Sign (semiotics)  

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Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure   Signifier: the word 'tree' = Signified: the mental image of a tree.
Signified (concept) and signifier (sound-image) as imagined by de Saussure
Signifier: the word 'tree' = Signified: the mental image of a tree.

the linguistic sign is arbitrary

the signifier (French signifiant), the "shape" of a word, its phonic component, i.e. the sequence of letters or phonemes e.g. C-A-T

the signified (French signifié), the ideational component, the concept or object that appears in our minds when we hear or read the signifier e.g. a small domesticated feline (The signified is not to be confused with the "referent". The former is a "mental concept", the latter the "actual object" in the world)

The Bouba/kiki effect (1929)

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Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In semiotics, a sign is a discrete unit of meaning, and includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be communicated as a message by any sentient, reasoning mind to another.

And unless icons (iconic signs), which signify their close resemblances to things they refer to, all other signs in most part, are in a sense arbitraries and the onomatopoeia is symbolic (i.e. sound symbolism whose pronunciation suggests it meaning). Thus it is said to be that all the communication forms like sounds, gestures, icons, symbols, etc. must signify their signs to denote their referents.

The nature of signs has long been discussed in philosophy. Initially, within linguistics and later semiotics, there were two general schools of thought: those who proposed that signs are ‘dyadic’ (i.e. having two parts), and those who proposed that signs are interpreted in a recursive pattern of triadic (i.e. three-part) relationships.


Dyadic signs

According to Saussure (1857-1913), a sign is composed of the signifier (signifiant), and the signified (signifié). These cannot be conceptualized as separate entities but rather as a mapping from significant differences in sound to potential (correct) differential denotation. The Saussurean sign exists only at the level of the synchronic system, in which signs are defined by their relative and hierarchical privileges of co-occurrence. It is thus a common misreading of Saussure to take signifiers to be anything one could speak, and signifieds as things in the world. In fact, the relationship of language to parole (or speech-in-context) is and always has been a theoretical problem for linguistics (cf. Roman Jakobson's famous essay "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics" et al.).

He is also important in emphasizing that the relationship between a sign and the real-world thing it denotes is an arbitrary one. There is not a natural relationship between a word and the object it refers to, nor is there a causal relationship between the inherent properties of the object and the nature of the sign used to denote it. For example, there is nothing about the physical quality of paper that requires denotation by the phonological sequence ‘paper’. There is, however, what Saussure called ‘relative motivation’: the possibilities of signification of a signifier are constrained by the compositionality of elements in the linguistic system (cf. Emile Benveniste's paper on the arbitrariness of the sign in the first volume of his papers on general linguistics). In other words, a word is only available to acquire a new meaning if it is identifiably different from all the other words in the language and it has no existing meaning. Structuralism was later based on this idea that it is only within a given system that one can define the distinction between the levels of system and use, or the semantic "value" of a sign.

Triadic signs

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) proposed a different theory. Unlike Saussure who approached the conceptual question from a study of linguistics and phonology, Peirce was a Kantian philosopher who distinguished "sign" from "word" as only a particular kind of sign, and characterized the sign as the means to understanding. The setting of Peirce's study of signs is philosophical logic, which he defined as the formal branch of semiotic. The result is not a theory of language, but a theory for the production of meaning that rejects the idea of a stable relationship between a signifier and its signified. Rather, Peirce believed that signs establish meaning through recursive relationships that arise in sets of three. The three main semiotic elements that he identifies are

  • Representamen: the sign, that which represents the denoted object (cf. Saussure's "signifier").
  • Object: that which the sign represents (or as some put it, encodes). It can be anything thinkable, a law, a fact, a possibility, or even fictional like Hamlet; those are partial objects; the total object is the universe of discourse. The object may be
    • immediate, the object as represented in the sign, or
    • dynamic, the object as it really is.
  • Interpretant: the meaning formed into a further sign by interpreting (or, as some put it, decoding) a sign. The interpretant may be:
    • immediate, i.e. the meaning already in the sign, a kind of possibility or a quality of feeling; for instance, a word's usual meaning;
    • dynamical, i.e. the meaning as formed into an actual effect, for example a translation or a state of agitation, or
    • final, i.e. the ultimate meaning that would be reached if investigation were to be pushed far enough. It is a kind of norm or ideal end, with which an actual interpretant may, at most, coincide.

Peirce explained that signs mediate the relationship between their objects and their interpretants in a triadic mental or mind-like process. Firstness is a universal category of phenomena and is associated with a vague state of mind in which there is awareness of the environment, a prevailing emotion, and a sense of the possibilities. This is the mind in neutral, waiting to formulate thought. Secondness is a category associated with moving from possibility to greater certainty shown by action, reaction, causality, or reality. Here the mind identifies what message is to be communicated. Thirdness is the category associated with signs, generality, representation, continuity, and purpose. The signs thought most likely to convey the intended meaning are selected and the communication process is initiated. This can involve interpersonal behaviour using nonverbal systems to supplement verbal meaning through intonation, facial expression, or gesture. It can involve, as in the exercise of producing this page, the writing and iterative editing process to arrive at the final selection of words now appearing.

This process is reversed in the receiver. The neutral mind acquires the sign. It recovers from memory the object normally associated with the sign and this produces the interpretant. This is the experience of intelligibility or the result of an act of signification (not necessarily as the signified in the sense intended by Saussure). When the second sign is considered, the initial interpretant may be confirmed, or new possible meanings may be identified. As each new sign is addressed, more interpretants may emerge. It can involve a mind's reading of nature, its icons (signs which are signs by resemblance to their objects) and its indices (signs by factual connection to their objects) as well as symbols (signs which represent by interpretive habit independent of resemblance or factual connection to their objects).

