Sign (semiotics)

From Academic Kids

In semiotics, a sign is generally defined as "something that stands for something else, to someone in some capacity" (Marcel Danesi and Paul Perron, "Analyzing Cultures"). It may be understood as a discrete unit of meaning. Signs are not limited to words but also include images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds - essentially all of the ways in which information can be processed and communicated by any sentient, reasoning mind.

Signs are elements that can be related together logically in a variety of different ways. Within semiotics there are two general schools of thought on the nature of sign relationships: those that believe signs are reducible to dyadic logic, and those that believe that signs require triadic relationships.


Dyadic signs

Ferdinand de Saussure famously defined a sign: "the linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material of sound, the impression that it makes on our senses: the sound-image is sensory, and if I happen to call it 'material,' it is only in that sense, and by way of opposing it to other terms of the association, the concept, which is generally more abstract." (1922: 98; English trans. 1959:66) "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 of '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 where designated by three names, each suggesting and opposing the others. I propose to retain the word sign to designate the whole, and to replaced concept and sound-image with signified and signifier; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from one another and from the whole of which they are parts." (1922: 99; trans. 1959: 67)

The dyadic definition tries to establish the dual nature of a sign (as expressed by Ferdinand de Saussure) where the sign is divided into the tangible part, called the signifier, and the conceptual part, the signified. It also posits the importance of both orientational and situational context in which a sign can mean - a sign has to mean something to someone for the notion of meaning to be relevant (if you like, an observer of the sign's meaning has to be present for the meaning to exist) and the way a sign means can change depending on the situation, culture and a few other variables.

Triadic signs

Charles Peirce, a contemporary of Saussure, proposed a different theory of signs that is not dependent upon a stable relationship between the signifier and signified. Signs establish meaning by means of relating other signs together. He identified three distinct parts to a sign:

  • object - the concept that the sign encodes
  • representamen - the perceivable part of the sign, Saussure's "signifier"
  • interpretant - the meaning one obtains from the sign

Peirce's triadic notion of signs requires that relationships between one sign and another have to be mediated by a third sign. In this view, the mediating sign is the only way to express the nature of the relationship between the signs. Excluding this third sign limits the possible relational expression to simple co-occurrence or similarity (a static relationship). The interpretant is also a sign, and thus, as phrased by Nattiez (1990: 7), "the process of referring effected by the sign is infinite."

According to Gilles-Gaston Granger (1968: 114), for Pierce a 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 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, after Jean Molino, this tripartite definition is based on the "trace" or neutral level, Saussure's "sound-image" (or "signified", thus Pierce'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 proces that reconstructs a 'message.'") (ibid, p.17)

Molino and Nattiez's diagram:

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


  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1922). Cours de linguistique générale. Actually written by Bally and Séchehaye, compiled from notebooks of Saussure's students 1907-1911.
  • Peirce, C. S. (1931-1935). Collected Papers, vols. 1-6 L. Hartshorne and R. Weiss, eds; vols. 7 and 8 T. Burks, ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Granger, G. G. (1968). Essai d'une philosophie du style. Paris: Colin.

See also

External links



Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools