Semiotics Continued: Peirce’s model and Syntagmatic Analysis

Charles Sanders Peirce developed his own semiotic model, expanding on Saussure’s ideas. Peirce developed a triadic model:

Peirce's Triadic Model of Semiotics
Peirce’s Triadic Model of Semiotics

Peirce also used the traffic light example to illustrate this. In his example at an intersection the traffic light sign for stop = red light facing traffic (representamen); vehicles stopping = object; the message that a red light conveys to drivers that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).

The object is not in Saussure’s model. The representamen correlates to the signifier, while the interpretant is similar to the signified, but is also a sign in its own right. Roland Barthes describes this mode of representation in his essay Myth Today with a good sketch on page 113. Basically, there can be a series of nested sets of signs within any one image/text, depending on how deeply one looks. The first signifier and signified make up the first sign. This first sign in turn becomes a second signifier which corresponds to another signified, which together form the second sign and so the process continues.

Signs can be:

  • symbolic: the signifier is abitrary and we need to learn the relationship. It is not obvious. Examples would include the alphabet, numbers, punctuation.
  • iconic: we understand that the signifier resembles something, e.g. cartoons, a portrait.
  • indexical: the signifier is directly connected to the signified in some way. We make some kind of judgement call when we observe indexical signs. These signifiers are links which can be observed or assumed, e.g. footprints in the sand, a rash, a weather vane on a house’s roof.

These three signs are not mutually exclusive. A sign can be symbolic, iconic or indexical or any combination.

Peirce argues that an historical shift or hierarchy tends to occur from one mode to the other. He cites iconicity as the original mode of signification as it is the most simple and primitive. From there we move down to the index mode and finally to the symbolic mode.

Syntagmatic Analysis

This is the relationship of signs to each other. this has to do with the structural analysis of a text. I’m reminded of sentence analysis that we had to do during English in high school. There are various forms of syntagmatic structures:

  • narrative: the most common, based on sequential, linear relationships
  • spatial: the way montages in photographs work through juxtapositioning
  • conceptual: such as argument or exposition.

Exposition is reliant on the conceptual structure of argument or description and involves three elements, which are a more familiar set of circumstances that one would find in a court of law:

  • propositions;
  • evidence;
  • justifications

According Chandler, most theorists e.g. Peirce and Gombrich, the relationship of exposition is not applicable to visual media. Indeed, one would find it hard pressed to find all three elements in one photograph.

Spatial relationships include:

  • above/below
  • in front/behind
  • north/south/east/west
  • left/right
  • close/distant
  • inside/outside
  • centre/margin

Left/right, top/bottom and centre/margin is how we read text. Left/right deal with the horizontal compositional axis where elements situated to the left of the centre of the image indicate some that the viewer should know (it’s a given). Elements to the right of centre indicate something that is not quite known yet.

Top/bottom deals with the vertical compositional axis where up = more and down = less. Up also symbolises goodness and virtue, high status and power, while down symbolises death, low status, depravity, emotion. The upper portion of an image tends to deal with abstract ideas, while the lower portion deals with practical matters. Daniel Chandler states in his book Semiotics for Beginners that in western advertisements the upper sections show us ‘what might be’, while the lower section is more informative, showing us ‘what is’.

Centre/margin is where the most salient element is placed in the centre, and the other elements are arranged around the periphery or edges of the frame. This allows for a ‘to and fro’ reading between the various elements.

Narrative relationships tend to be sequential. A narrative, as we are all taught in school has a beginning, middle and end. Barthes very succinctly describes the levels of the narrative in Image-Music-Text:

To understand a narrative is not merely to follow the unfolding of the story, it is also to recognize its construction in ‘storeys’, to project the horizontal concatenations of the narrative ‘thread’ on to an implicitly vertical axis; to read (to listen to) a narrative is not merely to move from one word to the next, it is also to move from one level to the next.

(Barthes, p 87)

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press

Chandler, Daniel (1994 – 2016). Semiotics for Beginners [online] . Available from: [Accessed 19 January, 2016]


Barthes, Roland (1972) ‘Myth Today’. in Mythologies. New York: The Noonday Press

Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen (1996): Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design [online]. London: Routledge. Available from: [Accessed 22 January, 2016]


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