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Semiotics Idea: Words and Phrases Essay

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Updated: May 27th, 2020

An essential idea in semiotics is that surface manifestations derive their meanings from underlying structures. This makes semiotics especially useful in the analysis of language and of texts. Semioticians identify mechanisms by which meaning is produced, the most common ones are the metaphor, metonymy and opposition, and they have devised techniques using these mechanisms for interpreting qualitative data. As we shall show, semiotics can also be used for the analysis of texts, and have noted already that with its focus on linguistic structures and categories, it can be develop a theory of texts and their constituent elements.

This takes text analysis well past the earlier quantitative content analysis in an effort to get to the deeper meaning. Such meaning is to be found not only in words and phrases, but in the system of rules that structures the text as a whole. It is therefore this underlying structure and the rules embody the information that can tell the researcher what its cultural and social message is. While this semiotic emphasis is valuable, it is worth noting that there are limits to the understanding which we can develop suing only the texts. A text also needs to be studied in its social context (Keith & Keith 2005).


There are elements which serve the role of signs. These signs are aimed at giving or providing specific meanings to the readers. These signs elicit the signifiers form the practical effects. Essentially, these signifiers leave the effect which is known as the signified. In the image which has been put across, the signifier is the woman. It is worth noting that the image of the woman in this case is dominant, thus leaving the reader to interpret the woman as the dominant signifier. It is also worth noting that the position that the woman takes or assumes sends messages to the reader. The signifier in this case does not invoke an image of a specific person. This signifier is abstract and it leaves the viewer guessing a particular concept which it invokes in the mind of the viewer. In this image, the reader gets the feeling of a lack of clarity.

That is, the reader is not able to associate the image with any person. However, the figure sends the connotations of a swimmer due to the attire which she adorns. The arrangements of her features make up and act as signifier of perfection. That is there is detail in how she presents herself and how she looks. Her makeup is minimal but the details of her face, such as her immaculate eyebrows and full lips, signify the achievement of perfection. This brings the reader to the conclusion that the woman represents classic beauty. In addition, this is further asserted by her strong confident stance and gaze.

The swimmer signifies success as part of the syntagm of signs it exists in. The text in the corner determines the time and place of the event ‐ the swimming of the English Channel ‐ and the words “Rolex, for life’s defining moments” indicate that this was a significant occasion. Without knowing the background story of this swimmer, it is clear from both the image and the text that this is a woman who has accomplished something great. Her strong stance and gaze are clear signifiers of this success as well.

Paradigms and Syntagms

Signs operate in a paradigm – a set of signs from which the sign originates to produce the meaning (Study Guide CMM119 Text and Culture 2011, p. 23). The paradigmatic value of her attire positions the figure as a swimmer. The combination of specific signs, for instance, bathing suit, cap and goggles forms a syntagm; the signs conform to a rule or grammar (Study Guide CMM119 Text and Culture 2011, p. 21), a commutation test, if she was to switch the cap for no hat or for example a visor, she may not necessarily assume the position of professional swimmer. Her bathing suit may still signify swimmer, however, without the combination of cap and goggles the concept of professional swimmer is lost. The fact that the bathing suit is a part of a syntagm of other signs, cap and goggles, allows the combination of signs to be read according to grammar signifying a cultural identity.

Connotation and Denotation

Signs are capable of having an array of meanings. A signifier does not necessarily reflect a single signified but rather a spread of possible signifiers, termed connotations (Thwaites, Davis & Mules 2002, p. 60). The woman’s attire connotes athlete or competitor, however, these connotations are objectified and specifically assigned with a determined signified: swimmer. Denotations are a limitation of the sign, narrowing down the connotations to a single signified (Study Guide CMM119 Text and Culture 2011, p. 37). In this image, the signifiers of the figure denote the woman as a swimmer. The Rolex watch brings up a number of connotations as well. Diamonds generally connote luxury, wealth and status. The brand Rolex is also a signifier connoting prestige and success. The image of the diamond watch, combined with the rest of the text, denotes success. The success of the swimmer, as clearly defined by the text in the corner, is denoted by the success of the diamond watch. The diamond watch can be read as an icon of the object it refers to, as an index of wealth and as a symbol of success.

