We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans - meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of 'signs'. Indeed, according to Peirce, 'we think only in signs' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. 'Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign', declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as 'signifying' something - referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.
The two dominant models of what constitutes a sign are those of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. These will be discussed in turn.
The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as 'signification', and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as 'the bar'.
If we take a linguistic example, the word 'Open' (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:
A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure 1983, 101; Saussure 1974, 102-103). A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The same signifier (the word 'open') could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift ('push to open door'). Similarly, many signifiers could stand for the concept 'open' (for instance, on top of a packing carton, a small outline of a box with an open flap for 'open this end') - again, with each unique pairing constituting a different sign.
Nowadays, whilst the basic 'Saussurean' model is commonly adopted, it tends to be a more materialistic model than that of Saussure himself. The signifier is now commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign - it is something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted. For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were purely 'psychological' (Saussure 1983, 12, 14-15, 66; Saussure 1974, 12, 15, 65-66). Both were form rather than substance:
Saussure was focusing on the linguistic sign (such as a word) and he 'phonocentrically' privileged the spoken word, referring specifically to the image acoustique ('sound-image' or 'sound pattern'), seeing writing as a separate, secondary, dependent but comparable sign system (Saussure 1983, 15, 24-25, 117; Saussure 1974, 15, 16, 23-24, 119). Within the ('separate') system of written signs, a signifier such as the written letter 't' signified a sound in the primary sign system of language (and thus a written word would also signify a sound rather than a concept). Thus for Saussure, writing relates to speech as signifier to signified. Most subsequent theorists who have adopted Saussure's model are content to refer to the form of linguistic signs as either spoken or written. We will return later to the issue of the post-Saussurean 'rematerialization' of the sign.
As for the signified, most commentators who adopt Saussure's model still treat this as a mental construct, although they often note that it may nevertheless refer indirectly to things in the world. Saussure's original model of the sign 'brackets the referent': excluding reference to objects existing in the world. His signified is not to be identified directly with a referent but is a concept in the mind - not a thing but the notion of a thing. Some people may wonder why Saussure's model of the sign refers only to a concept and not to a thing. An observation from the philosopher Susanne Langer (who was not referring to Saussure's theories) may be useful here. Note that like most contemporary commentators, Langer uses the term 'symbol' to refer to the linguistic sign (a term which Saussure himself avoided): 'Symbols 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. Behaviour towards conceptions is what words normally evoke; this is the typical process of thinking'. She adds that 'If I say "Napoleon", you do not bow to the conqueror of Europe as though I had introduced him, but merely think of him' (Langer 1951, 61).
Thus, for Saussure the linguistic sign is wholly immaterial - although he disliked referring to it as 'abstract' (Saussure 1983, 15; Saussure 1974, 15). The immateriality of the Saussurean sign is a feature which tends to be neglected in many popular commentaries. If the notion seems strange, we need to remind ourselves that words have no value in themselves - that is their value. Saussure noted that it is not the metal in a coin that fixes its value (Saussure 1983, 117; Saussure 1974, 118). Several reasons could be offered for this. For instance, if linguistic signs drew attention to their materiality this would hinder their communicative transparency (Langer 1951, 73). Furthermore, being immaterial, language is an extraordinarily economical medium and words are always ready-to-hand. Nevertheless, a principled argument can be made for the revaluation of the materiality of the sign, as we shall see in due course.
