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Linguistic sign theories

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2005 22 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Main part
2.1 Ferdinand de Saussure’s model
2.1.1 signifiant and signifié
2.1.2 concept and sound pattern
2.1.3 relation & value
2.1.4 arbitrariness & convention
2.2 Charles Sanders Peirce’s model
2.2.1 triadic model I: Representamen, Interpretant, Object
2.2.2 triadic model II: sign vehicle, sense, referent
2.2.3 index, icon and symbol
2.3 Karl Bühler’s model
2.3.1 Bühler’s first model
2.3.2 Bühler’s second model

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

We seem to be a species that is driven by “a desire to make meanings” (Chandler: 1995) by creating and interpreting signs. Indeed, it is a fact that “we think only in signs” (Peirce: 1931-58, II.302). These signs can have the shape of sounds, images, objects, acts or flavours. Since these things do not have an intrinsic meaning, we have to give them a meaning so that they can become signs. Peirce states that “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” (Peirce: 1931-58, II.172). This means that everything can become a sign as long as it ‘signifies’ something – refers to or stands for “something other than itself” (Chandler: 1995). Our interpretation of signs is an unconscious process in our minds as we constantly relate the signs we experience to a system of conventions that is familiar to us.

This system of conventions and the use of signs in general is what semiotics is about. There are three major models that give a detailed explanation of the constitution of a sign; these are the models of Ferdinand de Saussure’s, Charles Sanders Peirce’s and Karl Bühler’s model. At first, they will be presented in detail and secondly, there will be a brief discussion about them.

2. Main Part

2.1 Ferdinand de Saussure’s model

2.1.1 signifiant and signifié

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Saussure offered a “two-sided” (Saussure: 1983, 66) model of the linguistic sign, which may be represented by the following diagram (Fig. 1):

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Fig. 1 Fig. 2

Chandler: 1995

According to this diagram, the linguistic sign consists of a signifier, which can also be called a signifiant and a signified or signifié. Whereas the signifiant represents the form which the sign takes, the signifié represents the sign’s concept. The relationship between these two (– the signifiant and the signifié –) is called the signification and is shown by the two arrows that are on the diagram’s right and left side. As these arrows point in both directions, it is indicated that the elements of the sign are “intimately linked” (ibid) and “each triggers the other” (ibid). At last, there is a horizontal line between the signifiant and the signifié which is called the bar.

A linguistic example may be the word ‘book’: It is a sign that consists of, firstly, the signifiant - the word ‘book’ - and, secondly, the signifié - the concept we have in mind when we hear or read the word ‘book’. This example shows that it is not sufficient to have only a signifiant or only a signifié; a sign must consist of both, a signifiant AND a signifié. Moreover, a linguistic sign can only be a sign if there is a combination of these two elements.

Another example is Fig. 2: the ‘tree’ is the signifiant and what we have in mind when we hear or read the word ‘tree’ is the signifié.

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In addition, it is also important to mention that one signifiant can have different signifiés, such as the German word ‘Pferd’. In different contexts, this word can have three different meanings: it can be an animal, a figure in chess and an apparatus in sports (Fig. 3)[1].

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For Saussure, the sign with its two components – signifiant and signifié – is something “psychological [...,...] rather form than substance” (ibid). He states that a “linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound, for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a `material´ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. The sound pattern may thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is generally a more abstract kind: the concept” (ibid). This explanation brings us to another diagram, which is comparable to Fig. 1 (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 4

Saussure: 1983, 67

This diagram shows that Saussure preferred the spoken to (???)the written word; he uses the term image acoustique or sound pattern for it. According to his theory, writing is a ‘separate’ linguistic sign system, because it “is in itself not part of the internal system of the language” (Saussure: 1983, 24). Nevertheless, it is “impossible to ignore this way in which the language is constantly represented” (ibid.). To Saussure, writing really is important for Saussure; due to the fact that some languages are now dead, he is aware that they are only known because they were written down. However, it is the spoken word that is important for semiotics - not the written one. Although it is a fact that there is an important connection between the written and the spoken word, one has to concentrate on the last one in order to study the linguistic sign. Saussure compares this fact to a person and its photograph and declares: “It is rather as if people believed that in order to find out what a person looks like it is better to study his photograph than his face” (Saussure: 1983, 25).

Concerning the signifié in Saussure’s model (Fig. 3) it becomes obvious that it is a concept in the speaker’s mind; “it is not a thing, but the notion of a thing” (Chandler: 1995). To make clear what is meant by that, there will be an example from Susanne Langer in turn. She states that symbols – which is ‘her’ word for Saussure’s linguistic sign – “are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects [...] In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean” (Langer: 1951, 61). She even gives an example and declares “If I say ‘Napoleon’, you do not bow to the conqueror of Europe as though I had introduced him, but merely think of him” (ibid.).

Nevertheless, Saussure decided to use the terms signifiant and signifié to indicate a “distinction which separates each from the other” (Saussure: 1983, 67). He compares this with a sheet of paper: the signifiant (sound) is on one side and the signifié (thought) is on the other. It is impossible to cut only one side of the sheet without cutting the other. Therefore, it is impossible to separate thought from sound.

2.1.3 relation and value

However, in a linguistic system, “everything depends on relations” (Saussure: 1983, 121). This means that no sign can make sense if there is no relation to other signs. If we take the word ‘tree’ as a linguistic example: the word ‘tree’ makes sense for us, but only in a certain context and in relation to other words which are used. Another example may be the infinitive ‘to bark’. If we now take two sentences 1. ‘the dog barks’ and 2. *‘the cat barks’,

the first one obviously makes more sense than the second one, as the infinitive itself reminds us of a dog that barks and certainly not a cat, because cats – as we all know - do not bark. That is why the word ‘bark’ only makes sense if it is used in context with the word ‘dog’.

