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But if you are thick-skinned and tell them that it also includes words, sounds and 'body language' they may reasonably wonder what all these things have in common and how anyone could possibly study such disparate phenomena.

If you get this far they've probably already 'read the signs' which suggest that you are either eccentric or insane and communication may have ceased.

Assuming that you are not one of those annoying people who keeps everyone waiting with your awkward question, if you are searching for books on semiotics you could do worse than by starting off in the linguistics section. possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life.

It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology.

If you go into a bookshop and ask them where to find a book on semiotics you are likely to meet with a blank look.

Even worse, you might be asked to define what semiotics is - which would be a bit tricky if you were looking for a beginner's guide. The kinds of signs that are likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as 'signs' in everyday life, such as road signs, pub signs and star signs.

He declared that 'every thought is a sign' (Peirce 1931-58, 1.538; cf. Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic 'sign systems' (such as a medium or genre).

They study how meanings are made: as such, being concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality.

However, contemporary social semiotics has moved beyond the structuralist concern with the internal relations of parts within a self-contained system, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations.

It's worse still if you do know a bit about semiotics, because it can be hard to offer a simple definition which is of much use in the bookshop. If you were to agree with them that semiotics can include the study of all these and more, people will probably assume that semiotics is about 'visual signs'.

If you've ever been in such a situation, you'll probably agree that it's wise not to ask. The shortest definition is that it is the study of signs. You would confirm their hunch if you said that signs can also be drawings, paintings and photographs, and by now they'd be keen to direct you to the art and photography sections.

What individual scholars have to assess, of course, is whether and how semiotics may be useful in shedding light on any aspect of their concerns.

Note that Saussure's term, 'semiology' is sometimes used to refer to the Saussurean tradition, whilst 'semiotics' sometimes refers to the Peircean tradition, but that nowadays the term 'semiotics' is more likely to be used as an umbrella term to embrace the whole field (Nth 1990, 14).

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