1001. In American society, the color red often has the connotation "danger." Draw a semiotic triangle that illustrates this. Discuss the evolution of this convention - why does red mean "danger" rather than blue or green or yellow?

As red often means "danger" it would have seemed the natural choice for the color of a "stop" sign and for the "stop" light. Discuss why the color green may have seemed the best choice for the "go" light.

1002. A rebus is a statement formed from a paradigm of icons and symbols: for example, , which is usually taken to mean "I love you." From the following paradigm, construct a rebus that is meaningful to you.


  1. Compare your rebus with those of others in the class. Discuss how the establishment of a common code of signs and denotations is necessary for the development of a language.
  2. Discuss how the ability to determine which signs will be in the paradigm affects the use of the language. Add more signs to the paradigm. Why did you choose to add these particular signs? How does the language change?
  3. What is the paradigm for the language of mathematics. Discuss the reasons that scientists use mathematics as a language.

1003. In each of these situations what connotations might come to mind upon the perception of the sign? In each case who, if anyone, is sending the message.

  1. You wake in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke and the beeping sound of a smoke alarm.
  2. A box of cut flowers arrives. The card reads, "from a friend."
  3. A large envelope arrives in the mail. On the outside it says, "FEDERAL INCOME TAX FORMS."
  4. On an autumn day you look up and see flocks of geese flying south.
  5. Arriving at your parked car, you notice that one of the windows is broken and your tape player is missing.
  6. A mother kisses her baby.
  7. You notice that questions A, C and E refer to "unpleasant" events, while questions B, D and F refer to "pleasant" ones. [Be careful: this is a tricky one.]
1004. Perhaps car icon does bring to mind an animal. Discuss the names given to brands of cars by their manufacturers.

1005. Review a number of television commercials for food. How do advertisers convey the senses of taste and smell?

1006. These icons are conventionally used on the doors of rest rooms to indicate "men" and "women":

men & women

Comment on how changes in our society may lead to changes in the meanings of these signs. Might these be a better choice for the two symbols? female symbol male symbol Why or why not?

1007. Societies may be more or less symbolic. Consider the following:

  1. Is your society highly dependent on symbolic communication? How would you go about comparing your society with other societies?
  2. Find a cultural artifact that is common to your society (in the United States, for example, you might consider a Coke machine; a newspaper; a television show...). Discuss the use of icons and symbols in the presentation of the artifact. What does it communicate to its users?
  3. Literate cultures make wide use of written communication, while oral cultures depend primarily on speech. Discuss the nature of communication in such societies. You may want to consider two current cultures, e.g., an industrial society and an aborigine society; or you may want to consider a historical comparison, e.g., the literate culture of modern France with the oral culture of Medieval France. (Reference: Ong, Orality and Literacy).

1008. Here are other meanings that might arise in the mind of someone who perceives the symbol #frog#. Categorize each as a denotation or connotation and explain your choice.

  1. a hoarseness of the voice in a friend's throat
  2. an ornamental fastener used to close the front of a garment
  3. the mascot of a high school football team
  4. a nickname your sister used to call you

1009. Treasure Hunt: from what language paradigm do the following symbols come? What does each denote to those who understand the language? What does the set of symbols connote to you now? After you've answered this question?


1010. Advertisers make use of the shared agreement that establishes denotation when they set out to create signs that have particular meanings related to certain products.

  1. What do the following advertising "logos" denote? What might they connote?
    i. COKE (Is this different from COCA-COLA?)
    ii. Compare this colored apple to an actual instance of the logo. How accurate is this reproduction? Is this the logo, or an icon that represents the logo? How about this one: apple outline? How much can the image of a logo be changed before the corporation no longer can claim to own it?
  2. EXXON is not an English word. Explain why it isn't. Why might an advertiser choose a non-word as a logo?
  3. Use your understanding of semiotics to explain how a restaurant might use the smell of food cooking in its kitchen as advertising.
  4. General Motors once marketed a car whose brand name was Nova. Discover what the sign NOVA might mean in Spanish and explain the possible difficulties of marketing the car under that name in a Spanish-speaking country.
  5. Devise a logo for a company or corporation of your choosing. What do you intend the sign to denote? Circulate your logo to others - what does it denote to them. What positive connotations might the sign have? What negative connotations?