Saussure noted that his choice of the terms signifier and signified helped to indicate 'the distinction which separates each from the other' (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). Despite this, and the horizontal bar in his diagram of the sign, Saussure stressed that sound and thought (or the signifier and the signified) were as inseparable as the two sides of a piece of paper (Saussure 1983, 111; Saussure 1974, 113). They were 'intimately linked' in the mind 'by an associative link' - 'each triggers the other' (Saussure 1983, 66; Saussure 1974, 66). Saussure presented these elements as wholly interdependent, neither pre-existing the other (Silverman 1983, 103). Within the context of spoken language, a sign could not consist of sound without sense or of sense without sound. He used the two arrows in the diagram to suggest their interaction. The bar and the opposition nevertheless suggests that the signifier and the signified can be distinguished for analytical purposes. Poststructuralist theorists criticize the clear distinction which the Saussurean bar seems to suggest between the signifier and the signified; they seek to blur or erase it in order to reconfigure the sign or structural relations. Some theorists have argued that 'the signifier is always separated from the signified... and has a real autonomy' (Lechte 1994, 68), a point to which we will return in discussing the arbitrariness of the sign. Commonsense tends to insist that the signified takes precedence over, and pre-exists, the signifier: 'look after the sense', quipped Lewis Carroll, 'and the sounds will take care of themselves' (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 9). However, in dramatic contrast, post-Saussurean theorists have seen the model as implicitly granting primacy to the signifier, thus reversing the commonsensical position.
Louis Hjelmslev used the terms 'expression' and 'content' to refer to the signifier and signified respectively (Hjelmslev 1961, 47ff). The distinction between signifier and signified has sometimes been equated to the familiar dualism of 'form and content'. Within such a framework the signifier is seen as the form of the sign and the signified as the content. However, the metaphor of form as a 'container' is problematic, tending to support the equation of content with meaning, implying that meaning can be 'extracted' without an active process of interpretation and that form is not in itself meaningful (Chandler 1995 104-6).
Saussure argued that signs only make sense as part of a formal, generalized and abstract system. His conception of meaning was purely structural and relational rather than referential: primacy is given to relationships rather than to things (the meaning of signs was seen as lying in their systematic relation to each other rather than deriving from any inherent features of signifiers or any reference to material things). Saussure did not define signs in terms of some 'essential' or intrinsic nature. For Saussure, signs refer primarily to each other. Within the language system, 'everything depends on relations' (Saussure 1983, 121; Saussure 1974, 122). No sign makes sense on its own but only in relation to other signs. Both signifier and signified are purely relational entities (Saussure 1983, 118; Saussure 1974, 120). This notion can be hard to understand since we may feel that an individual word such as 'tree' does have some meaning for us, but its meaning depends on its context in relation to the other words with which it is used.
Together with the 'vertical' alignment of signifier and signified within each individual sign (suggesting two structural 'levels'), the emphasis on the relationship between signs defines what are in effect two planes - that of the signifier and the signifier. Later, Louis Hjelmslev referred to the planes of 'expression' and 'content' (Hjelmslev 1961, 60). Saussure himself referred to sound and thought as two distinct but correlated planes. 'We can envisage... the language... as a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously imprinted both on the plane of vague, amorphous thought (A), and on the equally featureless plane of sound (B)' (Saussure 1983, 110-111; Saussure 1974, 112). The arbitrary division of the two continua into signs is suggested by the dotted lines whilst the wavy (rather than parallel) edges of the two 'amorphous' masses suggest the lack of any 'natural' fit between them. The gulf and lack of fit between the two planes highlights their relative autonomy. Whilst Saussure is careful not to refer directly to 'reality', Fredric Jameson reads into this feature of Saussure's system that 'it is not so much the individual word or sentence that "stands for" or "reflects" the individual object or event in the real world, but rather that the entire system of signs, the entire field of the langue, lies parallel to reality itself; that it is the totality of systematic language, in other words, which is analogous to whatever organized structures exist in the world of reality, and that our understanding proceeds from one whole or Gestalt to the other, rather than on a one-to-one basis' (Jameson 1972, 32-33).
What Saussure refers to as the 'value' of a sign depends on its relations with other signs within the system - a sign has no 'absolute' value independent of this context (Saussure 1983, 80; Saussure 1974, 80). Saussure uses an analogy with the game of chess, noting that the value of each piece depends on its position on the chessboard (Saussure 1983, 88; Saussure 1974, 88). The sign is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst signification - what is signified - clearly depends on the relationship between the two parts of the sign, the value of a sign is determined by the relationships between the sign and other signs within the system as a whole (Saussure 1983, 112-113; Saussure 1974, 114).
As an example of the distinction between signification and value, Saussure notes that 'The French word mouton may have the same meaning as the English word sheep; but it does not have the same value. There are various reasons for this, but in particular the fact that the English word for the meat of this animal, as prepared and served for a meal, is not sheep but mutton. The difference in value between sheep and mouton hinges on the fact that in English there is also another word mutton for the meat, whereas mouton in French covers both' (Saussure 1983, 114; Saussure 1974, 115-116).
Saussure's relational conception of meaning was specifically differential: he emphasized the differences between signs. Language for him was a system of functional differences and oppositions. 'In a language, as in every other semiological system, what distinguishes a sign is what constitutes it' (Saussure 1983, 119; Saussure 1974, 121). As John Sturrock points out, 'a one-term language is an impossibility because its single term could be applied to everything and differentiate nothing; it requires at least one other term to give it definition' (Sturrock 1979, 10). Advertising furnishes a good example of this notion, since what matters in 'positioning' a product is not the relationship of advertising signifiers to real-world referents, but the differentiation of each sign from the others to which it is related. Saussure's concept of the relational identity of signs is at the heart of structuralist theory. Structuralist analysis focuses on the structural relations which are functional in the signifying system at a particular moment in history. 'Relations are important for what they can explain: meaningful contrasts and permitted or forbidden combinations' (Culler 1975, 14).
Saussure emphasized in particular negative, oppositional differences between signs, and the key relationships in structuralist analysis are binary oppositions (such as nature/culture, life/death). Saussure argued that 'concepts... are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not' (Saussure 1983, 115; Saussure 1974, 117; my emphasis). This notion may initially seem mystifying if not perverse, but the concept of negative differentiation becomes clearer if we consider how we might teach someone who did not share our language what we mean by the term 'red'. We would be unlikely to make our point by simply showing them a range of different objects which all happened to be red - we would be probably do better to single out a red object from a sets of objects which were identical in all respects except colour. Although Saussure focuses on speech, he also noted that in writing, 'the values of the letter are purely negative and differential' - all we need to be able to do is to distinguish one letter from another (Saussure 1983, 118; Saussure 1974, 119-120). As for his emphasis on negative differences, Saussure remarks that although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, the sign in which they are combined is a positive term. He adds that 'the moment we compare one sign with another as positive combinations, the term difference should be dropped... Two signs... are not different from each other, but only distinct. They are simply in opposition to each other. The entire mechanism of language... is based on oppositions of this kind and upon the phonic and conceptual differences they involve' (Saussure 1983, 119; Saussure 1974, 120-121).
Although the signifier is treated by its users as 'standing for' the signified, Saussurean semioticians emphasize that there is no necessary, intrinsic, direct or inevitable relationship between the signifier and the signified. Saussure stressed the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure 1983, 67, 78; Saussure 1974, 67, 78) - more specifically the arbitrariness of the link between the signifier and the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). He was focusing on linguistic signs, seeing language as the most important sign system; for Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the sign was the first principle of language (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67) - arbitrariness was identified later by Charles Hockett as a key 'design feature' of language (Hockett 1958; Hockett 1960; Hockett 1965). The feature of arbitrariness may indeed help to account for the extraordinary versatility of language (Lyons 1977, 71). In the context of natural language, Saussure stressed that there is no inherent, essential, 'transparent', self-evident or 'natural' connection between the signifier and the signified - between the sound or shape of a word and the concept to which it refers (Saussure 1983, 67, 68-69, 76, 111, 117; Saussure 1974, 67, 69, 76, 113, 119). Note that Saussure himself avoids directly relating the principle of arbitrariness to the relationship between language and an external world, but that subsequent commentators often do, and indeed, lurking behind the purely conceptual 'signified' one can often detect Saussure's allusion to real-world referents (Coward & Ellis 1977, 22). In language at least, the form of the signifier is not determined by what it signifies: there is nothing 'treeish' about the word 'tree'. Languages differ, of course, in how they refer to the same referent. No specific signifier is 'naturally' more suited to a signified than any other signifier; in principle any signifier could represent any signified. Saussure observed that 'there is nothing at all to prevent the association of any idea whatsoever with any sequence of sounds whatsoever' (Saussure 1983, 76; Saussure 1974, 76); 'the process which selects one particular sound-sequence to correspond to one particular idea is completely arbitrary' (Saussure 1983, 111; Saussure 1974, 113).
This principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign was not an original conception: Aristotle had noted that 'there can be no natural connection between the sound of any language and the things signified' (cited in Richards 1932, 32). In Plato's Cratylus Hermogenes urged Socrates to accept 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' (cited in Harris 1987, 67). 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet', as Shakespeare put it. Whilst the notion of the arbitrariness of language was not new, but the emphasis which Saussure gave it can be seen as an original contribution, particularly in the context of a theory which bracketed the referent. Note that although Saussure prioritized speech, he also stressed that 'the signs used in writing are arbitrary, The letter t, for instance, has no connection with the sound it denotes' (Saussure 1983, 117; Saussure 1974, 119).
The arbitrariness principle can be applied not only to the sign, but to the whole sign-system. The fundamental arbitrariness of language is apparent from the observation that each language involves different distinctions between one signifier and another (e.g. 'tree' and 'free') and between one signified and another (e.g. 'tree' and 'bush'). The signified is clearly arbitrary if reality is perceived as a seamless continuum (which is how Saussure sees the initially undifferentiated realms of both thought and sound): where, for example, does a 'corner' end? Commonsense suggests that the existence of things in the world preceded our apparently simple application of 'labels' to them (a 'nomenclaturist' notion which Saussure rejected and to which we will return in due course). Saussure noted that 'if words had the job of representing concepts fixed in advance, one would be able to find exact equivalents for them as between one language and another. But this is not the case' (Saussure 1983, 114-115; Saussure 1974, 116). Reality is divided up into arbitrary categories by every language and the conceptual world with which each of us is familiar could have been divided up very differently. Indeed, no two languages categorize reality in the same way. As John Passmore puts it, 'Languages differ by differentiating differently' (cited in Sturrock 1986, 17). Linguistic categories are not simply a consequence of some predefined structure in the world. There are no 'natural' concepts or categories which are simply 'reflected' in language. Language plays a crucial role in 'constructing reality'.
If one accepts the arbitrariness of the relationship between signifier and signified then one may argue counter-intuitively that the signified is determined by the signifier rather than vice versa. Indeed, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in adapting Saussurean theories, sought to highlight the primacy of the signifier in the psyche by rewriting Saussure's model of the sign in the form of a quasi-algebraic sign in which a capital 'S' (representing the signifier) is placed over a lower case and italicized 's' (representing the signified), these two signifiers being separated by a horizontal 'bar' (Lacan 1977, 149). This suited Lacan's purpose of emphasizing how the signified inevitably 'slips beneath' the signifier, resisting our attempts to delimit it. Lacan poetically refers to Saussure's illustration of the planes of sound and thought as 'an image resembling the wavy lines of the upper and lower Waters in miniatures from manuscripts of Genesis; a double flux marked by streaks of rain', suggesting that this can be seen as illustrating the 'incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier' - although he argues that one should regard the dotted vertical lines not as 'segments of correspondence' but as 'anchoring points' (points de capiton - literally, the 'buttons' which anchor upholstery to furniture). However, he notes that this model is too linear, since 'there is in effect no signifying chain that does not have, as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units, a whole articulation of relevant contexts suspended 'vertically', as it were, from that point' (ibid., 154). In the spirit of the Lacanian critique of Saussure's model, subsequent theorists have emphasized the temporary nature of the bond between signifier and signified, stressing that the 'fixing' of 'the chain of signifiers' is socially situated (Coward & Ellis 1977, 6, 13, 17, 67). Note that whilst the intent of Lacan in placing the signifier over the signified is clear enough, his representational strategy seems a little curious, since in the modelling of society orthodox Marxists routinely represent the fundamental driving force of 'the [techno-economic] base' as (logically) below 'the [ideological] superstructure'.