Peirce also refers to the “ground” of a sign. The ground is the pure abstraction of a quality. This is the respect in which the sign represents its object, e.g. as in literal and figurative language. For example, an icon presents a characteristic or quality attributed to an object, while a symbol imputes to an object a characteristic either presented by an icon or symbolized so as to evoke a mental icon.

Even when a sign represents by a resemblance or factual connection independent of interpretation, the sign is a sign only insofar as it is at least potentially interpretable. A sign depends on its object in a way which enables (and, in a sense, determines) interpretation which, in turn, depends on the object as the sign depends on the object and is thus a further sign, enabling and determining still further interpretation. The process is logically structured to perpetuate itself and is what defines sign, object, and interpretant. Hence, as phrased by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990: 7), "the process of referring effected by the sign is infinite."

According to Gilles-Gaston Granger (1968: 114), Peirce's representamen is, "...a thing which is connected in a certain way to a second sign, its 'object', in such a way that it brings a third sign, its 'interpretant,' into a relationship with the same 'object,' and this in such a way that it brings a fourth sign into a relationship with this same 'object,' and so on ad infinitum."

According to Nattiez, writing with Jean Molino, this tripartite definition is based on the "trace" or neutral level, Saussure's "sound-image" (or "signified", thus Peirce's "representamen"). Thus, "a symbolic not some 'intermediary' in a process of 'communication' that transmits the meaning intended by the author to the audience; it is instead the result of a complex process of creation (the poietic process) that has to do with the form as well as the content of the work; it is also the point of departure for a complex process of reception (the esthesic process that reconstructs a 'message'"). (ibid, p. 17)

Molino and Nattiez's diagram:

Poietic Process Esthesic Process
"Producer" Trace Receiver
(Nattiez 1990, p. 17)

Peirce's theory of the sign therefore offered a powerful analysis of the signification system and its codes because the focus was often on natural or cultural context rather than linguistics which only analyses usage in slow-time whereas, in the real world, there is an often chaotic blur of language and signal exchange during human semiotic interaction. Nevertheless, the implication that triadic relations are structured to perpetuate themselves leads to a level of complexity not usually experienced in the routine of message creation and interpretation. Hence, different ways of expressing the idea have been developed.

The Concept of Arbitrariness

the linguistic sign is arbitrary

According to Saussure, the relation between the signifier and the signified is "arbitrary", i.e. there is no direct connection between the shape and the concept (cf. Bussmann 1996: 434). For instance, there is no reason why the letters C-A-T (or the sound of these phonemes) produce exactly the image of the small, domesticated animal with fur, four legs and a tail in our minds. It is a result of "convention": speakers of the same language group have agreed (and learned) that these letters or sounds evoke a certain image.

Two concepts are often cited to disprove Saussure’s claim, however, he provides reasons as to why these concepts are irrelevant. They are:

Which applies only in a very limited number of cases, and stems from phonetic approximation of sounds, which can themselves evolve into a more standard linguistic sign, and

Which fall much to the same logic as onomatopoeia, as is demonstrated by comparisons of the same expression in two languages (e.g. the French aïe and the English ouch).

Likewise, the figures made in writing are arbitrary, and not connected to the sounds which they inspire. The only requirement is the ability to differentiate between separate figures, such as t, l and f, and that the difference in the symbols is understood by the collective consciousness (i.e. that "i" is recognized as "i" by all members of the community, no matter what word it is placed in).

Modern theories

It is now agreed that the effectiveness of the acts that may convert the message into text (including speaking, writing, drawing, music and physical movements) depends upon the knowledge of the sender. If the sender is not familiar with the current language, its codes and its culture then he or she will not be able to say anything at all, whether as a visitor in a different language area or because of a medical condition such as aphasia (see Roman Jakobson).

Modern theories deny the Saussurian distinction between signifier and signified, and look for meaning not in the individual signs, but in their context and the framework of potential meanings that could be applied. Such theories assert that language is a collective memory or cultural history of all the different ways in which meaning has been communicated and may, to that extent, be constitutive of all life's experiences (see Louis Hjelmslev).

This implies that speaking is simply one more form of behaviour and changes the focus of attention from the text as language, to the text as a representation of purpose, a functional version of the author's intention. But, once the message has been transmitted, the text exists independently.

Hence, although the writers who co-operated to produce this page exist, they can only be represented by the signs actually selected and presented here. The interpretation process in the receiver's mind may attribute meanings completely different from those intended by the senders. Why might this happen? Neither the sender nor the receiver of a text has a perfect grasp of all language. Each individual's relatively small stock of knowledge is the product of personal experience and their attitude to learning. When the audience receives the message, there will always be an excess of connotational meanings available to be applied to the particular signs in their context (no matter how relatively complete or incomplete their knowledge, the cognitive process is the same).

The first stage in understanding the message is, therefore, to suspend or defer judgement until more information becomes available. At some point, the individual receiver decides which of all the possible meanings represents the best possible "fit". Sometimes, uncertainty may not be resolved so meaning is indefinitely deferred, or a provisional or approximate meaning is allocated. More often, the receiver's desire for closure (see Gestalt psychology) leads to simple meanings being attributed out of prejudices and without reference to the sender's intentions.

See also


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