In semiotics, a sign is 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, and include 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.
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, and those who proposed that signs are interpreted in a recursive pattern of triadic relationships.
According to Saussure (1857-1913), a sign is composed of the signifier, and the signified. 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 langue 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 its extralinguistic denotatum is arbitrary. There is neither 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). 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. It was the twin discoveries that 1) the distinction between the levels of system and use and 2) the semantic "value" of a sign could only be defined system-internally, that formed the basis of structuralism.
Charles 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 distinguishes "sign" from "word", and characterizes it as the mechanism for creating understanding. 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 first three distinct components he identifies were:
- object: anything that can be thought, whether as a concept or thing, so long as it is capable of being encoded in a sign;
- representamen: the sign that denotes the object (cf. Saussure's "signifier"); and
- interpretant: the meaning obtained by decoding or interpreting the sign which may be:
- immediate, i.e. the denotative meaning,
- dynamical, i.e. the meaning actually produced by the sign, or
- final, i.e. the meaning that would be produced if the sign were properly understood.
Peirce explained that signs mediate the relationship between their objects and their interpretants in a triadic mental process. Firstness is a general 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 moves 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 mode of signs shown in representation, continuity, order, and unity. The signs thought most likely to convey the intended meaning are selected and the communication process is initiated. This will involve either interpersonal behaviour using nonverbal systems to supplement verbal meaning through intonation, facial expression, or gesture, or 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.
But, Peirce also refers to the '‘ground'’ of a sign. This is the idea or principle which determines how the sign represents its object, e.g. as in literal and figurative language. The triadic relation between the ground, object, and interpretant of a sign may have its own signification, which may produce another triadic relation between the relation itself, its signfication, and the interpretation of that signification. 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 form...is 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 on the 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 would cycle "infinitely" 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.
It is now agreed that the effectiveness of the acts that may convert the message into text (including speaking, writing, drawing 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.
- Granger, G. G. (1968). Essai d'une philosophie du style. Paris: Colin.
- Jakobson, Roman. (1971). "Aphasia as a Linguistic Topic" in Selected Writings, Vol. 2: Word and Language. The Hague & Paris: Mouton.
- Jakobson, Roman & Halle, Morris. (1956). "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" in Fundamentals of Language. The Hague & Paris: Mouton.
- Peirce, Charles Sanders. (1960). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Volumes I and II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de (1922). Cours de linguistique générale. Actually written by Bally and Séchehaye, compiled from notebooks of Saussure's students 1907-1911.