SOCIO-SEMIOTICS – signs in language

Signs are a large part of communication. Indeed, many physical signs, symbols, colours and banners have international meaning, and cross borders which are otherwise closed due to language differences.

In any language, words have a text-book (non-sign) meaning, but when aided by context, gestures, inference or allied graphics, language has a sign dimension as well (Calefato, 2009, p. 74). Because of this semiotic (sign) content, language has universal power beyond its pure semantic composition.

Pierce (cited in Hodge, Hodge, & Kress, 1988) even says that “every thought is a sign”, since “all thinking is dialogic in nature” (p. 20). We would agree that most of our thinking, at least when we are thinking about our thinking, is a dialogue, either with ourselves, or with a visualised ‘other’. We are engaged, consciously or semi-consciously, in the process of semiosis, since we are always seeking to signify something beyond the words themselves, whenever we communicate.

Socio-semiotics studies the processes of transformation where signs articulate organic communication in a new and complex manner (Calefato, 2009, p. 68). Semiosis is a process in which there are three players – the sign, the object (of that sign) and the interpretant (simply: interpretation of the sign, which can vary). This theoretical interplay is the subject of rigorous and sophisticated writings. Our simple conclusion here is that the semiotic basis of language in social communication is very much a “frontier science”, since it investigates the crossing of boundaries, particularly as we experience the globalisation of English communication (Calefato, 2009, pp. 67, 78).

As Hodge and Kress (1988) say, socio semiotics considers “how language changes speakers and is, in turn, modified by them … [and] extends … not only metaphorically, to fields which go beyond the verbal level … beyond the environment made [merely] of words” (p. 54).

The first implication is that critical literacy is a necessary element of English language teaching, with an emphasis on a ‘critical’ analysis of all texts for their underlying messages.

The deeper implication is the need for an overall critical pedagogy in English teaching, and for revised curricula that move more quickly past the simple language elements. Socio-semiotics considers the meaning and exchange that go beyond the verbal level, and beyond the environment of words and their understood meanings.


Calefato, P. (2009). Language in social reproduction: Sociolinguistics and sociosemiotics. Σημειωτκή-Sign Systems Studies (1-2), 43-81.
Hodge, R., Hodge, R. I. V., & Kress, G. R. (1988). Social semiotics: Cornell University Press.