The French Literary Theorist Critic English Language Essay


According to Barthes, semiotics has four main terms, signifier, signified, sign and myth. Signifier, being the physical form of the object, and signified, being the concept, the idea or the meaning, which represents the signifier. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as 'signification'. Signification, signifier and signified combined, this comes together to creates a sign. A sign refers only to a concept, not to a thing, which makes it arbitrary. There is no logical connection between a signifier and signified, which makes finding meaning in images problematic. Myth is the representation of speech, a system of communication.

For example a sign could be the written word cat, the signifier of the word are the letters C-A-T. The signified is the idea: cat, a furry four-legged animal.

In 1957 Barthes wrote the book called 'Mythologies', in which Roland updated Saussure's basic principles of semiology and his concept of semiotic text. The text 'Myth Today' which is a part of the 'Mythologies', Roland Barthes presents his views of myth as a 'second-order semiological system'. This text written by Barthes will be summarised and critically analysed while looking at other theorist, Saussure, and the way he applied this theory on this concept.

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In the theoretical essay Roland Barthes analyses the meanings of myth as a form of language, a mode of communication, 'myth is a type of speech'. Myth cannot be an idea, an object or a concept according to Barthes. Mythology is a mixture of the signifier and signified, into a "mode of signification". Barthes explains that "myth is a type of speech. Everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message...Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this..." (51). Barthes explains that everything can be a myth, taken by a speech. Because myth is a type of speech it is a mode of signification and is therefore not defined by its matter but rather by its form. According to Barthes myth is a type of speech chosen by history. Although, as a form of speech, it does fall into the field of semiotics.

He uses the term "second order signification" in order to describe the way in which myth covers its true meaning, "that, which is a sign (namely the associative totality of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second" (53).

In semiology, which is the study of forms, Saussure explained three terms: signifier, which is the acoustic image, signified, which is the idea behind the image, and sign, which is the relation between the signifier and signified.

The signifier which has a physical existence transmits the meaning. This is the sign as it is perceived. The signified is a mental concept which is the meaning. It is known by all members of the same culture who speak the same language. The sign is a combination of them two, the signifier and signified. For example, a man dressed in a suit, which is the signifier, usually suggests that he is working in an office, which is the signifier, whereas a man dressed in jeans and trainers, the signifier, suggests the he might be a middle-class worker,which is (the signifier. These meanings vary according to place and time.

According to Barthes who interpreted Saussure's work, the process of making meaning of signs is arbitrary. All sign systems are basically arbitrary. Barthes explains that there is no rational connection between an object, being the signifier, and the word attributed to it, being the signified. For example the green light on the traffic lights is associated with the action 'go'. There is nothing about the colour green that makes it an appropriate sign to indicate that is safe to cross the street.

Myth, is constructed from semiology, is a second order semiological system which is called metalanguage, "…metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first" (53). The theorist names the myth as being the "metalanguage", while the language system of myth, is named the "the language object". Metalanguage is the language which is being used to structure on regular basis.Barthes' Language and Myth (diagram by Sebeok, Thomas A., UCSB)

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"…myth is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity: its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning" (56). The writer explains that myth is a double system, which is the way the message is interpreted and it is the influence by the way people see the world. For example the word 'cat' in English is a furry four-legged animal, while in an another language, such as Romanian , the word 'cat' is being defined as the word 'as' or the word 'cat' translated into Romanian is 'pisica'. . The meaning of words to one person may differ to those of another.

According to Barthes, myth is a form of speech which is not limited only to language and visual signs. Barthes gives the example of the French magazine called 'Paris-Match' which one of the covers portrays an African young boy in the French uniform saluting the French flag. The first level of signification, which is the denotation, is the black boy saluting the flag. The second level of signification, which is the myth and connotation, when the sign becomes a signifier and the child salutes France as being a great empire. Barthes calls his theory of myth "a science of forms". In this cover of the 'Paris-Match' magazine Barthes analyses everything which works together, such as the flag, the chid, the uniform and the salute. In this example given by Barthes, the African boy becomes for the myth reader, "the very presence of French imperiality".