A Theory of Semiotics / Edition 1

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"... the greatest contribution to [semiotics] since the pioneering work of C. S. Peirce and Charles Morris." —Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

"... draws on philosophy, linguistics, sociology, anthropology and aesthetics and refers to a wide range of scholarship... raises many fascinating questions." —Language in Society

"... a major contribution to the field of semiotic studies." —Robert Scholes, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

"... the most significant text on the subject published in the English language that I know of." —Arthur Asa Berger, Journal of Communication

Eco’s treatment demonstrates his mastery of the field of semiotics. It focuses on the twin problems of the doctrine of signs—communication and signification—and offers a highly original theory of sign production, including a carefully wrought typology of signs and modes of production.

Indiana University Press

"A gem for Holmes fans and armchair detectives with a penchant for logical reflection, and Peirce scholars."--Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253202178
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/1978
  • Series: Advances in Semiotics Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,526,709
  • Product dimensions: 8.80 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco
Few cultural critics and novelists carry the scholarly heft of Umberto Eco, who was a noted historian and semiotician before he brought these sensibilites to bear on major novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. Whether he is deconstructing modern wax museums or spinning a 13th-century tale, he is always clever, stately and profound.


Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

Read an Excerpt

A Theory of Semiotics

By Umberto Eco

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1976 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35955-1



1.1. An elementary communicational model

If every communication process must be explained as relating to a system of significations, it is necessary to single out the elementary structure of communication at the point where communication may be seen in its most elementary terms. Although every pattern of signification is a cultural convention, there is one communicative process in which there seems to be no cultural convention at all, but only — as was proposed in 0.7 — the passage of stimuli. This occurs when so-called physical 'information' is transmitted between two mechanical devices.

When a floating buoy signals to the control panel of an automobile the level reached by the gasoline, this process occurs entirely by means of a mechanical chain of causes and effects. Nevertheless, according to the principles of information theory, there is an 'informational' process that is in some way considered a communicational process too. Our example does not consider what happens once the signal (from the buoy) reaches the control panel and is converted into a visible measuring device (a red moving line or an oscillating arm): this is an undoubted case of sign-process in which the position of the arm stands for the level of the gasoline, in accordance with a conventionalized code.

But what is puzzling for a semiotic theory is the process which takes place before a human being looks at the pointer: although at the moment when he does so the pointer is the starting point of a signification process, before that moment it is only the final result of a preceding communicational process. During this process we cannot say that the position of the buoy stands for the movement of the pointer: instead of 'standing-for', the buoy stimulates, provokes, causes, gives rise to the movement of the pointer.

It is then necessary to gain a deeper knowledge of this type of process, which constitutes the lower threshold of semiotics. Let us outline a very simple communicative situation. An engineer — downstream — needs to know when a watershed located in a basin between two mountains, and closed by a Watergate, reaches a certain level of saturation, which he defines as 'danger level'.

Whether there is water or not; whether it is above or below the danger level; how much above or below; at what rate it is rising: all this constitutes pieces of information which can be transmitted from the watershed, which will therefore be considered as a source of information.

So the engineer puts in the watershed a sort of buoy which, when it reaches danger level, activates a transmitter capable of emitting an electric signal which travels through a channel (an electric wire) and is picked up downstream by a receiver; this device converts the signal into a given string of elements (i.e. releases a series of mechanical commands) that constitute a message for a destination apparatus. The destination, at this point, can release a mechanical response in order to correct the situation at the source (for instance opening the Watergate so that the water can be slowly evacuated). Such a situation is usually represented as follows:


In this model the code is the device which assures that a given electric signal produces a given mechanical message, and that this elicits a given response. The engineer can establish the following code: presence of signal (+ A) versus absence of signal (- A). The signal + A is released when the buoy sensitizes the transmitter.

But this 'Watergate Model' also foresees the presence of potential noise on the channel, which is to say any disturbance that could alter the nature of the signals, making them difficult to detect, or producing + A when - A is intended and vice versa. Therefore the engineer has to complicate his code. For instance, if he establishes two different levels of signal, namely + A and + B, he then disposes of three signals and the destination may accordingly be instructed in order to release three kinds of response.

