Sign

From a semiotic perspective, signs are a means by which people interpret and express meaning. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1966) proposed that a sign is a ‘double entity’ consisting of ‘signifier’ (a ‘sound image’) and ‘signified’ (the concept it represents). For Saussure the relation between the world and an internal representation is at the core of the sign; that is, the signified is a mental construct, a generalization away from a class of objects in the world. Signs are organized as classes – later termed ‘paradigm’ by the Danish linguist / semiotician Hjelmslev (1953) – of similar objects organized as systems of choices. In contrast, Charles Sanders Peirce (1955) suggested a triadic model, comprising the (form of the) sign (or ‘representamen’), an ‘object’ to which the sign refers and an ‘interpretant’, that is, the meaning of the relationship between the object and the sign / representamen for an interpreter. This foregrounds processes of semiosis as (ceaseless) sign production. A distinguishing feature of social semiotics (closely related to the Peircean conception) is the perspective that signs are constantly made anew (e.g. Kress, 1997). Peirce was interested in showing the different relations of the sign to the ‘object’. In an icon(ic sign), ‘likeness’ of sign and object is foregrounded; in an index(ical sign), some real relation between object and sign is in focus; in a symbol(ic sign), social power in the form of convention determines that the sign should be interpreted in a specific way. Signs provide a material way of understanding how people exchange meaning irrespective of the means by which they do it: these might be the lines of drawing, the sounds of speech or the movements of gesture, and so on. In encompassing all modes of representation and communication, theories of sign (or semiotics) cohere well with a multimodal methodology.

Editor: Diane Mavers
Other contributor: Gunther Kress

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

London: Routledge

Kress, G. (2010)
Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication

London: Routledge

van Leeuwen, T. (2005)
Introducing Social Semiotics
London: Routledge

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