Andrew LaVelle | 23 Sep 11:51 2007

Luigi Romeo's article on the history of the term "semiotics"

Dear Joe and List,

Before the discussion on the history of the word “semiotics” dips too far over the horizon, I’d like to recommend an article on the subject by Luigi Romeo, which was published in volume 6 (1977) of Semiosis (pp. 37-50). Although now three decades old, Romeo’s article, entitled “The Derivation of ‘Semiotics’ through the History of the Discipline”, is still unsurpassed in my judgment, being quite remarkable for the sheer depth and breadth of research that he undertook to retrace the evolution and usage of the term from antiquity to Locke and on up to the late 1800’s when Peirce first employed it. (For a continuation of the story through the twentieth century, Romeo refers the reader to Sebeok’s “Contribution to the Doctrine of Signs” (1976)).

Several of Romeo’s discoveries and observations are directly relevant to our discussion; I mention a few here:

  1. The original spelling of the Greek form of the word as used by Locke in his Essay.
  2. The source(s) from which Locke drew his knowledge and prescribed spelling of the word.
  3. And in turn the influence this had on Peirce and his entries under the headings “semiotics” and “semiotic” (as well as “semiology”) in The Century Dictionary.

Without attempting either a synopsis or review of this article — which by the way reads like a detective story; thus each reader should have the pleasure of discovering it for him/herself — I should only like to briefly touch on the above three points, relating them back to our previous discussion on the subject.

1. Locke’s spelling of the Greek term:
As Romeo confirms in his investigative work, Locke’s spelling was σημιωτικη (and not σημειωτικη with the “ε”, as incorrectly stated by Sebeok (1976)). (I’m leaving off the diacritics here for convenience.) This fact was stated in our recent discussion as having also been observed by John Deely, but I wanted to show here in light of Romeo’s article that it was known as long ago as the late 1970’s.

2. Locke’s source(s) for his spelling:
This is a much more interesting question and one that Romeo spent several years attempting to answer, having been obliged to follow what he describes in his own words as a “torturous path”. Not wanting to give the whole mystery away, I will only say that Locke’s use and spelling of the term σημιωτικη seems to be a combination of his own transliteration of a Latin translation of the Greek word in a medical text (which accounts for his leaving out the “ε”) and the direct borrowing of the Greek word from a pirated version published in 1637 of the Thesaurus Graecae Linguae.

3. Peirce and The Century Dictionary:
I quote Romeo: “It is significant, indeed, that in The Century Dictionary, 1897 [...], under “semiology, semeiology” (VII: 5485-5486) the first meaning is ‘the logical theory of signs, of the conditions of their fulfilling their functions, of their chief kinds, etc.’ The second meaning is ‘the use of gestures to express thought.’ Only the third meaning is connected with ‘symptomatology’ and, logically enough, with ‘semiotics’ as a synonym for ‘symptomatology’.

[Next paragraph]: “We also know, more importantly, that the ‘logical’ section of The Century Dictionary was compiled by Charles S. Peirce. His definition of ‘semiotics’ (different from ‘semiotic’), on the same page as that of ‘semiology’, leaves no doubt as to Peirce’s understanding of the Graeco-Roman tradition: ‘the doctrine or science of signs; the language of signs’, as the first meaning.”

And Romeo continues in his corresponding footnote, which is more to my point:
“Thus, when Charles Morris uses ‘semiotic’ for ‘semiotics’, he merely employs what Peirce had already included in The Century Dictionary as an adjective since, only when spelled in the ‘plural’, the term was a noun.” [Note: Romeo puts the word “plural” in quotation marks since this is indeed the term employed by the The Century Dictionary to describe the use of the “s” morpheme when creating the nominal form “semiotics”, a fact explained by the comparatively new substantive “s” morpheme in English at that time, which was still in the process of fully taking hold. There was simply no other way to describe it back then other than as the “plural”.]

Two other relevant points to add:

First, I checked the given pronunciation of “semiotics” in The Century Dictionary, and it is indeed without a long “o”. Thus I reiterate again what I said in my previous message on this subject: Max Fisch’s prescribed pronunciation of “semiotics” with a long “o” (read: IPA closed “o”) in the name of following Peirce’s supposed lead is irresponsible to say the least. And any and every continuation of this preposterous prescriptivism which is in complete opposition to historical fact should simply cease forevermore.

Second, Romeo gives his own take on the seemingly endless debate today about the term “semiotics”, “semiology”, and their derivatives that I think is worth repeating here:
“As to the alleged difference between semiotics and semiology, regarding whether signs are intentional or not, the distinction is purely ‘national’ and leads nowhere. Semiotics, i.e., general semiotics, is now one only discipline, be it called as such or semaeology, semiology, semeiology, semiosis, semeiosis, semiotic, and so forth. It must be derived from (τεχνη) σημειωτικη (‘ars semeiotica’), the doctrine of signs, which are at the center of every cognitive process. All other derivations are mere suppositions based on historical accidents.”




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