Structural Linguistics, Semiotics, and Communication Theory:
Basic Outlines and Assumptions

Martin Irvine

Two main versions of structural linguistics have influenced thought and discourse about language and culture since the mid-20th century: the French school, modeled on Ferdinand de Saussure’s concepts of linguistic signs and phonology, and the American school, based on Noam Chomsky's theory of generative grammar and syntax. It's important to understand the different starting points and key concepts, and the kind of further work that these schools of thought have enabled. (That is, the heuristic potential of each approach, both for forming a tradition of thought and today for continued work modeled on these approaches.) For semiotics, the major traditions have come from the French tradition of semiology and Claude Levi-Strauss, and from the American tradition of C. S. Peirce. This overview is an abbreviated (an overly-generalized) description of the conceptual models in both fields to help students understand some of the common questions and assumptions, and also consider the areas open for productive new research.

Both the French/European and Chomskyean/American traditions attempted to map out different kinds of abstract and necessary structures that determine possible linguistic behavior--sign functions from phonology, in Saussure's starting point, and language formation through internalized abstract rules for syntax, in Chomsky's breakthrough. Chomsky inaugurated a research agenda to define a "formal grammar" by means of which any specific sentence in any natural language could be generated and understood. In Chomsky's model, a "deep structure" of internalized abstract rules and codes (termed the "I-language," the internalized language rule set) enables and generates the "surface structure" of actual expressions and usage conventions in all varieties of dialects in any language (an "E-language" or external expressions).

Both schools of thought approach language (that is, the universal human capacity for language, not any specific language) and language communities (specific languages) as as things that cannot be explained empirically (the data and facts of language use and extrapolations from these), but according to rules and abstract schema internalized by language users that define how a language works (that is, the models for how any language, all languages work) and allow the production and recognition of new expressions in any language.

For linguistics in the 1960s-80s, the research paradigm remained mainly at the level of sentences and phrases, and until recently was not as concerned with additional levels of cultural meaning surrounding sentences, large bodies of discourse, or the formal units of written cultural genres. Many forms of discourse studies, sociolinguistics, and semantics are part of the field of linguistics today. French and European semiology adapted Saussure's linguistic model for analysis of larger cultural formations (especially for the study of literature, anthropology, and popular culture). Unfortunately, Anglo-American and European disciplinary identities and boundaries have separated the research agendas and starting premises in areas of common concern (how human cultures use language and all kinds of meaning-systems and communicate meanings across space and time), though there are now many areas of cross-disciplinary research with many areas open for new convergence.

Semiotics focuses mainly on units of meaning and the generalizable conditions for encoding across symbolic systems (linguistic, visual, auditory), and, in general, uses language as the modeling system for other "second order" systems that function according to systematic rules (e.g., visual art, music, literature, popular media, advertising, or any meaning system). We now have methods for merging the "generative" approach of linguistics with the "networks of meaning" approach in semiotics. The next step is to develop models for a "generative grammar" and "generative semiotics" of culture, describing the rules for producing new cultural forms from our established base of meaning and content systems (in language, images, music, digital mixed media, or any transmittable cultural genre). The models developed by Peirce and Bakhtin have allowed for new research on this central question.

What are the Structures in Structuralism?

The term structuralism refers the method that proceeds from a description of systems of abstract, generalizable rules that govern actual instances of expression. This starting point is considered the best explanation for how actual expressions in any symbolic form (linguistic, visual, etc.) are formed, generated, and understood.


a language
=expressions formed from an internally complete system of abstract rules

In this context, structure = a priori rules systematically followed for any expression; that is, the “structures” that must be in place and presupposed before any new expression can be uttered or understood. Structures in this sense form an a priori (lit., from what is prior), that is, rules or codes not given in any direct experience of instances of language use, but required as the precondition for the possibility of any linguistic expression.

American linguistic theory in all of its schools and sub-schools rarely uses the term structure or structuralism (although Chomsky acknowledges the European tradition). In most descriptions of language theory and semiology, structuralism refers mainly to the theory and philosophy arising from European and French thought, with it’s main developments in the 1960s. The structural model, however, is common among several schools of thought even though the kinds of work and specific problems are different.

De Saussure’s starting point is a structural description (the abstract and necessary rules) of  the learned (conventional) abstract codes that link speech sounds (phonology) and linguistic meaning; that is, how acoustic stimuli (sounds, signifiers) get mapped onto meanings (signified "content") in any language. For de Saussure, a linguistic (or any cultural meaning-unit) is a "sign," specifically defined as the arbitrary--but internally necessary--coupling of a sensory vehicle (speech sounds, printed words) and a mental concept. This model of abstract and necessary learned, conventional conditions for expression and meaning influenced linguistics, semiology (models for a grammar of meaning applicable to all cultural forms like writing, images, and music), and anthropology.

