The notion of the ‘arbitrary sign’ suggests a relationship between signifier and signified where there is no apparent reason why a specific form should signify a specific meaning. With a focus on language, the Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure (1966) stressed that the relationship between the sound (or shape) of a spoken (or written) word and its meaning is ‘arbitrary and conventional’. The word ‘tree’, for example, does not give any (iconic) clues about what the thing being referred to looks like or what it is. From this perspective, any signifier might do for any signified: (social) power expressed as ‘convention’ acts to sustain the link between signifier and signified within a community. From a social semiotic perspective, this relation is always motivated. In sign making (rather than sign use) the sign maker selects a signifier for its aptness to the expression of a particular meaning. This applies to any mode of representation or communication, and hence is fundamental to (social semiotic) multimodal methodology. Framed by the sign-maker’s interest at the moment of making the sign, forms are chosen for their aptness in representing a criterial aspect of a particular phenomenon.

In relation to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), Kress (1993) addresses this issue in his seminal paper ‘Against arbitrariness’, where he argues that the assumption of a motivated relation between signifier and signified theorization has profound implications for the analyst and the possibilities of analyzing ‘utterances’ of any kind (in any mode). Interpreting communication is always a hypothesis that takes account of what can be known of the individual’s semiotic history and ‘interest’, the framing of the social environment and the relations of power at the moment of sign making.

See also: Aptness, Interest, Motivated sign, Signified, Signifier

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: Gunther Kress

Key References
Chandler, D. (2002)
Semiotics: The Basics
London: Routledge

Kress, G. (1993)
‘Against arbitrariness: the social production of the sign as a foundational issue in critical discourse analysis’
Discourse and Society 4(2): 169-191

Saussure, F. de (1966)
Course in General Linguistics

New York: McGraw-Hill

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