+ A produces 'state of rest'

+ B produces 'feedback'

- AB (and + AB) produces an emergency signal (meaning that something does not work)

This complication of the code increases the cost of the entire apparatus but makes the transmission of information more secure. Nevertheless there can be so much noise as to produce + A instead of + B. In order to avoid this risk, the code must be considerably complicated. Suppose that the engineer now disposes of four positive signals and establishes that every message must be composed of two signals. The four positive signals can be represented by four different levels but in order to better control the entire process the engineer decides to represent them by four electric bulbs as well. They can be set out in a positional series, so that A is recognizable inasmuch as it precedes B and so on; they can also be designed as four bulbs of differing colors, following a wave-length progression (green, yellow, orange, red). It must be made absolutely clear that the destination apparatus does not need to 'see' bulbs (for it has no sensory organs): but the bulbs are useful for the engineer so that he can follow what is happening.

I should add that the correspondence between electric signals (received by the transmitter and translated into mechanical messages) and the lighting of the bulbs (obviously activated by another receiver) undoubtedly constitutes a new coding phenomenon that would need to receive separate attention; but for the sake of convenience I shall consider both the message to the destination and the bulbs as two aspects of the same phenomenon. At this point the engineer has — at least from a theoretical point of view — 16 possible messages at his disposal:


Since AA, BB, CC, DD are simply repetitions of a single signal, and therefore cannot be instantaneously emitted, and since six messages are simply the reverse of six others (for instance, BA is the reverse of AB, and the temporal succession of two signals is not being considered in this case), the engineer actually disposes of six messages: AB, BC, CD, AD, AC and BD. Suppose that he assigns to the message AB the task of signalling "danger level". He has at his disposal 5 'empty' messages.

Thus the engineer has achieved two interesting results: (i) it is highly improbable that a noise will activate two wrong bulbs and it is probable that any wrong activation will give rise to a 'senseless' message, such as ABC or ABCD: therefore it is easier to detect a misfunctioning; (ii) since the code has been complicated and the cost of the transmission has been increased, the engineer may take advantage of this investment to amortize it through a more informative exploitation of the code.

In fact with such a code he can get a more comprehensive range of information about what happens at the source and he can better instruct the destination, selecting more events to be informed about and more mechanical responses to be released by the apparatus in order to control the entire process more tightly. He therefore establishes a new code, able to signal more states of the water in the watershed and to elicit more articulated responses (Table 4).

The fact of having complicated the code has introduced redundancy into it: two signals are used in order to give one piece of information. But the redundancy has also provided a supply of messages, thus enabling the engineer to recognize a larger array of situations at the source and to establish a larger array of responses at the destination. As a matter of fact redundancy has also provided two more messages (AC and BD) that the engineer does not want to use and by means of which he could signal other states within the watershed (combined with appropriate additional responses): they could also be used in order to introduce synonymies (danger level being signalled both by AB and by AC). Anyway the code which has been adopted would seem to be an optimal one for an engineer's purposes and it would be unwise to complicate it too much.

1.2. Systems and codes

Once the Watergate Model is established and the engineer has finished his project, a semiotician could ask him a few questions, such as: (i) what do you call a 'code'? the device by which you know that a given state in the watershed corresponds to a given set of illuminated bulbs? (ii) if so, does the mechanical apparatus possess a code, that is, does the destination recognize the 'meaning' of the received message or does it simply respond to mechanical stimuli? (iii) and is the fact that the destination responds to a given array of stimuli by means of a given sequence of responses based on a code? (iv) who is that code for? you or the apparatus? (v) and anyway, is it not true that many people would call the internal organization of the system of bulbs a code, irrespective of the state of things that can be signalled through its combinational articultation? (vi) finally, is not the fact that the water's infinite number of potential positions within the watershed have been segmented into four, and only four 'pertinent' states, sometimes called a 'code'?

