A SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS OF OBITUARY ANNOUNCEMENTS IN THE GUARDIAN
AND THE NIGERIAN TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS
1Oladejo, Tolulope Odunayo(PhD)
Mountain Top University,
1 Oladejo, T.O. ‘ A Semiotic Analysis of Obituary Announcements in the Guardian and the Nigerian Tribune
Newspapers ‘ The NOUN Scholar Journal of Arts and Humanities 2021:169-178
Human beings use signs for different reasons in order to achieve different goals. This study is a
semiotic analysis of obituary announcements in The Guardian and The Nigerian Tribune
newspapers. The writer employs Roland Barthes (1997) and Pierce (1931)‟s Semiotic theory.
Semiotic approach is employed in interpreting the sign, symbol, icon, and index in obituary
announcements. The study aims at investigating the dominant visual semiotic signs in the
announcements and to explore how the semiotic messages are communicated through the signs.
The data for the study were selected from two Nigerian newspapers: The Guardian and The
Nigerian Tribune within a particular year (2014) and from the months of June to December. The
study adopts descriptive survey research to examine obituary announcements in Nigerian
newspapers and a sample size of ten (10) announcements were randomly selected from a total
population of one hundred adverts on bereavements from the months of June to December 2014
in both The Guardian and The Nigerian Tribune. The researcher analyses the data based on three
parts: the graphological analysis, the use of symbol and the use of picture and photograph using
Pierce (1931)‟s theory. The study found out that the existence of different signs is entrenched
with diverse meanings depending on the perception of the reader/viewer. The study advanced
knowledge by revealing that Obituary announcements expressed the feelings and grief of the
announcers through the use of signs. The study concluded that based on the analysis of the
advertisement human beings are endowed with great imagination and creativity.
Keywords: Semiotic, Obituary, Announcements, Graphological, Myth
Human beings use signs for different reasons in order to achieve diverse goals in health,
entertainment politics, education, etc. Human beings usually communicate different ideas and
messages in different fields of which obituary announcements is part of; these have always been
transmitted to people through both verbal language and visual semiotic signs depending on the
contexts. The writers of obituary announcements employ verbal signs, nonverbal, visual semiotic
signs, and both signs systems to construct the reality about the announcement.
Semiotics is the study of signs. According to (Eco, 1976:7), 'semiotics is concerned with
everything that can be perceived as a sign' This means that Semiotics involves the study of not
only what we refer to as 'signs' in everyday speech, but of anything which 'stands for' something
else. In essence, semiotics takes the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. It is
also the study of communication, that is, the way any sign functions in the mind of an interpreter
to convey specific meaning in a given situation. This means that semiotics as an approach to the
study of texts focuses on the communication phenomenon as a whole. This includes verbal
(language in speech and writing) and non-verbal communication (anything that stands for
something else). As Barthes (1953:45) puts it, almost anything in society is meaningful and can
be a significant sign to a speech community e.g. car, dress, and so on.
In this sense, semiotics takes as much interest in the message of photography, advertising and
television as in the written discourse of literature and in how meaning is produced as well as
what it is (Wales, 1989:416). Semiotics as a study of visual and symbolic representations of
language has been in use in the world when designing, for example, bill boards, advertisements,
trademarks, and other forms of signposting which we attempt to use to get across our messages
in all our social practices require both the elaborated and symbolic functions of languages.
Eco (1976) stated that “semiotics concerns everything that can be perceived as a sign.” Signs
constitute printed and spoken words, images, sounds, gestures, and objects. Individuals interpret
signs as “signifying something.” According to Peirce (1931), “nothing is a sign unless it is
interpreted as a sign”. This interpretation process occurs by relating a sign to familiar systems of
conventions and, hence, the sign becomes part of an organized collective interaction and cannot
exist outside such an interaction. Signs function as a code between individuals and they trigger
some previous experiences from an individual .
