The term, which was spelled semeiotics (Greek: σημειωτικός, semeiotikos, an interpreter of signs), was first used in English by Henry Stubbes (1670, p. 75) in a very precise sense to denote the branch of medical science relating to the interpretation of signs. John Locke used the terms semeiotike and semeiotics in Book 4, Chapter 21 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Here he explains how science can be divided into three parts:
Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.
The field was most notably formalized by the Vienna Circle and presented in their International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, in which the authors agreed on breaking out the field, which they called "semiotic", into three branches:
- Semantics: Relation between signs and the things they refer to, their denotata.
- Syntactics: Relation of signs to each other in formal structures.
- Pragmatics: Relation of signs to their impacts on those who use them. (Also known as General Semantics)
This discipline is frequently seen as having important anthropological dimensions. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences - such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics or zoosemiosis.
Syntactics is the branch of semiotics that deals with the formal properties of signs and symbols. More precisely, syntactics deals with the "rules that govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences."