What is semiotics? A specialist in the field has learned to hide his/her uneasiness when having to answer this question by directing the conversation neatly to other topics. The reason for avoiding the answer is the simple fact that no unanimously accepted definition has emerged yet and it is still an area of heated debates. Perhaps this testifies to the topicality and developmental potential of the field.
However, all semioticians generally agree upon some basic principles that have been formulated over the years. According to these principles semiotics is a study of signs and sign systems. A hint to this can also be found from the etymology of the word: the Greek “sêmeion” means “sign”. More specifically semiotics is interested in the origin, structure, meanings and workings of signs and sign systems.
Semiotics claims that communication always makes use of signs [i.e. it is always semiotic]. Signs and meanings in turn always come into being in communication. The former entail the latter and vice versa. A sign is fundamentally mediating, it stands for something other than itself. Respectively, traces on the snow may stand for a wild animal, gray hair may refer to old age and the word “dog” may evoke a mental image of a real dog. Thomas A. Sebeok, a renowned pioneer of modern semiotics, has said that semiotics studies the mediation of reality.
Due to this broad definition a semiotician can study a much wider array of phenomena than traffic signs: a semiotician of culture may analyze the complex sign systems of rituals and mythologies, a semiotician of literature may unveil the signifying nature of literary works, a zoosemiotician can explain the intricate meanings of the honey bee dance, a specialist in semiotics of language may uncover the underlying principles of human language. The list of “semiotics of …” could be endless.
As we can see semiotics is a comprehensive field of study, a tradition of thought that provides means to study diverse phenomena. The interdisciplinary nature of semiotics gives hope that it may become a discipline that builds a bridge between the humanities and the hard sciences. Semiotics has also been labeled as an “umbrella” science with the ambition to integrate all other disciplines. In addition, “semiotics” has become a fashionable term in contemporary scientific discourse. The last two points pave the road to dilettantism and accusations which state that semiotics has the ambition to study everything and therefore it remains superficial in its results..
Estonian semiotics that is mostly connected to the university town Tartu is world famous. Tartu is the birth place of the semiotics of culture [Juri Lotman and Tartu-Moscow School of Semiotics] and biosemiotics [Jakob von Uexküll]. The oldest periodical of semiotics is published in Tartu Sign Systems Studies. The contemporary Tartu semiotics is developing further its traditional orientations of inquiry, but also deals with reconciling and combining of ideas from different semiotic traditions without losing its successful genius Loci.