1011. Develop evidence to support the assertion that every sign is an abstraction. (One way to do this is to show that signs do not convey all of the five senses. For example, you might show how television food advertisements try to convey the senses of taste and smell.)

1012. A term that is closely associated with the notion of abstraction is metonymy - or, the use of a part to represent the whole thing. Investigate the term, metonymy, and comment on its relationship to abstraction. The following references will provide a start.

1014. Abbreviation is a coding process that maps a word into a shorter, but still understandable word. Compile a list of abbreviations used in the classified ads section of a local newspaper. Discuss the role of context in the understanding of these abbreviations.

1015. Discuss how a language such as English might grow or shrink by means of changes in its codes.

1016. Consider the language known as Latin. Once it was widely spoken throughout the Roman empire, now few people speak it. Investigate the decline of Latin as a human language. Why is it dying out?

1017. Consider a code of the type that might be used by an American football team.

Signs Values Meanings
Colors red, blue, green Type of Play (run, pass, other)
Word left, right Arrangement of players on the field
Letter B, X, Q Player to receive the ball (run only)
Number 1,2,3,4,5 Location that player will run (run only)
Letter R, K, H, X, Q Arrangement of pass receivers (pass only)
Number 1,2,3 Arrangement of blockers (pass only)

Rules - in this order:

  1. State a color
  2. State a word
  3. State a letter
  4. State a number
So a sentence in this language might be: "Blue Left X 2." Which might mean (to those who understood the code), "Passing play, arrange yourselves to the left side of the field, receivers run for the end zone, two blockers."

Explain how this code functions as a language. Explain why each of the following sentences is illegal.

Depending on the play of the defensive team, Blue Left X 2 might produce a number of different outcomes. Explain this.

1018. Notice that our definition of the term sign is problematic. We say that a sign is what you perceive - but what, exactly, is perception? Does the sign exist only on the paper, or is it formed by the light waves that bounce off of the paper? To what extent is the sign in your mind? (If no-one looks at a picture, is it a sign?) Are we correct in saying that signs are "physical?"

1019. Symbols tend to arise in the languages of human societies over long periods of time. Perhaps, long ago they were icons, but the resemblance is lost to us now. Some modern words, however, seem less arbitrary. Ice cream, for example, and automobile, are examples of words that are somewhat iconic. Explain why these words are iconic. Give examples of some other "iconic symbols."

1020. Some English words are almost entirely iconic. Can you find some examples and explain? (Hint: some of these are called onomatopoeia in literature.)

1021. Slang is an area of language where the conventional meanings tend to change very quickly. Identify a number of slang words currently in use in your group. When were these words added to your vocabulary? Have some of their meanings changed recently?

1022. Studies of human perception show that to some extent, what people perceive depends on what they expect to perceive. Research this subject. How does this affect our definition of the term, sign?

1023. In Semiology, Guiraud says
Science signifies an order imposed upon nature; art, an emotion which we experience vis à vis nature.... Science is transitive (in the grammatical sense), and art intransitive. With the help of science we signify the world by enclosing it within the network of reason; art enables us to signify ourselves by deciphering our psyche in terms of the order of nature.
What does Guiraud mean by this?

1024. S. Langer's and Eco's definitions of the terms "denotation" and "connotation" are based on different theoretical approaches, and so they differ. Littlejohn describes S. Langer on page 69 and Eco on page 71. Discuss the difference in the way the two theorists define these terms.

1025. The following quote is from E. Langer, 59.

Because a sign may mean so many things, we are apt to misinterpret it.... The misinterpretation of signs is the simplest form of mistake. It is the most important form, for purposes of practical life, and the easiest to detect; for its normal manifestation is the experience called disappointment.

Consider this comment in light of our discussion of the relationship between confusion and creativity. Would you say that to be creative, one must be willing to be disappointed?

1026. Find in your library and read Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson. Consider the following questions.

  1. "In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines." [p. 3]
    Is this true? For one day, keep a log of every decision you make, no matter how trivial. Normally, how many of these would you actually think about? Why do students of communication pay close attention to things that people usually do automatically?
  2. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." Explain this statement in your own words and give examples.
  3. Choose one or more of the following metaphors and provide a theory as to why it may have developed as part of our language. Give examples of its everyday influence. (This symbol, , means "is similar to" and represents the metaphorical relationship.)
    6. 1 + 12
    11. COKEIT
    Why might the symbol "" be a better way of expressing the metaphorical relationship than the word "IS"? (Hint: Consider the "meta" metaphors IS and IS IS .)
  4. Suppose the metaphor ARGUMENT WAR was restated to read ARGUMENT PEACE. How might our everyday language change to reflect the new meaning? (Consider the examples on page 4.)
  5. How might our daily use of the CONDUIT metaphor influence our attempt to develop a theory to explain human communication?

1027. Read "Abstraction" by Davis and Hersh, in The Mathematical Experience, 127-130.

  1. A. Each of the following represents an abstraction. What reality is each an abstraction of? How "true" is each statement? What additional knowledge must you have to be able to understand what each of them means?
    2. TIME = MONEY
    3. 2 x 2 = 4
    4. MY GPA = 3.02 (Insert your own GPA in place of 3.02.)
    5. A = 1/2 BH
    7. e = mc2

  2. A = 1/2 BH is usually translated to mean "the area of a given triangle is found by multiplying the height of the triangle by half of the length of its base." Does this statement represent a theory?
  3. Consider the following situation: Susan is a second-semester sophomore at Western Maryland College. At the end of the fall semester her GPA was 1.93, and she received a letter from the Dean telling her that she would need to be above 2.0 by the end of the spring semester if she is to remain at the college.
    1. Describe the use of numbers in this situation. How do they abstract the reality of Susan's position? What do they communicate? How might Susan's use of them help her better to think about her problem?
    2. Develop a theory as to why numbers are often used in place of words to describe situations in which factual accuracy is of importance.
  4. Read the sections on GPA, academic probation, and expulsion from the College in your college's Student Handbook. Identify any sections in which the intent of the rules does not seem to be clearly communicated.

1028. To what extent are you, yourself, an abstraction?

1029. Read McCain and Segal, The Game of Science.

  1. What does the word "paradigm" mean as it is used in this book?
  2. What is the difference between "hypothesis" and "theory"?
  3. What is the relationship between scientific experiment and scientific theory?
  4. How are metaphors of use in the creation of scientific theory?

1030. Read "Symbols" by Davis and Hersh in The Mathematical Experience, 122-126.

  1. Compare these mathematical symbols, + = / * , with these English symbols, ! & : ' . Are symbols used in the same way in both languages?
  2. What does the symbol f mean as it is used in mathematics? Invent a better symbol that could have been used in its place? Why is yours better?
  3. This pair of symbols, " ", has a particular use in English. How is the pair used, and what is its meaning? [Hint: the name given to the communication process that is invoked by the use of these symbols is "quotation."]

1031. Print out a "map" of all of the characters available on your word processor's keyboard. Are any of these "illegal" in terms of the paradigm for English? Explain why or why not.

1032. Some languages have symbols that look strange to those raised to read English. Consider, for example - è, ö, ç and ñ. Are these elements of a paradigm, or are they syntagms? Does English have any similar, "compound" elements?

1033. Unlike written English, the paradigm for spoken English has neither "letters" nor "marks." What is the paradigm for spoken English? How in speech do we indicate such as the question marks, periods and quote marks of written English? [Hint: a textbook on the subject of "linguistics" is a good place to search for the answer to the question.]

1034. In the first chapter of Understanding Popular Culture John Fiske discusses various meanings that can be assigned to print advertisements for jeans. Produce your own semiotic analysis of the ads presented in this article. Find additional ads in magazines and newspapers. Are these similar to the ones in the article? Do they support Fiske's and/or your conclusions?

