Semiotics  the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

Semiotics, also called semiotic studies and including (in the Saussurean tradition) semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogymetaphorsymbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically. However, as different from linguistics, semiotics studies also non-linguistic sign systems
Why study semiotics? For our purposes, it is to evaluate and decipher our visual landscape. In addition, the term has roots in the greek which is frequently used in Scripture.
GK 4592 semeion [say-mi-on] an indication, especially ceremonially of supernaturally - miracle, sign, token, wonder
     presumed derivative of GK 4591 - semaino [say-mah-ee-no] to indicate; to signify
Some quick examples of the use of the greek semeion: 
  • Matthew 12:38 Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.
  • Matthew 16:1  1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? 4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.
  • Matthew 24:3    3 And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
  • Rom 4:11  11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:
  • Rev 15:1   1 And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God.


For further study, google semiotics or refer to the links below:


Connotations and Denotations with image examples [Barthes]

Denotation and Connotation

To understand signs more precisely, we will need to split a sign into two principal methods of describing the meanings of words: Denotation and Connotation.

Denotation is the specific, literal image, idea, concept, or object that a sign refers to; the strict dictionary meaning of a word. It is essentially what is factual.


Connotation is the emotional and imaginative association surrounding a word.  Connotation is also the culturally constructed, era-specific, or social-overtones of a word; it is the figurative cultural assumptions that the word or image implies or suggests. It involves emotional overtones, subjective interpretation, socio-cultural values, and ideological assumptions.


House vs Home - what are the denotations of each word? which word has more connotations built into it?

Denotation of house and home - a place for organisms to live; a living area

Connotation of home - a place where family and friends live; a sense of coziness; a sense of love; familiarity and comfort; a place to be accepted


Thus, we have such phrases as ‘Home is where the heart is’, or ‘There’s no place like home’, or ‘Home sweet Home’, all of which use connotative associations of love, family, and a sense of belonging.


Hollywood - what are the connotations?  what are the denotations?


- The media were swarming around the pileup on the innerbelt to capture every conceivable injury for the evening news. [higly connotative]

- The journalists were on the scene at the innerbelt crash to document the incident for the evening news. [less connotative, more denotative]



- Photographers stood patiently along the walkway, awaiting the arrival of the Oscar nominees. [less connotative, more denotative]

- The paparazzi lined the walkway anxiously poised to snap the Oscar nominees. 

[higly connotative]



(Which one has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation?)


- There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city.

- There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.

- There are over 2,000 homeless in the city.


vagrants - negative

no fixed address - neutral

homeless - positive


Separating grammatical denotation from connotation is important because while one might assume that a word’s denotation is fully intended, whether a word’s connotations are intended is much more difficult to determine. Connotations are often emotional in nature, and thus if they are intended, it may be for the purpose of swaying a person’s emotional reactions rather than the logical evaluation of an argument.

Denotations and Connotations to interpret and dissect visual language:

a comprehensive website of known altered images throughout history:

Denotations: A brown-haired, mustached male, with fist clenched while the right hand holds a flag, stands in the fore with a crowd behind him, with light coming through the clouds and a bird-like form flying in the sky. He is dressed in brown clothing.


Connotations: A military-fatigued assertive male, has his fist clenched in power and determination, in action, while his right hand holds upright the Nazi flag. He nearly pulls the flag forward as though he is simultaneously pulling forward Germany; his right arm extended upward shows a triumphant and progressive motion toward the future; his body leaning leftward is the body language of forward stride, while his upper body is firm and robust - a wall of strength. Those that follow him must recognize his superiority for a divine light caresses him as though he has been highly selected - the bird form above becomes reminiscent of the Holy Spirit in dove form, coming down in Heavenly Glory to approve the chosen man to lead Germany into progress.



Denotations: A male, with natural skin color removed but presumably of african descent due to facial features, has a slightly upward tilted head and body language that seems to indicate he is seated. He is wearing business attire. No other natural coloring is displayed as all colors used are blue, cream, and red. A seriousness is about his face. The text 'hope' is not defined and therefore is open-ended.


Connotations: A male whose natural skin color is insignificant since it is that of patriotic heritage and reflective of the embodiment of American ideals, of looking forward into a hopeful future - it is his facial expression that displays his determination and desire for positive American dreams. 'Hope' on the bottom of the poster is part of the American spirit of being free from older, now regressive notions of American-ism. 'Hope' is not exclusive, for all patriotic Americans have the right to be hopeful for the America they would long to see.

Mitt Romney ad against President Obama


Denotations: An African-American male in a business suit walks in an open field with what appears to be trees in the background, although the photograph is cropped just below his clavicles and it is unverifiable. The image is achromatic [without color], while the text HERE IN IOWA WE'RE NOT BETTER OFF UNDER OBAMA is slightly above his head. The text is in all capital letters. The male faces to the left side of the image while the text is slightly off-center to the right. The male makes a grimacing face - as to why, the viewer cannot be certain. The text also is physically close to Obama's head, creating what is known as 'visual tension'; no visually dominant form is underneath the text to support it's 'weight', implying that it will soon fall. The text Iowa is bold, seemingly with heavier weight due to its visual emphasis, implying that it is 'heavy'.


