Semiotics is probably best-known as an approach to textual analysis, and in this form it is characterized by a concern with structural analysis. Structuralist semiotic analysis involves identifying the constituent units in a semiotic system (such as a text or socio-cultural practice) and the structural relationships between them (oppositions, correlations and logical relations).
Saussure was 'concerned exclusively with three sorts of systemic relationships: that between a signifier and a signified; those between a sign and all of the other elements of its system; and those between a sign and the elements which surround it within a concrete signifying instance' (Silverman 1983, 10). He emphasized that meaning arises from the differences between signifiers; these differences are of two kinds: syntagmatic (concerning positioning) and paradigmatic (concerning substitution). Saussure called the latter associative relations (Saussure 1983, 121; Saussure 1974, 122). but Roman Jakobson's term is now used. The distinction is a key one in structuralist semiotic analysis. These two dimensions are often presented as 'axes', where the horizontal axis is the syntagmatic and the vertical axis is the paradigmatic. The plane of the syntagm is that of the combination of 'this-and-this-and-this' (as in the sentence, 'the man cried') whilst the plane of the paradigm is that of the selection of 'this-or-this-or-this' (e.g. the replacement of the last word in the same sentence with 'died' or 'sang'). Whilst syntagmatic relations are possibilities of combination, paradigmatic relations are functional contrasts - they involve differentiation. Temporally, syntagmatic relations refer intratextually to other signifiers co-present within the text, whilst paradigmatic relations refer intertextually to signifiers which are absent from the text (Saussure 1983, 122; Saussure 1974, 123). The 'value' of a sign is determined by both its paradigmatic and its syntagmatic relations. Syntagms and paradigms provide a structural context within which signs make sense; they are the structural forms through which signs are organized into codes.
Paradigmatic relationships can operate on the level of the signifier, the signified or both (Saussure 1983, 121-124; Saussure 1974, 123-126; Silverman 1983, 10; Harris 1987, 124). A paradigm is a set of associated signifiers or signifieds which are all members of some defining category, but in which each is significantly different. In natural language there are grammatical paradigms such as verbs or nouns. 'Paradigmatic relations are those which belong to the same set by virtue of a function they share... A sign enters into paradigmatic relations with all the signs which can also occur in the same context but not at the same time' (Langholz Leymore 1975, 8). In a given context, one member of the paradigm set is structurally replaceable with another. 'Signs are in paradigmatic relation when the choice of one excludes the choice of another' (Silverman & Torode 1980, 255). The use of one signifier (e.g. a particular word or a garment) rather than another from the same paradigm set (e.g. respectively, adjectives or hats) shapes the preferred meaning of a text. Paradigmatic relations can thus be seen as 'contrastive'. Note that the significance of the differences between even apparently synonymous signifiers is at the heart of Whorfian theories about language. Saussure's notion of 'associative' relations was broader and less formal than what is normally meant by 'paradigmatic' relations. He referred to 'mental association' and included perceived similarities in form (e.g. homophones) or meaning (e.g. synonyms). Such similarities were diverse and ranged from strong to slight, and might refer to only part of a word (such as a shared prefix or suffix). He noted that there was no end (or commonly agreed order) to such associations (Saussure 1983, 121-124; Saussure 1974, 123-126).
In film and television, paradigms include ways of changing shot (such as cut, fade, dissolve and wipe). The medium or genre are also paradigms, and particular media texts derive meaning from the ways in which the medium and genre used differs from the alternatives. The aphorism of Marshall McLuhan (1911-80) that 'the medium is the message' can thus be seen as reflecting a semiotic concern: to a semiotician the medium is not 'neutral'.
A syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting signifiers which forms a meaningful whole within a text - sometimes, following Saussure, called a 'chain'. Such combinations are made within a framework of syntactic rules and conventions (both explicit and inexplicit). In language, a sentence, for instance, is a syntagm of words; so too are paragraphs and chapters. 'There are always larger units, composed of smaller units, with a relation of interdependence holding between both' (Saussure 1983, 127; Saussure 1974, 128): syntagms can contain other syntagms. A printed advertisement is a syntagm of visual signifiers. Syntagmatic relations are the various ways in which elements within the same text may be related to each other. Syntagms are created by the linking of signifiers from paradigm sets which are chosen on the basis of whether they are conventionally regarded as appropriate or may be required by some rule system (e.g. grammar). Synatagmatic relations highlight the importance of part-whole relationships: Saussure stressed that 'the whole depends on the parts, and the parts depend on the whole' (Saussure 1983, 126; Saussure 1974, 128).
Syntagms are often defined as 'sequential' (and thus temporal - as in speech and music), but they can represent spatial relationships. Saussure himself (who emphasized 'auditory signifiers' which 'are presented one after another' and 'form a chain') noted that visual signifiers (he instanced nautical flags) 'can exploit more than one dimension simultaneously' (Saussure 1983, 70; Saussure 1974, 70). Spatial syntagmatic relations are found in drawing, painting and photography. Many semiotic systems - such as drama, cinema, television and the world wide web - include both spatial and temporal syntagms.
Thwaites et al. argue that within a genre, whilst the syntagmatic dimension is the textual structure, the paradigmatic dimension can be as broad as the choice of subject matter (Thwaites et al. 1994, 95). In this framing, form is a syntagmatic dimension whilst content is a paradigmatic dimension. However, form is also subject to paradigmatic choices and content to syntagmatic arrangement.
Jonathan Culler offers an example of the syntagmatic relations and paradigmatic contrasts involved in Western menus:
|Roland Barthes (1967) outlined the paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements of the 'garment system' in similar terms. The paradigmatic elements are the items which cannot be worn at the same time on the same part of the body (such as hats, trousers, shoes). The syntagmatic dimension is the juxtaposition of different elements at the same time in a complete ensemble from hat to shoes.|
Expanding on an example offered by David Lodge, Susan Spiggle explains in more detail how this might apply to a girl wearing a tee-shirt, jeans and sandals:
2. She combines the selected signs through rules (i.e., tee-shirts go with sandals, not high heels), sending a message through the ensemble - the syntagm. Selection requires her to perceive similarity and opposition among signs within the set (the paradigm), classifying them as items having the same function or structure, only one of which she needs. She can substitute, or select, a blouse for the tee-shirt - conveying a different message. The combination, tee-shirtjeanssandals, requires her to know the 'rules by which garments are acceptably combined... The combination... is, in short, a kind of sentence' (Lodge 1977, 74). The tee-shirtjeanssandals syntagm conveys a different meaning (sends a different message) at the beach than at a formal occasion. (Spiggle 1998, 159)
In the case of film, our interpretation of an individual shot depends on both paradigmatic analysis (comparing it, not necessarily consciously, with the use of alternative kinds of shot) and syntagmatic analysis (comparing it with preceding and following shots). The same shot used within another sequence of shots could have quite a different preferred reading. Actually, filmic syntagms are not confined to such temporal syntagms (which are manifested in montage: the sequencing of shots) but include the spatial syntagms found also in still photography (in mise-en-scène: the composition of individual frames).
Both syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis treat signs as part of a system - exploring their functions within codes and sub-codes - a topic to which we will return. Although we will discuss syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations separately, it should be emphasized that the semiotic analysis of a text or corpus has to tackle the system as a whole, and that the two dimensions cannot be considered in isolation. The description of any semiotic system involves specifying both the membership of all of the relevant paradigmatic sets and also the possible combinations of one set with another in well-formed syntagms. For the analyst, according to Saussure (who was, of course, focusing on the language system as a whole), 'the system as a united whole is the starting point, from which it becomes possible, by a process of analysis, to identify its constituent elements'; one cannot try to construct the system by working upwards from the constituent elements (Saussure 1983, 112; Saussure 1974, 113). However, Roland Barthes argued that 'an important part of the semiological undertaking' was to divide texts 'into minimal significant units... then to group these units into paradigmatic classes, and finally to classify the syntagmatic relations which link these units' (Barthes 1967, 48; cf. Langholz Leymore 1975, 21 and Lévi-Strauss 1972, 211). In practice, the analyst is likely to need to move back and forth between these two approaches as the analysis proceeds.