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Signified and signifier

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A generic diagram from de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics illustrating the relationship between signified (French: signifié) and signifier (signifiant)

In semiotics, signified and signifier (French: signifié and signifiant) are the two main components of a sign, where signified is what the sign represents or refers to, known as the "plane of content", and signifier which is the "plane of expression" or the observable aspects of the sign itself. The idea was first proposed in the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the two founders of semiotics.

Concept of signs[edit]

The concept of signs has been around for a long time, having been studied by many classic philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, William of Ockham, and Francis Bacon, among others.[1] The term semiotics derives from the Greek root seme, as in semeiotikos (an 'interpreter of signs').[2]: 4  It was not until the early part of the 20th century, however, that Saussure and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce brought the term into more common use.[3]

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. It was Saussure who created the terms signifier and signified in order to break down what a sign was. He diverged from the previous studies on language as he focused on the present in relation to the act of communication, rather than the history and development of words and language over time.[3]

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."[2]: 14  Postmodernist social theorist Jean Baudrillard spoke of hyperreality, referring to a copy becoming more real than reality, the signifier becoming more important than the signified.[4] 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.[2] Without Saussure's breakdown of signs into signified and signifier, however, these semioticians would not have had anything to base their concepts on.

Relation between signifier and signified[edit]

Saussure, in his 1916 Course in General Linguistics, divides the sign into two distinct components: the signifier ('sound-image') and the signified ('concept').[2]: 2  For Saussure, the signified and signifier are purely psychological: they are form rather than substance.[5]: 22 

Today, following Louis Hjelmslev, the signifier is interpreted as the conceptual material form, i.e. something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted; and the signified as the conceptual ideal form.[6]: 14  In other words, "contemporary commentators tend to describe the signifier as the form that the sign takes and the signified as the concept to which it refers."[7] The relationship between the signifier and signified is an arbitrary relationship: "there is no logical connection" between them.[2]: 9  This differs from a symbol, which is "never wholly arbitrary."[2]: 9  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.

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."[8]: 4  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 the meaning of a sign "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.[7]

It is this difference from other signs that allows the possibility of a speech community.[8]: 4  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."[2]: 10  Moreover, 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.

Depth psychology and philosophy[edit]


Jacques Lacan presented formulas for the ideas of the signified and the signifier in his texts and seminars, specifically repurposing Freud's ideas to describe the roles that the signified and the signifier serve as follows:

There is a 'barrier' of repression between Signifiers (the unconscious mind: 'discourse of the Other') and the signified […] a 'chain' of signifiers is analogous to the 'rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings' […] 'The signifier is that which represents a subject (fantasy-construct) for another signifier'.[9][10][11]

— Lacan, paraphrased

Floating signifier[edit]

Originating in an idea from Lévi-Strauss, the concept of floating signifiers, or empty signifiers, has since been repurposed in Lacanian theory as the concept of signifiers that are not linked to tangible things by any specific reference for them, and are "floating" or "empty" because of this separation. Slavoj Žižek defines this in The Sublime Object of Ideology as follows:

[T]he multitude of 'floating signifiers' […] is structured into a unified field through the intervention of a certain 'nodal point' (Lacanian point de capiton) which 'quilts' them [to] […] the 'rigid designator', which totalizes an ideology by bringing to a halt the metonymic sliding of its signified […] it is a signifier without the signified'.[12]


The signified is [an untranslatable, atmospheric irreducibility of the-chain-of-signifiers-abstracted]; the disclosed barrier (between the-chain-of-signifiers qua signified) is a metaphor-repression-transference journey through place.[20]


In their theory of schizoanalysis, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari made radical uses of the ideas of the signified and the signifier following Lacan. In A Thousand Plateaus, extending from their ideas of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, they developed the idea of "faciality" to refer to the interplay of signifiers in the process of subjectification and the production of subjectivity. The "face" in faciality is a system that "brings together a despotic wall of interconnected signifiers and passional black holes of subjective absorption".[21] Black holes, fixed on white walls which antagonized flows bounce off of, are the active destruction, or deterritorialization, of signs.[22] What makes the power exerted by the face of a subject possible is that, creating an intense initial confusion of meaning, it continues to signify through its persistent refusal to signify.[23]

