What is a Sign in linguistic and semiotic view of language

What is a Sign in linguistic and semiotic view of language

Sign and Semiotics (the study of sign system) are one of the fundamental and a crucial element in the educational life of any translator. In fact, this concept is in a tight relationship with linguistics and semiotics. To define ‘sign’ and its associated concepts, a very important and basic source for this matter is used. Ferdinand de Saussure in his prominent work, A Course in General Linguistics has an entire chapter devoted to the definition of concepts of Sign, Signified and Signifier.1

Ferdinand de Saussure in the beginning section of this part starts criticizing those who regard language as a naming process only. In his view ready-made ideas do not exist before words, names don’t tell us whether it is a vocal or psychological thing, and finally, names let us assume that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation. But he regards this approach as a guide to come near to the truth: The linguistic unit (sign) is a double entity, one formed by the associating of two terms, a concept, and a sound-image. Sound image is not a physical, but a psychological imprint of a sound that makes on our senses, and therefore, is sensory.1

What is a Sign?

I call the combination of a concept and a sound-image a sign, but in current usage the term generally designates only a sound-image, a word, for example {arbor, etc.). One tends to forget that arbor is called a sign only because it carries the concept “tree,” with the result that the idea of the sensory part implies the idea of the whole. Ambiguity would disappear if the three notions involved here were designated by three names, each suggesting and opposing the others. I propose to retain the word sign to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified and signifier.

This is the definition of sign from Ferdinand de Saussure’s point of view. This important notation by Saussure has two general principles. The first principle is the fact that relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary. So, in short, linguistic sign (which is the combination of signifier and signified) is arbitrary too. Anything but that is not considered a linguistic sign. For example, symbols – often used Interchangeably with signifier – are not linguistic signs in this view, because there exists a natural bond between the signifier and signified. And by arbitrary, Saussure means that there isn’t any natural relationship between signifier and signified and the choice of the signifier is not left entirely to the speaker. The second principle, which is taken to be equally important as the first one, and, as stated, the whole mechanism of language depends upon it, is the linear nature of the signifier in time. “In contrast to visual signifiers (nautical signals, etc.) which can offer simultaneous groupings in several dimensions, auditory signifiers have at their command only the dimension of time. Their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain. This feature becomes readily apparent when they are represented in writing and the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time” 1

Sign through the lens of Charles Peirce

Charles Peirce is another prominent figure in philosophy who has his own definition of three kinds of signs with very detailed examples and definitions for each one. He defines three kinds of signs: Likeness or icons, indications or indices (index), and third, symbols or general signs. In his view, an icon represents an idea or thing simply by imitating, an index shows something about a thing based on its physical connection with it, and a symbol is associated with its meaning through usage. For him, this symbol is best exemplified in words, phrases, speeches, and books.2

Peirce himself argues that symbol has many meanings and he is not trying to give another meaning and definition to it. In his view any ordinary and agreed upon word is a symbol, and it does not, in itself, identify those things. The word ‘bird’ does not show us a bird but makes us imagine it, and associate the word with the actual bird (ibid., 9). In his view, as opposed to Saussure, a sign is a mixture of these three faces, likeness, indices and symbol and “in all reasoning, we have to use a mixture of likenesses, indices, and symbols. We cannot dispense with any of them. The complex whole may be called a symbol”. 2


To sum up, a sign is a basic element of the theory of sings that is defined as “Abstract class of all sensually perceivable signals that refer to the same object or state of affairs in the real world”. Saussure takes it to have a bilateral nature, the material sign (signifier) – or the “shape” of a word, its phonic component, i.e. the sequence of graphemes – and the conceptual sign (signified) – the ideational component, the concept or object that appears in our minds when we hear or read the signifier”. In contrast, Peirce “assume that the sign has a triadic structure and distinguish between the material sign, the signified, and the speaker”3

Please Note: This article is completely authored with keeping bibliographies and references and is by no means to be published elsewhere without citation to Dilmanj.com

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References and Notes

La Saussure F, Riedlinger A. Course in General Linguistics. Open Court Publishing; 1983.
Sanders Peirce C, Houser N. The Essential Peirce. Vol 2. Indiana University Press; 1998.
Bussmann H, Trauth G, Kazzazi K. Lexikon Der Sprachwissenschaft. Taylor & Francis; 1996.
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