Semiotic, it a science of signs, refer to how signs communicate meanings. Both Semiotic and semiology get their names from the Greek word semion. According to Saussure (1966), the foundation academic who developed this groundbreaking linguistic point of view in the early twentieth century, language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, military signals, etc. … I shall call it semiology (from Greek, semeion “sign”) Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. (p. 16)
The description of sign systems from language to visual media and larger human constructions like cities allows an analysis of interpretation, the structure of social values, and the ideological uses of all kinds of information we are surrounded by in daily life. Although people themselves have different opinions, expression and point of view etc., they can still understand each since the society has given the code meaning. All our thought, experience, and our very sense of our own identity, depends on the systems of signs already existing in society which given form and meaning to consciousness and reality (1997, Bignell; p.7).
Saussure also raised the differences between speech and language. He defined that speech is a kind of code, which is the alphabet words themselves, without carrying any meanings. On the other hand, language is encoded with meaning. It is an abstract system that build up by the society before we were born and every member in the society is irresistible to the convention. Another contribution from Saussure is the development of the semiotics structure. He divided signs as two parts, signifier and signify. Signifier can be both sounds or images. Anything as physical exisitence could be a signifier. The actual form of the signifier is referent. For example, when we mention the word “tree”, the actual tree grown in the ground is the referent. The phonetic sound that we pronounce will be the signifier and the mental concept that we interpret when seeing a tree (e.g. green, plant, life etc.) is signified.
Signs and languages is everywhere in our daily life, we talk, we watch, we listen… Everything we experienced is signs, from conversation such as group discussion or lessons, to entertainment like music, movies, social media etc. We combine various types of physical media in communicating and interpreting meaning. The various material means of conveying meaning often overlap and pass on or interpret meaning from other concurrent media in our culture. We are constantly sending, receiving, and making meaning in various kinds of media, often transmitting and interpreting meaning from one medium to another. This practice points to the existence of our larger contemporary and inherited semiotic system, or what some have termed a semiosphere, the whole universe of available and possible meanings in a cultural system. Social Semiotics takes the meaning-making process, “semiosis”, to be more fundamental than the system of meaning-relations among signs themselves, which are considered only the resources to be deployed in making meaning. Social semiotics examines semiotic practices, specific to a culture and community, for the making of various kinds of texts and meanings in various situational contexts and contexts of culturally meaningful activity.
As media is undoubtedly inseparable part of human life, especially when digital media and technologies has improving rapidly, the studies of media have to be able to follow the speed of digital media evolution. While doing the media research, it is crucial to understand how media is transmitting information to people as a medium. As in a socio-cultural context, different people could interpret the signs as different meanings, thus, collecting data by using the semiotic approaches can help studies to learn effectively how media is doing its job in the society, and through media, how ideology is building in the society.
Media can mainly separate in to 5 types: Print media (paper and printing), Audio media (telephone, radio, recording), Film. Television, and The internet. (Danesi,2002: P.15) The following will be the analysis of how semiotics can help understanding the above mentioned 5 types of media.
Print media can be classified as the most important types of media. As printed media is carrying the history and knowledge of how human being is developing throughout centuries. According to Danesi (2002), the vast repository of written words contained in books, which has preserved human ideas throughout the ages, and to which we can have access if we know the appropriate language codes constitutes the “print memory system” of human civilization. (P.55) The written media is not the initial method of preserving information. Human bring started to create and share information by oral traditions. Then, they started to develop a system to store the knowledge and history. From drawing the image of the signifier to inventing alphabet numbers and digital media nowadays, human being is seeking better way for written media as they understand the importance of spreading and preserving intelligence from age to age. This is also how speech had been given meanings and eventually form a language. From this perspective, semiotics acts as an indispensable tool for print media as well as the human civilization.
The biggest area and development in audio media would be pop music. Music itself can be separated to many genres, for example, rock, hip-hop, and ballad etc. By composing the melody and lyrics, songs can be produced as a carrier of different meanings. The origin of pop music can be traced to late 18th century America, which is composed by professional musicians, performing catchy and tuneful music in front of a larger amount of audience. In 19th century, the Italian opera had also become one of the popular genres among the society, which are more prone to composed with slow, emotional, and sentimental melody and lyrics. With the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877 appeared, music had become easier to be spread among the society. The most remarkable music genre, semiotically, will be rock music. While the mainstream at that time was crooning music, which are mostly soft and tender with romantic lyrics, the appearance of rock music had completely overturned the trend. Rock music is mostly composed with loud and rough sound, hard- driving rhythms and melodies, and rebellious lyrics (including sexuality, which was a sensitive topic in the old society). With rock music expressing revolutionary social and political ideas, the ideology in the society has been changed from conservative to more open-minded.
Music has become an intrinsic part of modern-day signifying orders, thanks to the mass media. (Danesi, 2002:87)
Producing film requires a huge amount of cost, including the salary of actors and actress, set-up, equipment, and scenario creation etc. However, the franchise product of a popular film can generate numerous of revenue in long-term. For example, the popular film series “Harry Potter” has gained over $25 billion of revenue in 2016 (CNBC, 2016). And now if we see the thunderstorm sign, we will immediately relate it to the Harry Potter story, and this has proved that how strong a film could influence the society, even in different culture. Film is composed by multi elements of signs, including audio, visuals, and text. Film is a medium which carry rich amount of content and meaning at the same time. However, all films are imaginary. (Metz,1974) According to Bignell(1997), he indicated that the meanings of films are generated as much by the connation constructed by the use of cinematic codes as by the cultural meaning s of what the camera see. Therefore, if we put a British film in a Hong Kong cinema, meanings may be interpreted completely differently since they are in disparate socio-cultural context.
Television include both fictional and non-fictional programmes, which engage different functional perspective of code semiotically. For the fictional programmes, messages can be coded by play background music, lightening or set-up, which is similar to the film production. For example, if the producer wants to create a romantic atmosphere, he/she may code the message by using soft and gentle music and dim light for the audience to decode as the meaning as he plans to. The function of fiction programme are more likely to be entertainment, or we can say “imaginary”. However, non-fictional programmes are more likely to be factual based and informative. New and documentary are not only denoted objects and people who were there in front of the camera but also claim a certain faithfulness to the events and situations represented. Therefore, we can conclude that television is primarily providing both narrative fiction to entertain audience, at the same time, providing documentary which is claiming to represent what the society actually is or was.
As the advanced technology of internet, a new language has been developed to encode and decode meaning and mode of information preservation also has a significant change throughout these recent 2 decades. As internet has provided a nearly infinite database for information preservation and streaming, nowadays people is moving from print media, audio media, film, and television to internet. At the same time, as the e-mail function appears, the sender may not be the real person as the its claimed. Although when people writing an e-mail, they will still put an image of their hand-write signature at the end to show who is the sender. Of course, as the “image” is not hand written, it may not completely relay on to identify a person. Therefore, new signifiers are development in the process, for example, people will notice the writing style or choice of words to identify a person.
Undoubtedly, media are an important part in our life, and many academic and empirical studies around the world suggest the great influence of media. There is an infinite chain of messages especially in the form of visual image which is a language can be analyzed. Thus, there is a need to study and analyze those media
images semiologically in order to understand how those signs work within the meanings behind them.