Significance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies. Since all semiotics are mixed and strata come at least in twos, it should come as no surprise that a very special mechanism is situated at their intersection. Oddly enough, it is a face: the white wall/black hole system. […] The gaze is but secondary in relation to the gazeless eyes, to the black hole of faciality. The mirror is but secondary in relation to the white wall of faciality.[24]

What distinguishes this radical use and systemization of the signified and the signifier as interplaying in subjectivity from Lacan and Sartre as well as their philosophical predecessors in general is that, beyond a resolution with the oppressive forces of faciality and the dominance of the face, Deleuze and Guattari reproach the preservation of the face as a system of a tight regulation of signifiers and destruction of signs, declaring that "if human beings have a destiny, it is rather to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations".[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kalelioğlu, Murat (2018). A Literary Semiotics Approach to the Semantic Universe of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 11. ISBN 978-1527520189.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Berger, Arthur Asa. 2012. Media Analysis Techniques. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
  3. ^ a b Davis, Meredith; Hunt, Jamer (2017). Visual Communication Design: An Introduction to Design Concepts in Everyday Experience. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 135. ISBN 9781474221573.
  4. ^ Berger, Arthur Asa (2005). Media Analysis Techniques, Third Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. p. 14. ISBN 1412906830.
  5. ^ Berger, Arthur Asa. 2013. "Semiotics and Society." Soc 51(1):22–26.
  6. ^ Chandler, Daniel. 2017. Semiotics: The Basics. New York: Routledge.
  7. ^ a b Chandler, 2002, p. 18.
  8. ^ a b Cobley, Paul and Litza, Jansz. 1997. Introducing Semiotics, Maryland: National Bookworm Inc.
  9. ^ Smith, Joseph H.; Kerrigan, William, eds. (1983). Interpreting Lacan. Psychiatry and the Humanities. Vol. 6. Yale University Press. pp. 54, 168, 173, 199, 202, 219. ISBN 978-0-300-13581-7.
  10. ^ Bailly, Lionel (2020). "Real, Symbolic, Imaginary". Lacan: A Beginner's Guide. Oneworld Beginner’s Guides. Oneworld. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-85168-637-7. For Lacan, there are no signifieds in the unconscious, only signifiers.
  11. ^ Boothby, Richard (2001). Freud as Philosopher: metapsychology after Lacan. Routledge. pp. 13, 14. ISBN 0-415-92590-8. The Lacanian subject is 'strung along' by the unfolding of the chain of signifiers; its very being is conditioned by the organization of a linguistic code. ... For Lacan, the unconscious is 'the discourse of the Other.' Human desire is 'the desire of the Other.'
  12. ^ Žižek, Slavoj (1989). "Part II: Lack in the Other; Che Vuoi?". The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso. pp. 95, 109. ISBN 978-1-84467-300-1.
  13. ^ Barthes, Roland; Duisit, Lionel (1975). "An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative". New Literary History. 6 (2): 237–272. doi:10.2307/468419. JSTOR 468419. Retrieved 2022-01-18. A lyrical poem, for instance, is a vast metaphor possessing a single signified; to sum it up means to reveal the signified, an operation so drastic that it causes the identity of the poem to evaporate[.]
  14. ^ Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1987). "587 B.C.-A.D. 70: On Several Regimes of Signs". A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Massumi, Brian. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 112, 114. ISBN 978-1-85168-637-7. It is this amorphous ['atmospheric'] continuum that for the moment plays the role of the 'signified,' but it continually glides beneath the signifier, for which it serves only as a medium or wall; the specific forms of all contents dissolve in it. The atmospherization or mundanization of contents. Contents are abstracted. ... The signified constantly reimparts signifier, recharges it or produces more of it. The form always comes from the signifier. The ultimate signified is therefore the signifier itself, in its redundancy or 'excess.' ... communication and interpretation are what always serve to reproduce and produce signifier[s].