1035. This quote is taken from S. Langer, 94.

In the first place, every language has a vocabulary and a syntax. Its elements are words with fixed meanings. Out of these one can construct, according to the rules of the syntax, composite symbols with resultant new meanings.

Secondly, in a language, some words are equivalent to whole combinations of other words, so that most meanings can be expressed in several different ways. This makes it possible to define the meanings of the ultimate single words, i.e., to construction a dictionary.

Thirdly, there may be alternative words for the same meaning. When two people systematically use different words for almost everything, they are said to speak different languages. But the two languages are rougly equivalent; with a little artifice, and occasional substitution of a phrase for a single word, etc., the propositions enunciated by one person, in his system, may be translated into the conventional system of the other.

  1. What do all human languages have in common?
  2. Try to develop a definition of the term "language." Share it with your classmates and solicit their opinions as to its correctness and completeness.
  3. Bees are often said to have a language that is expressed in the form of movements. Is the "bee dance" a kind of language? Why or why not?
  4. Termites, dolphins, among other animals, are sometimes said to communicate. Do they? Do they communicate by means of language?
  5. Experiments have been conducted during which primates (such as chimpanzee, orangutans, etc.) have been taught to respond to sets of symbols. Find reports of these studies in your library. Are these examples of the use of language?

1036. Use your library to research the origins of the Morse code.

  1. During what period of history was the Morse code most widely used? Why did its use decrease? Where is it still in use today, and why?
  2. How is punctuation handled in Morse?
  3. List the letters of the English alphabet with the accompanying Morse syntagms. Sort the list based on the length of the Morse syntagms. Why did Morse put the code in this particular order?

1037. Research the use of American Sign Language or one of the other signing languages designed to enhance the communication of people who are unable to hear. Describe the code of this language.

1038. Esperanto is an "artificial" human language that was developed in the late 19th century to promote communication among the people of the world. Research the history of Esperanto. Why is it so little used?

1039. Choose a computer language such as BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, PASCAL, C, JAVA and so on. Describe the code of the language. Are computer "languages" true languages? Why or why not? (If you understand a computer language, are you able to talk to a computer?)

Use the "download source" option on your web browser to down-load the "source file" for this web page. Research the "HTML" language that is used to organize what you see on the screen and explain how it works.

1040. Fiske (1990) discusses semiotician John Barthes' explanation of the role of myth in human communication. Read that section of his book. Explain how Barthes' definition of differs from the "commonsense" definition of myth as a story about gods and goddesses.

1041. The following quotation is taken from Fiske (1990).
We are a science-based culture. The dominant myth of science presents it as man's ability to adapt his nature to his needs, to improve his security and standard of living, to celebrate his achievement. Science is seen as objective, true and good. But the counter-myth is also very strong. This sees science as evil, as evidence of man's distance from and lack of understanding of nature.

Research the subject of "science as myth." Do you agree with Fiske? Explain why or why not.

1042. Although Propp's morphology refers only to Russian folk tales, it may be applied to other kinds of narratives. Choose a story and investigate its "fit" to Propp's characters and functions. Here are some stories to try as examples. (Reference: Propp.)

  1. The Star Wars movies
  2. The Odyssey - notice how the end of the story, as Odysseus returns home, fits Propp's latter functions XXI through XXX
  3. Any of Grimms' fairy tales
  4. The legends of Greek, Roman, Norse or other cultural myth
  5. Stories of Christ, the Buddha, or other religious figures
  6. Shakespeare's plays
  7. Prime time television dramas

1043. How do Jakobson's notions of contact and message compare to Shannon and Weaver's notions of medium and signal?

1044. How might Jakobson's notion of context and its referential function fit into the semiotic triangle model?

1045. Does "context" mean the same thing to Jakobson that it does to Shannon and Weaver?

1046. The tutorial on semiotics uses this symbol, #, to mark the beginning and end of a string of letters that are being referred to as symbols. With this in mind, explain the use of this symbol, ", in the following sentence: If the word "banana" is under discussion as a symbol (rather than as an English noun), it will be shown like this: #banana#.