The Gaze

Traditionally, the male gaze takes in the female image and women in turn watch themselves being looked at (Berger 1972, p. 47). Berger (1972, p. 47) expresses this is as “men act and women appear”. However, in this image, although the figure is a woman, she is not entrapped by the male gaze. The text is addressing women yet she adopts the male addresser position in this pose by assuming power over the addressee. Whereas the typical female addresser position tends to invite the audience through flirtation and seduction, this woman displays a subtle boastful position, as if to say:” I did it, now can you?” The figure challenges the addressee by focusing her direct, unwavering gaze, from a higher level, looking down at the viewer. Her gaze is slightly taunting, rather than flirtatious. This woman is not limited to the female position as an object for men to look at. Her attitude signifies success and accomplishment and the text in the corner reflects the “The swimming of the English Channel…for life’s defining moments.” Her gaze implies that she has already achieved the success she strived for. She is, therefore, unfazed by whom she looks at and who looks at her. She has reached a level of achievement that can be unchallenged; this is a defining moment proving her the triumph. Conventionally, women demonstrate how they wish to be treated in how they portray themselves to the outside world (Berger 1972, pp. 46‐47). Women, therefore, turn themselves into an object to be viewed (Berger 1972, p. 47)). Men are not restricted by the presence of others, rather a man’s presence “suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you” (Berger 1972, p. 46). The swimmer in this image takes on the male position in that she is indifferent to how she is perceived. Her accomplishment has already been achieved and thus she does not wait for the approval of those looking at her.


A myth is a transformation of connotations into an idea that is felt abstractly yet seems undeniably true (Study Guide CMM119 2011, p. 39). In analyzing this text, the myth of achievement and success is felt as it brings to mind an idea that resounds in cultural memory (Study Guide CMM119 2011, p. 39). The term cultural memory can be described as making past ideas present through cultural texts, as a collective unit (Study Guide CMM119, p. 39). Thus, although the reader of this particular text may have no recollection of the event it refers to, he/she can still relate to the abstract idea of the myth it evokes.

Therefore the myth, although resonating with the past, in fact, causes the past to become present and not bygone (Study Guide CMM119 2011, p. 40). The mythic effect of the swimmer’s gaze and stance embody an ideology of success. Ideology, as Thwaites et al. (1972, p. 159) explains, is “the process of representing material social relations, and of attempting to reconcile them in discourse.” In other words, ideology is a common identity that all readers of a sign share by the very act of sharing the same sign (Thwaites et al 2002, p. 162). Signs can be carefully constructed to the point of seduction, inviting the reader to want things and even position the offer in such a way as to seem as though it has been your own desire all along (Thwaites et al 2002, p. 162).

The mythic effect of accomplishment in this image is enticing, embodying an ideology that this watch is the success in itself. The likely reading of this text is that this watch, the very fact of owning and wearing it, is an accomplishment in itself. A negotiated reading of the text may agree that a diamond watch is a status symbol however may disagree that wearing the watch is any sign of success. It may suggest that success needs to come from within and not from an outside display of achievement. An oppositional reading negates the dominant reading position offered and the mythic properties of the sign (Study Guide CMM119 2011, p. 47). The oppositional reading raises questions that the myth closes off such as the possibility that a diamond watch is unnecessary; a watch should be functional but not fashionable.

In conclusion, the above analysis, through a likely reading, shows that the phatic function of the text operates through a range of signifiers which portray the myth of success and accomplishment. The connotations of the swimmer and the diamond watch denote a level of achievement, and the effect of the gaze assumes a male addresser position subtly challenging the viewer.

Reference List

Berger, J 1972, Ways of Seeing, BBC/Penguin Books, London.

Keith, F & Keith, P 2005, Introduction to social research:quantitative and qualitative approaches, 2nd edn, SAGE, New York.

Study Guide CMM119 Text and Culture 2011, Education and Law Griffith University, Brisbane.

Thwaites, T, Davis, L & Mules, W 2002, Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: A Semiotic Approach, Palgrave, Houndmills.

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