Semiotics as a discipline is simply the analysis of signs or the study of the function of sign
systems. The idea that sign systems are of great consequences is easy enough to gasp; yet the
recognition of the need to study sign systems is very much a modern phenomenon. While
Sebeok(2001) stated that in theory, linguistics is only a branch of semiotics, but in fact semiotics
is created from linguistics. As a result, semiotics is a branch of linguistics to study signs, learn
everything related to the sign and its meaning. Saussure (1988) writes that a person lives in a
world shaped by decoded signs found in images, actions, words, and more, which he or she has
encountered. His innovation of semiotics is an ancient system used to decode a photograph
through examination of the signs within the photograph. Barthes (1997) introduced semiotics to
the visual community, and called the message that is created through the signs in the image the
making of a “myth,” (Bignell, 2002). Decoding the signs are indications of how the message is
communicated to the reader or what myth is being created about a subject. Signs are classified
into three different types according to Barthes (1997): An iconic sign represents what the object
is. For example, a photograph of a car would represent the actual vehicle. An indexical sign
represents a meaning that is implied through the photographed object. For example, an expensive
car would indicate that the owner was wealthy. A symbolic sign is when an image represents
another object or idea. The same expensive car could represent luxury or wealth.
Saussure (1988) submits that a person exists in a world designed by decoded signs that are found
in images, actions, words, and more, which s/he has encountered. The purpose of semiotics is to
become aware of the construction of reality created by those signs (Chandler, 1994). In the light
of this, this study is hinged on the ability to understand how the audience will decode the
message, create the reality, and give insight into the culture (Bignell, 2002). Chandler (1994)
opines that interpreters must have social knowledge, medium and genre knowledge, and ability
to understand the relationship between the two. Hall (1980) submits that culture itself is a kind
of communication, producing meaning and highlighted the importance of active interpretation
within relevant codes. He identifies a circuit of communication including: production,
circulation, distribution/consumption, and reproduction (Hall, 1980). Bignell (2002)
acknowledges that the message that is created through the signs in the image is called “myth,” by
Barthes (1997) which is how an individual perceives the objects in a photograph and the feeling
and ideas it creates within the person‟s mind.
Danesi (2002) reports that the semiotician is concerned with what a certain structure means, how
it is able to represent what it means, and why it means what it means. In image-based research,
identifying these signs within a photograph gives insight into the meaning of the photograph and
the import of the photograph to the reader. This concept is explained by Bignell (2002) with the
example of a Rolls-Royce. The car is a material signifier, a symbol that not only communicates
the brand of the car, but also communicates a mental concept of wealth and luxury. If the
photograph of the car is sighted by an average reader, several messages will be communicated
through that image. There are three types of sign in semiotic according to Pierce (1931):
symbolic, iconic, and indexical:
1. The symbol or symbolic sign is assigned arbitrarily or is accepted as a societal
convention. Therefore, the relationship between the representamen and what the sign
stands for – its object or referent and the sense behind it, the interpretant – must be
learned. For example, letters of the alphabet, the number system, mathematical signs,
computer code, punctuation marks, traffic signs, national flags and so forth.
2. As an icon, the representamen resembles or imitates its signified object in that it
possesses some of its qualities. Therefore, the relationship between what the sign stands
for – its referent and the sense behind it, the interpretant – does not necessarily have to
be learned. For example, a portrait, a cartoon, sound effects, or a statue.
3. An index is when the signifier might not resemble its signified object. It is not arbitrarily
assigned and is directly connected in some way to the object. Nevertheless, the
relationship between what the sign stands for – its referent and the sense behind it, the
interpretant – may have to be learned. The link between the representamen and its object
may only be inferred; for instance, smoke, thunder, footprints, flavors, a door bell
ringing, or a photograph, film or DVD(Digital Versatile Disc) recording.
Barthes’ (1997) Semiotic Theory
Barthes‟(1997) develops significant-signifier theory from Saussure to be a theory of grammar
and its connotation meaning. The significant term was changed to be expression (E) and the
signifier changed to be content (C). However, he emphasizes that there must be a relation (R)
between E and C or certain relation. Thus, it can form a sign. Barthes also explains the concepts
of denotation, connotation, and myth. For Barthes, connotation is the “tone” of a text, the manner
which has been decorated.”According to Barthes (1997) anything which furnishes meaning
becomes a sign, and any group of sign becomes a system. The second level is the denotation
which consists of signifier and signified. The signifier is an expression that refers to a thing,
while the signified is the image that stands for the thing in the signifier. Saussure (1959) believes
that the process of signification is only in this level, but Barthes assumed that there is another
level of signification after this which is the myth. Myth usually appears in the form of analogy.
In concealing the meaning, myth is more likely to deflect the meaning so that it is possible to be
extremely different from the original thing in the previous level.
Obituary comes from the Latin word „Obitus‟, meaning departure. It refers to a record of
announcements of death or deaths, especially in a newspaper, usually comprising a brief
biographical sketch of the deceased. Obituary announcement is a special feature because it
focuses exclusively on the qualities of a human being and how that person‟s life, at its end, can
best be represented. Human life has a general pattern: birth, marriage, and death. Death in
Nigerian societies receives, however, peculiar attention. Major communicative events related to
death are epitaphs, tributes, dirges, and Obituaries (Moses & Marelli, 2003). However, in this
study, Obituary announcements will be emphasized because they do not only create grief in the
audience or readers but also evoke appreciation for the deceased (Askildon, 2007; Fernandez,
2007; Bryant & Peck, 2009).
Obituary moulds our understanding of the importance of life and death. It contains some vital
information and this includes the deceased‟s name, date of birth, place of residence, date of death
and, sometimes, cause of death (Campbell, 1971). Two types of obituary are discussed by
Fernandez (2007) which are: the informative and opinative obituaries. Informative obituary, on
the one hand, aims at giving relevant details about the death: the deceased, place and time of
funeral, and the next of kin. This is an impersonal type of obituary. This is achieved through the
use of an impersonal language and concise expression. The language is presented in an objective
and standardized manner which means it is devoid of flowery and decorated language
(Fernandez, 2007). An opinative obituary, on the other hand, is written by a relative, friend or
the funeral home staff. It offers a more emotive and intimate account of the deceased by means
of consolatory and laudatory tactics to satisfy and assuage the feelings of surviving family
members. Opinative obituaries are a personal type of obituary and are subjective, which perform
a peculiar function of impressing readers about the social status or the exemplary conduct of the
deceased (Fernandez, 2007). All in all, the communicative function of both types of Obituaries
is to inform people of a person‟s death. Invariably, Obituary announcements perform the
function of communicating the death of, or information about the funeral arrangements for a
particular person to a specific audience.
Objectives of the Study
1. To have an understanding of the signs used in the announcements whether they are, iconic,
indexical, or symbolic.
2. To investigate the dominant visual semiotic signs in the announcements.
3. To explore how the semiotic messages are communicated through the signs.
1. In what way(s) do the visual semiotic signs in the announcements constitute iconic, indexical
or symbolic signs?
2. What are the dominant visual semiotic signs in the announcements?
3. What are the semiotic messages communicated through the signs?
Qualitative method was employed in the research which focuses on the signs of the obituary
announcements and analysis of their denotative and connotative meanings based on Barthes‟
theory. The announcements will be analyzed through descriptive analysis technique. The
samples used in the study are Nigerian newspapers where, The Guardian and The Nigerian
Tribune have been chosen for study. The Guardian is chosen because it covers four geo-political
zones in the country and is the newspaper of the elite group, while The Nigerian Tribune covers
the South ̶ Western states. The choice of national (The Guardian) and local (The Nigerian
Tribune) newspapers is to reveal the different and unique ways through which each newspaper
presents its announcements. The two newspapers are also known to have an avalanche of
obituary pages from time- to- time over and above other newspapers. The data were selected
within a particular year (2014) and were limited to a period of seven months (June-December)
for better management. The months of June to December were selected because of high rates of
obituary announcements during those periods. Simple random sampling was employed to select
sample size of ten obituary announcements from a total population of one hundred (100) adverts
on bereavements from the months of June to December, thereby generating ten (10) sample size
for obituary announcements from both The Guardian and The Nigerian Tribune newspapers.
A SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS OF OBITUARY ANNOUNCEMENTS: ANALYSIS OF
NON-LINGUISTIC FEATURES (SEMIOTIC FEATURES)
THE GRAPHOLOGICAL ANALYSIS: ILLUSTRATION OF
GRAPHOLOGICAL DEVICES IN THE HEADINGS OF THE ANNOUNCEMENTS
23 Years Gone
…Your Memory Lingers on
AN AMAZING WOMAN OF
SUBSTANCE IS GONE
Farewell to a GODLY MAN
A Great Humanitarian
In Loving Memory OF OUR
4 years Gone…
Still very much in our
In Loving MEMORY
A Year Ago Our Dad Went
20 YEARS Gone
‘To Joyful Activity Shall I
Table 1.1: Illustration of Graphological Devices in the Headings of the Announcements
From Table 1.1 above, we can observe the use of graphological devices in the headings of the
announcements which serve as a means of catching the attention of the readers and providing
visual communicative effects on them. It is observed from Table 1.1 that some of the data have
riders, that is, sub-headings. This is an expansion of the semantic scope of the main headings in
order to equip the readers with additional information. Also, some data are written in capital
letters to convey the importance of the message to the readers. There are some that are
capitalized and in bold print which signify how special the deceased was to the writer.
THE USE OF SYMBOL
Symbol is another non-linguistic device employed in the announcements. It is a sign expressing
the intended message which will be understood without coming in contact with the written
message. This is evident in the following pictures:
From figures 1-5 above, we observed that the deceased are surrounded by cloud which
suggests that the deceased are being embraced by supernatural power that is beyond the control
of human beings. It may also symbolise that the deceased have ascended the heavenly place to
join the immortals.
Another symbol is the use of the Cross. In figure 6, the deceased is surrounded by the
Cross bending at both sides. This symbol represents Christianity and the fallen cross suggests
death. The symbol (logo) of „Ajaokuta Steel Company‟ is an indication that the deceased was a
member of the company.
In figure 7, there is a silhouette of cross at the background of the deceased‟s picture. The
symbol of the cross identifies with Christian religion; to indicate that a person is dead. The
symbol of the cross in the picture conveys the meaning of death; the departure of the deceased.
Figure 8 depicts ascension of the deceased from the earth into the supernatural realm
which is the heaven. The background colour is dark and it symbolizes death; meaning the
deceased has transited from the daylight to the nighttime which is eternal. There is also an icon at
the down part of the right hand side of the picture. It is probably the icon of the company where
the deceased worked before his demise. The icon in the picture represents the organization‟s
loyalty and a way of identifying with the deceased at his departure from the surface of the earth.
Also, in the above figure, there is a symbol of candlelight arranged together and a shadow cast at
the side, the candlelight symbolizes that the deceased was flourishing and probably at the peak of
his achievements before a shadow symbolizing death was cast on him. The icon symbolizes the
sudden exit of a man probably flourishing before the clarion calls.
Figure 10 above shows a man who seems to be a cleric through his dressing and his title.
There is a symbol of a pinnacle of a church, probably depicting him as an ardent worshipper of
God who stayed in the house of God always; this can be buttressed further through the title of the
SEMIOTIC IMPORTS OF SAMPLED OBITUARY ANNOUNCEMENTS
In this study, we have been able to analyze the data based on the semiotic theory by explaining
the symbols, the use of pictures and photograph and the semiotic imports of Obituary and In
Memoriam announcements in Nigerian newspapers. We observed that the non-linguistic items
discovered in the data were signs for conveying different meanings to the readers in a different
situation. It is also revealed that the pictures in the obituary advertisement convey some inherent
meanings. The advertisement reveals that human beings are endowed with great imagination and
The study recommends that credence should be given to signs in an academic work. School
administrators should inculcate the issue of signs into school curriculum. This should be made
compulsory in schools as human lives cannot exist without relating and applying signs and
symbols to our daily interactions with one another.
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