The map language is one of the most important means of social communication through the ages. It emerged at the dawn of the human society as a mean of communication of information about places of food provision (hunting), but gradually it grew in importance in terms of transmission of other information on the surrounding space, and finally it evolved into a universal mean of communication suitable practically for the transmission of any space-related information.
The semiotical approach to the general theory of cartography relates to the identification of the symbolic nature of maps, to the formulation of rules concerning the arrangement of signs and their combinations, to the study of syntax of the symbolic system of maps (syntactics), to the determination of the semantic content of signs and their combinations (semantics), to the study of characteristic patterns of the signs use in the course of communication, and to the determination of circumstances resulting in the emergence of certain symbolic features (pragmatics).
When we speak about the map as a material medium, we can not leave unconsidered its ontological status, i.e. the mode of being of a cartographic work as a material object, the degree of objectivity of its contents, the forms of its dependence (independence) from a perceiving subject as well as from historical and cultural context.
The text is a material form of expression of the historical and cultural context. Any cartographical work can anyhow be regarded as an objectively existing text characterized by relating material medium and structure.
Any text, containing true statements (i.e. the statements the consistency of which is proved by practice) relating the objects and phenomena of the surrounding world, reflects some sides or other of the reality and is therefore its model. The models represented by symbols are called symbolic, or semiotical. Thus, the maps is a symbolic (semiotical) model of the real world. The semiotic models are called also information models because such texts transmit information on some sides of the reality. The maps as symbolic models possess attributes of adequacy (similarity to the modeled reality), isomorphism, and homomorphism.
Passing to the represented object as the next characteristic of the map as a symbol we emphasize epistemological functions of the map, we regard the geographical map in terms of its cognitive possibilities, the relationship of cartographic depiction and the real world. The problems of the relationship of cartographic depiction and the reality are fundamental problems for comprehension of the nature and peculiar features of cartographic depiction, its expressiveness, because the surrounding world is the main object of mapping.
The boundary between the symbolism of real phenomena and their cartographic depictions is always flexible.
The rules of interpretation of map symbols are determined by man to obtain information transmitted by them, and these rules are significantly influenced by the value and usefulness of this information for the man; thus it is the matter of axiological properties of the map as a source of information. The man interpreting a cartographic work should have certain special knowledge needed for the perception of a cartographic text, especially in case of thematic maps (geophysical, geological, hydrogeological, etc.).
The evolution of cartographic symbolism can be elucidated in terms of the theory of mimesis (imitation) which was actively developed as early as in the antiquity. The recognition of real features on the map concerns the mechanisms of memory, associativity, comparison, assessment, etc. The notions of mimesis and recognition express a stable type of relationships between the cartographic depiction and the reality.
Overall, the map as a symbol is polyfunctional: it is at the same time an iconic sign as well as an index and a symbol.
Under the aspect of semiotics the properties of the map as a symbol reflect its cognitive possibilities.