Chomsky, beginning in the 1950s-60s, takes the abstract system of both phonology and grammar as necessary, but starts with the problem of syntax, language acquisition, and language productivity. His model of syntax as the internalized rules for generating expressions solves the empirical problem of "the poverty of stimulus" when seeking to explain the rapid acquisition of grammar from few experiences; that is, trying to explain how humans learn language by induction from experienced examples (i.e., how any child in any language community from around age 3-4 is capable of generating an infinite set of new grammatically formed sentences which the child has never experienced). For Chomsky, humans have an innate capacity for language and the ability to internalize a grammar from a very small set of examples, and are soon able to generate an infinite number of new expressions in their native language. From this observation, he was able to map out a rigorous set of syntactic phrase structures capable of many transformations.

Chomsky explains in his influential book, Language and Mind (1968, 3rd edition, 2006)

The person who has acquired knowledge of a language has internalized a system of rules that relate sound and meaning in a particular way. The linguist constructing a grammar of a language is in effect proposing a hypothesis concerning this internalized system...
[T]he grammar proposed by the linguist is an explanatory theory; it suggests an explanation for the fact that (under the idealization mentioned) a speaker of the language in question will perceive, interpret, form, or use an utterance in certain ways and not in other ways....
Continuing with current terminology, we can thus distinguish the surface structure of the sentence, the organization into categories and phrases that is directly associated with the physical signal, from the underlying deep structure, also a system of categories and phrases, but with a more abstract character. [pp. 23-25]

Where de Saussure distinguishes between langue and parole (the underlying grammar and rules of a language vs. spoken and written expressions in any concrete instance), Chomsky distinguishes between "deep structures" and "surface structures" and "competence" vs. "performance." The observations here allow us go beyond the experiential data of language in use to the underlying rules everyone shares in making new expressions and participating in a system of meanings.

At all levels, then, for language to be language, it must be:

  • rule-governed (expression and understanding reflect the same necessary code base)
  • collective (shared, not private or individual)
  • conventional or arbitrary (that is, not natural)
  • and learned (arises from being in a language community, not spontaneous).

These assumptions form the presuppositions of all work in semiology or semiotics, which maps out ways to analyze any meaning system as a "second-order" language; that is, for semiotics to proceed, we must presuppose that the structural features of language also operate in other language-like systems (for example, visual art or music) and are assumed or incorporated in a different level of operation like the system of other linguistic levels, a computer network "protocol stack" of layered functions, or the nested and embedded functions in computer programming.

Semiotics: Basic Assumptions

Contemporary semiotic theory merges the thought of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in many variations. Here are some of the most important starting assumptions.

1. Cultures are formed through language. Language is public, social, and communal, not private or personal. (If anyone used a private language, it would be very uninteresting to the rest of the world.) 

2. Users of a common language form what is called a "speech community," though we use "speech" in this context to include many kinds of communication communities (subcultures, dialects, ethnic groups, social-class specific communities, etc.); any individual can participate in multiple "speech communities". 

3. Language is a system with rules (its own internal structure). Language as a system is multi-leveled, from speech sounds, words, and sentences to longer units called discourse. Discourse circulates through a culture, providing meanings, values, and social identities to individuals. 

4. Discourse is the level studied by most cultural theory and semiotics. All of our cultural statements--from "mainstream" and official "high culture" products to popular culture genres and emerging new cultural forms--can thus be studied as forms of discourse, parts of a larger cultural "language." 

5. Communication and meaning are formed by mediations--representative or symbolic vehicles that "stand for" things, meanings, and values. The mediating vehicles are called "signs". For example, words in a language, images, sounds, or other perceptible signifiers. 

5.1. Thus signs and sign-systems never present a copy of "reality"--the order of things external to language and our mediated way of knowing thinning-out a socially interpreted and valued representation. 

6. The study of how a society produces meanings and values in a communication system is called semiotics, from the Greek term semion, "sign". (Here "sign" has a specialized meaning, referring to our social and cultural vehicles for signification or meaning.) Languages, and other symbolic systems like music and images, are called sign systems because they are governed by learnable and transmittable rules and conventions shared by a community. 

Semiotic Models: Dyadic and Triadic

Ferdinand de Saussure

saussure signified

Simple two-part model of the sign: a signifier (sign vehicle; material perceptible content like sound or visual information) and the signified (a conceptual and abstract content)

De Saussure: Descriptive model

saussure sign

Charles Sanders Peirce: Triadic Model


Peirce used a different set of terms to describe sign functions, which for him were a conceptual process, continually unfolding and unending (what he termed "unlimited semiosis," the chain of meaning-making by new signs interpreting a prior sign or set of signs).