One could carry on like this for a long time. But it seems unnecessary, since it will already be quite clear that under the name of /code/ the engineer is considering at least four different phenomena:

(a) A set of signals ruled by internal combinatory laws These signals are not necessarily connected or connectable with the state of the water that they conveyed in the Watergate Model, nor with the destination responses that the engineer decided they should be allowed to elicit. They could convey different notions about things and they could elicit a different set of responses: for instance they could be used to communicate the engineer's love for the next-watershed girl, or to persuade the girl to return his passion. Moreover these signals can travel through the channel without conveying or eliciting anything, simply in order to test the mechanical efficiency of the transmitting and receiving apparatuses. Finally they can be considered as a pure combinational structure that only takes the form of electric signals by chance, an interplay of empty positions and mutual oppositions, as will be seen in 1.3. They could be called a syntactic system.

(b) A set of states of the water which are taken into account as a set of notions about the state of the water and which can become (as happened in the Watergate Model) a set of possible communicative contents. As such, they can be conveyed by signals (bulbs), but are independent of them: in fact they could be conveyed by any other type of signal, such as flags, smoke, words, whistles, drums and so on. Let me call this set of 'contents' a semantic system.

(c) A set of possible behavioral responses on the part of the destination. These responses are independent of the (b) system: they could be released in order to make a washing-machine work or (supposing that the engineer was a 'mad scientist') to admit more water into the watershed just when danger level was reached, thereby provoking a flood. They can also be elicited by another (a) system: for example the destination can be instructed to evacuate the water only when, by means of a photoelectric cell, it detects an image of Fred Astaire kissing Ginger Rogers. Communicationally speaking the responses are the proofs that the message has been correctly received (and many philosophers maintain that 'meaning' is nothing more than this detectable disposition to respond to a given stimulus (see Morris, 1946)): but this side of the problem can be disregarded, for at present the responses are being considered independently of any conveying element.

(d) A rule coupling some items from the (a) system with some from the (b) or the (c) system. This rule establishes that a given array of syntactic signals refers back to a given state of the water, or to a given 'pertinent' segmentation of the semantic system; that both the syntactic and the semantic units, once coupled, may correspond to a given response; or that a given array of signals corresponds to a given response even though no semantic unit is supposed to be signalled; and so on.

Only this complex form of rule may properly be called a 'code'. Nevertheless in many contexts the term /code/ covers not only the phenomenon (d) — as in the case of the Morse code — but also the notion of purely combinational systems such as (a), (b) and (c). For instance, the so-called 'phonological code' is a system like (a); the so-called 'genetic code' seems to be a system like (c); the so-called 'code of kinship' is either an underlying combinational system like (a) or a system of pertinent parenthood units very similar to (b).

Since this homonymy has empirical roots and can in some circumstances prove itself very useful, 1 do not want to challenge it. But in order to avoid the considerable theoretical damage that its presence can produce, one must clearly distinguish the two kinds of so-called 'codes' that it confuses: I shall therefore call a system of elements such as the syntactic, semantic and behavioral ones outlined in (a), (b) and (c) an s-code (or code as system); whereas a rule coupling the items of one s-code with the items of another or several other s-codes, as outlined in (d), will simply be called a code.

S-codes are systems or 'structures' that can also subsist independently of any sort of significant or communicative purpose, and as such may be studied by information theory or by various types of generative grammar. They are made up of finite sets of elements oppositionally structured and governed by combinational rules that can generate both finite and infinite strings or chains of these elements. However, in the social sciences (as well as in some mathematical disciplines), such systems are almost always recognized or posited in order to show how one such system can convey all or some of the elements of another such system, the latter being to some extent correlated with the former (and vice versa). In other words these systems are usually taken into account only insofar as they constitute one of the planes of a correlational function called a 'code'.

Since an s-code deserves theoretical attention only when it is inserted within a significant or communicational framework (the code), the theoretical attention is focused on its intended purpose: therefore a non-significant system is called a 'code' by a sort of metonymical transference, being understood as part of a semiotic whole with which it shares some properties.

Thus an s-code is usually called a 'code' but this habit relies on a rhetorical convention that it would be wise to eliminate. On the contrary the term /s-code/ can be legitimately applied to the semiotic phenomena (a), (b) and (c) without any danger of rhetorical abuse since all of these are, technically speaking, 'systems', submitted to the same formal rules even though composed of very different elements; i.e. (a) electric signals; (b) notions about states of the world, (c) behavioral responses.

1.3. The s-code as structure

Taken independently of the other systems with which it can be correlated, an s-code is a structure; that is, a system (i) in which every value is established by positions and differences and (ii) which appears only when different phenomena are mutually compared with reference to the same system of relations. 'That arrangement alone is structured which meets two conditions: that it be a system, ruled by an internal cohesiveness; and this cohesiveness, inaccessible to observation in an isolated system, be revealed in the study of transformations, through which the similar properties in apparently different systems are brought to light" (Lévi-Strauss, 1960).

In the Watergate Model systems (a), (b) and (c) are homologously structured. Let us consider system (a): there are four elements (A; B; C; D) which can be either present or absent:

A = 1000
B = 0100
C = 0010
D = 0001

The message they generate can be detected in the same way:

AB = 1100
CD = 0011
BC = 0110
AD = 1001

AB is recognizable because the order of its features is oppositionally different from that of BC, CD and AD and so on. Each element of the system can be submitted to substitution and commutation tests, and can be generated by the transformation of another element; furthermore the whole system could work equally well even if it organized four fruits, four animals or the four musketeers instead of four bulbs.

The (b) system relies upon the same structural mechanism. Taking 1 as the minimal pertinent unit of water, the increase of water from insufficiency to danger might follow a sort of 'iconic' progression whose opposite would be the regression represented by the (c) system, in which 0 represents the minimal pertinent unit of evacuated water:

(b) (c)
(danger) 1111 0000 (evacuation)
(alarm) 1110 0001 (alarm)
(security) 1100 0011 (rest)
(insuff.) 1000 0111 (admission)

By the way, if an inverse symmetry appears between (b) and (c), this is because the two systems are in fact considered as balancing each other out; whereas the representation of the structural properties of the system (a) does not look homologous to the other two because the correspondence between the strings in (a) and the units of (b) and (c) was arbitrarily chosen. One could have chosen the message ABCD (IIII), in order to signal "danger" and to elicit "evacuation". But, as was noted in 1.1.3, this choice would have submitted the informational process to greater risk of noise. Since the three systems are not here considered according to their possible correlation, I am only concerned to show how each can, independently of the others, rely on the same structural matrix, this being able to generate different combinations following diverse combinational rules. When the formats of the three systems are compared, their differences and their potential for mutual transformation become clear, precisely because they have the same underlying structure.


Excerpted from A Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco. Copyright © 1976 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Note on graphic conventions

0. Introduction—Toward a Logic of Culture

0.1. Design for a semiotic theory
0.2. ‘Semiotics’: field or discipline?
0.3. Communication and/or signification
0.4. Political boundaries: the field
0.5. Natural boundaries: two definitions of semiotics
0.6. Natural boundaries: inference and signification
0.7. Natural boundaries; the lower threshold
0.8. Natural boundaries: the upper threshold
0.9. Epistemological boundaries

1. Signification and Communication

1.1. An elementary communicational model
1.2. Systems and codes
1.3. The s-code as structure
1.4. Information, communication, signification

2. Theory of Codes

2.1. The sign-function
2.2. Expression and content
2.3. Denotation and connotation
2.4. Message and text
2.5 Content and referent
2.6. Meaning as cultural unit
2.7. The interpretant
2.8. The semantic system
2.9. The semantic markers and the sememe
2.10. The KF model
2.11. A revised semantic model
2.12. The model "Q"
2.13. The format of the semantic space
2.14. Overcoding and undercoding
2.15. The interplay of codes and the message as an open form

3. Theory of Sign Production

3.1. A general survey
3.2. Semiotic and factual statements
3.3. Mentioning
3.4 The prolem of a typology of signs
3.5. Critique of iconism
3.6. A typology of modes of production
3.7. The aesthetic text as invention
3.8. The rhetorical labor
3.9. Ideological code switching

4. The Subject of Semiotics


Index of authors

Index of subjects

Indiana University Press

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