Signified and signifier
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The present age [...] prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence [...]." -- The Essence of Christianity (1841) by Ludwig Feuerbach
The terms signified and signifier are most commonly related to semiotics, which is defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as "the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation". Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, was one of the two founders of semiotics. His book, Course in General Linguistics "is considered to be one of the most influential books published in the twentieth century". Saussure explained that a sign was not only a sound-image but also a concept. Thus he divided the sign into two components: the signifier (or "sound-image") and the signified (or "concept"). For Saussure, the signified and signifier were purely psychological; they were form rather than substance. Today, following Hjelmslev, the signifier is interpreted as the material form (something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted) and the signified as the mental concept.
The concept of signs has been around for a long time, having been studied by many philosophers who include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and others from the medieval period such as William of Ockham. The term "semiotics" "comes from the Greek root, seme, as in semeiotikos, an interpreter of signs". It wasn't until the 20th century, however, that Saussure and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce brought the term into awareness. While both Saussure and Peirce contributed greatly to the concept of signs, it is important to note that each differed in their approach to the study, and it was Saussure who created the terms signifier and signified in order to break down what a sign was.
Succeeding these founders were numerous philosophers and linguists who defined themselves as semioticians. These semioticians have each brought their own concerns to the study of signs. Umberto Eco (1976), a distinguished Italian semiotician, came to the conclusion that "if signs can be used to tell the truth, they can also be used to lie". Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard spoke of hyperreality, which referred to a copy becoming more real than reality. In other words, how the signified becomes more important than the signifier . Then French semiotician Roland Barthes used signs to explain the concept of connotation – cultural meanings attached to words – and denotation – literal or explicit meanings of words. Without Saussure's breakdown of signs into signified and signifier, however, these semioticians would not have had anything to base their concepts on.
Today, "contemporary commentators tend to describe the signifier as the form that the sign takes and the signified as the concept to which it refers". The relationship between the signifier and signified is an arbitrary relationship. In other words, "there is no logical connection" between them. This differs from a symbol, which is "never wholly arbitrary". The idea that both the signifier and the signified are inseparable is explained by Saussure's diagram, which shows how both components coincide to create the sign.
So the question is, how do signifiers create meaning and how do we know what that meaning is? In order to understand how the signifier and signified relate to each other, one must be able to interpret signs. "The only reason that the signifier does entail the signified is because there is a conventional relationship at play". That is, a sign can only be understood when the relationship between the two components that make up the sign are agreed upon. Saussure argued that a sign's "meaning depends on its relation to other words within the system" (for example, to understand an individual word such as "tree", one must also understand the word "bush" and how the two relate to each other). It is this difference from other signs that allows the possibility of a speech community. However we need to remember that signifiers and their significance change all the time, becoming "dated". It is in this way that we are all "practicing semioticians who pay a great deal of attention to signs… even though we may never have heard them before" And while words are the most familiar form signs take, they stand for many things within life, such as advertisement, objects, body language, music, and so on. Therefore, the use of signs, and the two components that make up a sign, can be and are – whether consciously or not – applied to everyday life.