these levels.

– Separation into Sections

If we are going to analyze a text with semiotic analysis, we must first divide the text into sections. There is a certain order and some criteria to be followed when dividing the text into sections.

The text is already divided into sections as paragraphs, chapters or sentences. First of all, the appearance of the text is examined.

Indicating sentences such as “here, there” is also the second step we will look at when dividing the text into sections.

In addition, the entry of a new actant into the text in the role of helper or blocker is the third step we will look at in revealing the sections.

– Narrative Program

“In every narrative text, it is possible to observe sections that we can call “before“, “during” and “after“. For example, when we think of Camus’ The Stranger, first the hero’s mother dies and he gets a girlfriend. During it, he shoots one of the Arabs. Then he faces the consequences of this event.

There are transitive and reflexive transformations in these sections.

Transitive Transformations: If the subject undergoes a transformation as a result of his own action, it is a transitive transformation.

Reflexive Transformations: If the subject experiences a result through the actions of others, this is also a reflexive transformation.

If we look at what we have learned so far, we have divided the text into sections in order to analyze semiotics. We have identified three parts of the text that we call before, during, and after. We need to have an analysis in the form of before section 1 to 6, during section 6 to 15, and after section 16 to section 21.

Phases of the Narrative Program

Now we need to show each of the before, during, and after parts on a diagram that Greimas calls the Actant diagram.

Actant Schema of Greimas

Actant Schema of Greimas

However, we do this demonstration not with our intuition, but in line with certain criteria and concepts. Now let’s take a closer look at these criteria and concepts.

Actant and Actor: When the actant is only the subject who does the action; the actor describes the role of this subject in the narrative. With the example of Camus’ Stranger, he is an actor who acts as a heroic subject, but is a weak, freedom-loving person.

As an example from Camus’ Stranger, the hero is an actant who does the action as a subject. Being a weak, freedom-loving person, he is an actor.

Sender: An actor who has the power and makes a contract with the subject, who aims to deliver an object or subject to the main subject.

Object: It is a concept that appears as an object of desire that is important for the narrative or an object of competence that allows to perform an act.

Recipient: Sometimes the same person as the subject. It is affected by the action of the sender.

Subject: It is the person who performs the action and is faced with a sanction at the end.

Opposite subject: A person who wants to obtain the same object or person as the subject.

Helper: A person or object that helps the subject achieve what he or she desires.

Blocker: It is the person or object that prevents the subject from achieving what he or she desires.

If we exemplify the concepts we have defined, we can show Camus’s novel The Stranger roughly as follows.

Camus's Schema of the Actant of The Stranger Novel

Camus’s Schema of the Actant of The Stranger Novel

b. Discourse Level

There are four narrative phases: action, competence, action and sanction. All these houses of narration have modalities. The modality can change at every stage and affects the main theme of the text.

“Modality is what modifies the predicate of an utterance.”[5]

Directly quoted from Hilmi Uçan’s book Yazınsal Eleştiri ve Göstergebilim, there are six modalities. To have to, to want, to be able to, to know, to do and to be. According to the narratives, these can also turn into modalities of being obliged to do, not being obliged to do, to have it done, to have it done, to be able to do it, to know how to do it.”

Now let’s look at the narrative phases.

Action: A sender can persuade or induce a potential main subject to do an action. This persuasion or manipulation establishes a contract between the sender and the prospective subject, and an effort to get the action begins. This is called action. The narrative program begins with this action. There is a make-up modality in action, as one might expect.

Acquisition: It is the state of having the knowledge and power to enable an action to take place. In this phase, there is the modality of being able to do. Sometimes an object of competence may be needed to perform an act. To put it in an analogy, you need a pen to write on paper. This item is called the object of competence. Knowing how to write represents the stage of competence.

Act: This phase, which is shaped by the modality of doing, is the phase in which the action is performed.

Sanction: This phase represents the conclusion of the narrative. If the subject is able to achieve what he desires, he is rewarded, if not, he is punished.

The narrative programs we have described above are indicated by the following symbols in the analyses.

S subject

SN sender

–> relationship

O objects

V decomposition

Λ Composition.

In analysis, the narrative can be formulated as follows by using these symbols.

Representation with symbols of the narrative

Representation with symbols of the narrative

The level of discourse is the level of the actant in the fiction based on the roles they take when they become actors and the main figures of the text such as unhappiness, pessimism or love. In line with these main figures and actors, meaning arises from contrasts such as happiness / unhappiness, life / death, stinginess / generosity, and the door to the deep surface of the text is opened.

c. Logical-Semantic Level

The logical-semantic level, which constitutes the deep level of the narrative, is formed by the large-scale analysis of the relations in the superficial structure, the oppositions that arise at the discursive level, by adapting them to life, based on the structure of the text.

At this level, the concept of locality is used. Homogeneity enables us to understand what the text is about and make our interpretation accordingly, as a result of the frequent repetition of words belonging to the same conceptual field in a text.

As a result; After analyzing and describing each part of the narrative, which we have divided into three main sections as before, during and after sections, using the concepts we have learned separately in a superficial and deep structure, the meaning of the text is tried to be schematized with the semiotics quadrangle[6]  put forward by Greimas and Courtes.

– The Semiotics Quadrangle

This quadrilateral is seen as follows in order to reveal the contrasts and logical order of the text.

Semiotic Quadrilateral

Semiotic Quadrilateral

There are two ways in this diagram. The first way proceeds from producer to non-producer and from there to consumer, which ends in lies. The second way is from the consumer position to the non-consumer and then back to the producer position, and the end of this path comes to reality. It is also worth noting that paths are formed by reflexive or transitive transformations. Let’s try to apply this semiotic quadrilateral to Camus’ Stranger, estimating that this conceptual definition is too airy.

Representation of Camus' novel The Stranger in the semiotics quadrant

Representation of Camus’ novel The Stranger in the semiotics quadrant

Recommended Books

  • Julia Kristeva – Desire in Language
  • Daniel – Chandler – Semiotics: The Bacics
  • Martin Staude – Meaning in Communication, Cognition, and Reality: Outline of a Theory from Semiotics, Philosophy, and Sociology


[1] CASTEX et SURER, Manuel des Etudes Litteraires, XIXieme Sciecle, Hachette, Paris, 1979, s.170.

[2] SAUSSURE, Cours de Linguistique Generale, Payot, Paris, 1978, s.33.

[3] L.Lenny’den aktarak K. Aktulum, Metinlerarası İlişkiler, Öteki Yayımevi, Ankara, 1999, s.43.

[4] A.J. GREIMAS – J.COURTES, Semiotique. Dictionnaire Raisonne de la Therie du Language, Tome:1, Hachette, Paris, 1986, s.3.

[5] A.J. GREIMAS – J. COURTES, Semiotique. Dictionnaire Raisonne de la Theorie du Language, Tome:1, Hachette, Paris, 1986, s.230.

[6] A.J. GREIMAS – J. COURTES, Semiotique. Dictionnaire Raisonne de la Theorie du Language, Tome:1, Hachette, Paris, 1986, s.29-30.

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