Saussure said that when an act of communication happened a sign was created, which consisted of a signified and a signifier. If these were both registered a sign would be formed.
The signifier is the thing that signals something (such as a spoken or written word).
The signified is how that is registered in the mind of the person getting the message.
Signifiers do not have to intend to have a meaning
Denotation is the simplest level of what is seen (heard, smelt and so on).
Connotation is what that means to you – the things is makes you think of.
It is also argued that even denotation is the lowest form of connotation as it is believed to be culturally learnt.
Saussure said there is no natural connection between the signifier and the signified. This is purely arbitrary (“random” [sic]). Different words for cat, dog and so on across different languages. Most words are culturally learnt. Only a few sound like (or look like?) the thing they describe (“boom”, “kerplunk”, “quack”).
The idea that language is symbolic and has to be learned is important. It promotes the idea that language is also valued.
cat, chat, bissay, domadh, mace, gatu, phisi, sinta…
Semiotics works in context. A dog is understood as a dog because it is also not anything else.
But the word “dog” (a signifier) can have different meanings in different contexts, and this is how we understand the signified.
The selection of images here show the signifier “dog” can be understood in a different context: cuteness, attack, security, protection, insulting, dogfighting, dog holes ect.
The first thing I see from this poster (right) is that there is a cowboy lighting up a cigarette. I can sell this because of the signifying practices inside the poster, such as the cowboy hat, jean jacket, lasso. There is also a warm/dessert colour behind the man. I can tell this is an advert for cigarettes from the small image of the pack (bottom left), the smoking health warnings (bottom right) and the ‘Marlboro’ logo down the side of the image.