Saussure uses the term ‘ value ’ for signs that are in relation to other signs. He declares that signs do not have the same value in different contexts (see Fig. 5). He compares this thought with a game of chess, as “a state of the board in chess corresponds exactly to a state of the language” (Saussure: 1983, 88): first of all, each chess piece has a certain position on the chess board on which their value depends. Secondly, the value is not fixed, as it changes from one position to the next. Thirdly, there are rules for a game of chess that are fixed and cannot be changed; everybody has to obey them. At last, only one piece is needed to change the state of the chess game. Saussure sums this comparison up in a few words and states that in a chess game “any given state of the board is totally independent of any previous state of the board. It does not matter at all whether the state in question has been reached by one sequence of moves or another sequence. Anyone who has followed the whole game has not the least advantage over a passer-by who happens to look at the game [...]. All this applies equally to a language [...] Speech operates only upon a given linguistic state, and the changes which supervene between one state and another have no place in either” (ibid.). (There is only one point in which the comparison lacks Although, there is, in fact, one weak point of the comparison left: in the chess game, the player has an intention – he wants to make moves and change something on the board – whereas in the language system, “there is no premeditation” (ibid.)

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Fig. 5 Chandler: 1995

There are many more examples that prove the existence of value in language. Another one are the coins of each country, such as a two-Euro coin:

first of all, it is clear that the coin can be exchanged for other things, e.g. a coffee-to-go. Secondly, it can also be compared with other coins and therefore, other values, of a.) the same country, which then is the same system, such as a one-Euro coin or fifty-cent coin and b.) another country, which then is another system, such as a dollar.

Another example that even proves that the meaning of a sign is different from the value of a sign is the French word mouton. Although it has the same meaning as the English word sheep, it does not necessarily have the same value, because the English word for “the meat of this animal, as prepared and served for a meal, is not sheep but mutton.” (Saussure: 1983, 114). Due to the fact that the English has the word mutton for the meat, there is a difference between mouton and sheep because mouton covers both – the animal itself AND the meat.

2.1.4 arbitrariness and convention

Although it was stated before that the signifiant stands for or refers to the signifié, there “is no internal connection” (Saussure: 1983, 67) between a sound and the idea behind it; there is no reason why the sounds /teibl/ indicate the idea of a ‘table’, there is no reason why a ‘tree’ should be called ‘tree’ because the word itself does not indicate that there really is something ‘treeish’ about the ‘tree’. And, above all, there is no reason why the letter ‘t’ is pronounced /ti:/ and not /bi:/. That is why Saussure stressed the arbitrariness of signs. Arbitrariness simply means that the signs are unmotivated. Saussure argues that a language “is in no way limited in its choice of means. For there is nothing at all to prevent the association of any idea whatsoever with any sequence of sounds whatsoever” (Saussure: 1983, 76).

Even Plato was aware of the arbitrariness of signs and declared that “whatever name you give to a thing is its right name; and if you give up that name and change it for another, the later name is no less correct than the earlier, just as we change the name of our servants; for I think no name belongs to a particular thing by nature” (Harris: 1987, 67).

Plato’s statement shows one of the problems with the arbitrariness which were also seen by Saussure. Concerning his arbitrariness principle he also states that there cannot be a complete arbitrariness, as this would lead to a chaos in society and communication would not be possible any more. Therefore, a language “is not entirely arbitrary, for the system has a certain rationality” (Saussure: 1983, 73). And although it seems as if every signifiant is freely chosen by every linguistic community, this is not the fact. Due to the fact that “a language is always an inheritance from the past” (ibid.), society does not “establish a contract between concepts and sound patterns” (ibid.) as this establishment has happened in the past, so that the contract between these two already exists. Although society is aware of the principles of the arbitrariness of a linguistic sign, every society’s language is inherited and there is nothing else society can do, “but to accept” (ibid.). Moreover, it is also true that if an Englishman uses the words ‘book’ and ‘tree’, he does this only because his father and grand-father and so on have done it before. This, in turn, brings one to the following conclusion: “it is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary” (Saussure: 1983, 74). It becomes obvious that concerning the relationship between signifiant and signifié convention plays an important role as well; convention means that it is based on a social and cultural background. Easily stated, “a word means what it does to us only because we collectively agree to let it do so” (Chandler: 1995).

At last, there are, however, two examples that are against the arbitrary nature of signs:

1. Onomatopoeic words:

Onomatopoetic words have been introduced in a language after the language has come into existence. They are no “organic elements of a linguistic system” (Saussure: 1983, 69), as they are only imitations of certain sounds. These imitations are partly conventionalised, which is evident when we think of words like wauwau or kickericki in German. There are different o Onomatopoetic words in other languages, of course.

2. Injections:

Injections are spontaneous reactions of people in certain situations. As their signifiant does often not have anything to do with it signifié, it is very difficult to accept that there always has to be a link between these two. An example may be the French word ‘ diable ’. If someone exclaims this word, he does not necessarily call for the devil. Another example is the German ‘ au! ’; in another language this word does not have any meaning and although it does not have anything in common with ‘being hurt’ in our language, everybody knows what is meant by it.

For Saussure, the arbitrariness principle was most important and necessary when talking about linguistic signs. He even declared that “signs which are entirely arbitrary convey better than others the ideal semiological process. That is why the most complex and the most widespread of all systems of expression, which is the one we find in human languages, is also the most characteristic of all. In this sense, linguistics serves as a model for the whole of semiology, even though languages represent only one type of semiological system” (Saussure: 1983, 68).


[1] All examples that do not have a source afterwards are done by myself or were stated in the course.


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Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg



Titel: Linguistic sign theories