  15. ^ Ricoeur, Paul (1970). "Book III: Dialectic: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freud: 1. Epistemology: Between Psychology and Phenomenology: Psychoanalysis is not Phenomenology". Terry Lectures: Freud & Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Translated by Savage, Denis. Yale University Press. p. 402. ISBN 978-0-300-02189-9. [Leplanche and Leclaire] use the bar to express the double nature of repression: it is a barrier that separates the systems, and a relating that ties together the relations of signifier to signified...Metaphor is nothing other than repression, and vice versa[.]
  16. ^ Morris, Humphrey (1980). "The Need to Connect: Representations of Freud's Psychical Apparatus". In Smith, Joseph H. (ed.). The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will. Psychiatry and the Humanities. Vol. 4. Yale University Press. p. 312. ISBN 0-300-02405-3. Übertragen and metapherein are synonyms, both meaning to transfer, to carry over or beyond, and I. A. Richards pointed out a long time ago in The Philosophy of Rhetoric that what psychoanalysts call transference is another name for metaphor.
  17. ^ Fouad, Jehan Farouk; Alwakeel, Saeed (2013). "Representations of the Desert in Silko's 'Ceremony' and Al-Koni's 'The Bleeding of the Stone'". Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. 33 (The Desert: Human Geography and Symbolic Economy): 36–62. JSTOR 24487181. Retrieved 2022-02-20. The connection between 'place' and 'metaphor' is evident. Paul Ricœur remarks that 'as figure, metaphor constitutes a displacement and an extension of the meaning of words; its explanation is grounded in the theory of substitution ' (The Rule of Metaphor 3; italics added).
  18. ^ Cambray, Joseph; Carter, Linda (2004). "Analytic methods revisited". Analytical Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives in Jungian Analysis. Advancing Theory in Therapy. Routledge. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-58391-999-6. Metaphors in analysis are woven into narratives, which offer a creative domain for playful interaction and allow multiple strands of life to be interwoven. Psychoanalyst Arnold Modell (1997) argues that linguists, neurobiologists, and psychoanalysts can share a common paradigm through metaphor.
  19. ^ Guattari, Félix (2011) [1979]. The Machinic Unconscious: Essays in Schizoanalysis. Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series. Translated by Adkins, Taylor. Semiotext(e). p. 338. ISBN 978-1-58435-088-0. Paul Ricoeur [states...'T]hus, the signified is untranslatable[.']...From 'Signe et Sens,' Encyclopedia Universalis, 1975.
  20. ^ [13][14][15][16][17][18][19]
  21. ^ Bogue, Ronald (2003). Deleuze on Music, Painting and the Arts. Routledge. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-415-96608-5.
  22. ^ Morrione, Deems D. (2006). "When Signifiers Collide: Doubling, Semiotic Black Holes, and the Destructive Remainder of the American Un/Real". Cultural Critique (63): 157–173. JSTOR 4489250. Retrieved 2022-03-18. The semiotic black hole is...the destruction of the whole sign...that radically transforms the socius, possessing a gravitational pull that has the power to massively reshape and remotivate ... the semiotic black hole...[leaves] little or no trace of its influence. ... a collision of a fatal event and a perfect object[.] ... Temporality is constant motion; to mark a point in time is to freeze only that moment, to celebrate impression and deny expression.
  23. ^ Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy (1997). "Blankness as a Signifier". Critical Inquiry. 24 (1): 159–175. doi:10.1086/448870. JSTOR 1344162. S2CID 161209057. Retrieved 2022-03-18. The face signifies by refusing to signify. ... [Deleuze's] Bergsonianism...predicated on the idea of the surface—the plane and the point—as opposed to the form—the shape and its interior. ... The passage from Victorian horror vacui to the present is that passage, the passage from potentiality to instantaneity. If in the former blankness was not a sign, but rather the place for the sign, in the latter it has become signally characteristic of the surface of all the signs which exclude it with recognizability and narrative...[l]ying outside of art it would have to be art's subject.
  24. ^ Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1987). "Year Zero: Faciality". A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Massumi, Brian. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 167, 171. ISBN 978-1-85168-637-7.
  25. ^ ibid., pp. 171.


  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1959). Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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