In Peirce's model, meaning is generated through chains of signs (becoming interpretants), which is parallel with Mikhail Bakhtin's model of dialogism, in which every cultural expression is always already a response or answer to prior expression, and which generates further responses by being addressible to others.

7. Semiotics isolates sign functions for social analysis. French semiotics distinguishes two main sign-functions, the signifier (the level of expression, like the bare acoustic impression of speech sounds or the visual impression of written marks and images) and the signified (the level of content or value, what is associated with the signifier in a language). But what allows the sign to work as a whole unit of social meaning is a code, the rule for combining a sensory impression with a mental content, and the basic signifiers in a language into a system of meanings. 

7.1. The relation between signifier and signified is not natural, but arbitrary, part of the internal rules of a language. Having an arbitrary relation to things signified, the signs of a culture can be analyzed for how societies construct, produce, and circulate meanings and values. 

8. Sign systems are often described as organized into sets of differences (differential values) and hierarchies that structure meanings and social values. The form that these differences take is governed by ideology. (For example, the large set of socially constructed meanings for things considered "masculine" and "feminine," a pervasive set of binary oppositions. "Masculine" and "feminine" are meaningless apart from their mutual definition in a socially encoded binary structure.)  The majority of our complex social use of signs reveals a network of relationships, rather than simple binaries.

9. Signification is therefore a process, a product, and a social event, not something closed, static, or completed one and for all. All members of a society are interpreters or decoders. 

9.1. Signification occurs in the encoding and decoding process. 

9.2. Position of the interpreter/receiver of communication is inscribed in the system itself. Ability to decode and understand signification is based on competence with the sign system and with a larger cultural encyclopedia of codes and correspondences. 

10. Semiotics, however, moves beyond language to study all the meaning systems in a society--fashion, advertising, popular culture genres like TV and movies, music, political discourse, all forms of writing and speech. Semiotics contributes to communication studies by providing a method for uncovering and analyzing how a whole system of signification like a movie genre, fashion images, or TV works in a culture. 

10.1. Semiotics, then, looks at culture broadly as a language considered as a sign system, or the ways signs and language map onto culture as a whole. 


Sign: something that stands for something else in a system of signification (language, images, etc.).

Code: the relational system that allows a sign to have meaning, the social organization of meanings into differences, hierarchies, and networks of relations.

Image is Everything: easy examples that seem transparent because we engage the codes quickly:

Perrier girl

Early Perrier advertisement. Sexual allure and brand appeal. But how do we "know" this? Is sexiness and the meaning of the brand a property of the image? The meanings aren't inherent in the image but learned in the culture where these signs circulate and accumulate. Part of the social meaning of the image is the history of accrued associations and contexts which, of course, circulate apart from this specific image but are understood by members of the culture in which this image functions. None of this information is a property of the image itself, but must be learned.

CK One

Likewise, a Calvin Klein CK One ad. The cultural codes here are learned and circulate throughout advertising and popular culture. What the image means is only explicable in terms of a shared code base, not as a function of the properties of the image.

The Fashion System: meaning only in network system of differentiations, hierarchies, distinctions

Benneton ad

Benetton branding: The new "Holy Family": information and code base from Western cultural history and contemporary ethnic and sexual identities. A new, globalized, sexually ambiguous, "holy family"?

Holy Family

Whatever we want to say about what the images "mean" comes from a cultural code base, and not from anything inherent in the images themselves. Benetton can invoke the associations and construct a new image with different meanings because the new image references a genre with both well-known cultural information and established compositional structures immediately recognizable by an interpretive community in the culture receiving the advertising image.

Semiotics, then, helps explain how any member of a culture quickly produces or decodes meanings from a system of rules and symbolic correspondences that are internally structured and necessary for a culture in a parallel way to the rules of formation for any language.



  • de Saussure, Ferdinand. Cours De Linguistique Générale. Paris: Payot, 1900.
  • ———. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.
  • Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1965.
  • ———. Language and Mind. 1st edition, 1968; 3rd. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • ———. Syntactic Structures. First edition, 1957; 2nd ed. Berlin and New York: Mouton De Gruyter, 2002.
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 Volumes. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and A. W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.
  • Bal, Mieke. On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.
  • Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1976.
  • ———. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1984.
  • Petrilli, Susan, and Augusto Ponzio. Semiotics Unbounded: Interpretive Routes Through the Open Network of Signs. 1st ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
  • ———. “What Is Semiotics?” November 2007.