Connotations: President Obama's facial expression is one of frustration and perhaps inner turmoil and struggle, reflective of his difficulties of being president. Iowa suffers a similar circumstance: struggle, inner conflict, and no little color in Iowaian life. Iowa is not better off since President Obama's presidency, as was promised in his earlier campaigns. There is tension and collapse will soon occur if something is not done about the situation.

President Obama ad against Mitt Romney


Denotations: A male in a business suit sits as a reflective-surfaced table, with a slight smile, large glass windows behind him, allowing for visibility of the trees in the background. The text MADE $20 MILLION PAID 14% IN TAXES is angled to follow the angle of the table; the image as a whole is slightly angled since it is noticeable that the vertical window frames lean leftward. A slight bluish-green tint filters the coloring of the whole image; the text is colored a similar hue.


Connotations: Something is askew, unsettled, and upsetting. Stability is to be desired, yet will not be enacted should this male be allowed to lead. His facial expression is a grimacing, conniving, backhanded one - and his hand is large, perhaps large enough to hold a lot of cash, perhaps large enough to shake hands with enough business men. He awaits his next business transaction in his board room, which is luxurious, has large expensive windows facing beautiful trees, and a shiny table. Green is the color of this man - green with money, green with greed, green with mold, green with envy.  

In the two above Obama images, the original denotation [the image of Obama with the other two] is inaccessible to most who may not dedicate time to look into the backhistory of the image. Thus, the The Economist image serves itself as the original denotation which in actuality is the connotative gesture perhaps disguised as a way to 'balance the composition' or 'make more visually effective the cover'.  While some forum posters have remarked that this alteration is harmless, they miss the issue: a loss of denotation is a loss of context. They are remiss in their point that no harm is done; perhaps no harm was done in the sense that the Economist's cover did not directly create immediate harm. The harm done is countable only amongst the much more vast amount of other alterations.  'No harm done' is the same sentiment carried by poachers who have killed only one elephant each; no harm done is the same sentiment stated by individuals who toss into the garbage 'only one' recyclable item. 


The connotations of the oil rig point out its heaviness, it is a burden, a blight.  Its darkened form creates a weight and emphasis; its new location sits upon Obama's head and shoulders, creating visual tension - more so than the original image carried. An elevated water line which was once at the base of Obama's neck, now nearly tops his head, 'drowning' the President. Shadows become darker as Obama stops in quiet meditation and contemplates the tragedy alone. A stillness can be felt - perhaps it is the stillness of the water, the stillness of the air, or the stillness of thought. 


The truth of this oil spill should not be marginalized, however, the hyperbolic imagery that stretches our emotion should be recognized. It is this rhetoric of the image that should be of concern, not whether 'harm' was done as a result of it.

The semiotician, Roland Barthes, demonstrates the denotative and connotative components of a Panzani ad, as written in his text 'The Rhetoric of the Image'.

Here we have a Panzani advertisement: some packets of pasta, a tin, a sachet, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom, all emerging from a half-open string bag, in yellows and greens on a red background. Let us try to 'skim off' the different messages it contains.

The image immediately yields a first message, whose substance is linguistic; its supports are the caption, which is marginal, and the labels, these being inserted into the natural disposition of the scene, 'en abyme'. The code from which this message has been taken is none other than that of the French language; the only knowledge required to decipher it is a knowledge of writing and of French. In fact, this message can itself be further broken down, for the sign Panzani gives not simply the name of the firm but also, by its assonance, a additional signified, that of 'Italianicity'. The linguistic message is therefore twofold (at least in this particular image): denotational and connotational. Since, however, we have here only a single typical sign, namely that of articulated (written) language, it will be counted as one message.

Putting aside the linguistic message, we are left with the pure image (even if the labels are part of it, anecdotally). This image straightaway provides a series of discontinuous signs. First (the order is unimportant as these signs are not linear), the idea that what we have in the scene represented is a return from the market. A signified which itself implies two euphoric values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the essentially domestic preparation for which they are destined. Its signifier is the half-open bag which lets the provisions spill out over the table, 'unpacked'. To read this first sign requires only a knowledge which is in some sort implanted as part of the habits of a very widespread culture where 'shopping around for oneself' is opposed to the hasty stocking up (preserves, refrigerators) of a more 'mechanical' civilization. A second sign is more or less equally evident; its signifier is the bringing together of the tomato, the pepper and the tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) of the poster; its signified is Italy, or rather Italianicity. This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message (the Italian assonance of the name Panzani) and the knowledge it draws upon is already more particular; it is a specifically 'French' knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the connotation of the name, no more probably than he would the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes. Continuing to explore the image (which is not to say that it is not entirely clear at the first glance), there is no difficulty in discovering at least two other signs: in the first, the serried collection of different objects transmits the idea of a total culinary service, on the one hand as though Panzani furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish and on the other as though the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it; in the other sign, the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the 'nature morte' or, as it is better expressed in other languages, the 'still life'; the knowledge on which this sign depends is heavily cultural.


Barthes, Roland (1977): Image-Music-Text. London: Fontana

In recent events, NPR has published an article about Al-Jazeeran news coverage of protest footage over ousted Egyptian President Morsi. The Al-Jazeera network airs connotatively biased footage, showing scenes nearly empty of protestors, rather than the large crowds that typically showed up.