The arbitrariness of the sign is a radical concept because it proposes the autonomy of language in relation to reality. The Saussurean model, with its emphasis on internal structures within a sign system, can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not 'reflect' reality but rather constructs it. We can use language 'to say what isn't in the world, as well as what is. And since we come to know the world through whatever language we have been born into the midst of, it is legitimate to argue that our language determines reality, rather than reality our language' (Sturrock 1986, 79). In their book The Meaning of Meaning, Ogden and Richards criticized Saussure for 'neglecting entirely the things for which signs stand' (Ogden & Richards 1923, 8). Later critics have lamented his model's detachment from social context (Gardiner 1992, 11). Robert Stam argues that by 'bracketing the referent', the Saussurean model 'severs text from history' (Stam 2000, 122). We will return to this theme of the relationship between language and 'reality' in our discussion of 'modality and representation'.
The arbitrary aspect of signs does help to account for the scope for their interpretation (and the importance of context). There is no one-to-one link between signifier and signified; signs have multiple rather than single meanings. Within a single language, one signifier may refer to many signifieds (e.g. puns) and one signified may be referred to by many signifiers (e.g. synonyms). Some commentators are critical of the stance that the relationship of the signifier to the signified, even in language, is always completely arbitrary (e.g. Lewis 1991, 29). Onomatopoeic words are often mentioned in this context, though some semioticians retort that this hardly accounts for the variability between different languages in their words for the same sounds (notably the sounds made by familiar animals) (Saussure 1983, 69; Saussure 1974, 69).
Saussure declares that 'the entire linguistic system is founded upon the irrational principle that the sign is arbitrary'. This provocative declaration is followed immediately by the acknowledgement that 'applied without restriction, this principle would lead to utter chaos' (Saussure 1983, 131; Saussure 1974, 133). If linguistic signs were to be totally arbitrary in every way language would not be a system and its communicative function would be destroyed. He concedes that 'there exists no language in which nothing at all is motivated' (ibid.). Saussure admits that 'a language is not completely arbitrary, for the system has a certain rationality' (Saussure 1983, 73; Saussure 1974, 73). The principle of arbitrariness does not mean that the form of a word is accidental or random, of course. Whilst the sign is not determined extralinguistically it is subject to intralinguistic determination. For instance, signifiers must constitute well-formed combinations of sounds which conform with existing patterns within the language in question. Furthermore, we can recognize that a compound noun such as 'screwdriver' is not wholly arbitrary since it is a meaningful combination of two existing signs. Saussure introduces a distinction between degrees of arbitrariness:
Here then Saussure modifies his stance somewhat and refers to signs as being 'relatively arbitrary'. Some subsequent theorists (echoing Althusserian Marxist terminology) refer to the relationship between the signifier and the signified in terms of 'relative autonomy' (Tagg 1988, 167; Lechte 1994, 150). The relative conventionality of relationships between signified and signifier is a point to which I return below.
It should be noted that whilst the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds are ontologically arbitrary (philosophically, it would not make any difference to the status of these entities in 'the order of things' if what we call 'black' had always been called 'white' and vice versa), this is not to suggest that signifying systems are socially or historically arbitrary. Natural languages are not, of course, arbitrarily established, unlike historical inventions such as Morse Code. Nor does the arbitrary nature of the sign make it socially 'neutral' or materially 'transparent' - for example, in Western culture 'white' has come to be a privileged signifier (Dyer 1997). Even in the case of the 'arbitrary' colours of traffic lights, the original choice of red for 'stop' was not entirely arbitrary, since it already carried relevant associations with danger. As Lévi-Strauss noted, the sign is arbitrary a priori but ceases to be arbitrary a posteriori - after the sign has come into historical existence it cannot be arbitrarily changed (Lévi-Strauss 1972, 91). As part of its social use within a code (a term which became fundamental amongst post-Saussurean semioticians), every sign acquires a history and connotations of its own which are familiar to members of the sign-users' culture. Saussure remarked that although the signifier 'may seem to be freely chosen', from the point of view of the linguistic community it is 'imposed rather than freely chosen' because 'a language is always an inheritance from the past' which its users have 'no choice but to accept' (Saussure 1983, 71-72; Saussure 1974, 71). Indeed, 'it is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and [it is] because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary' (Saussure 1983, 74; Saussure 1974, 74). The arbitrariness principle does not, of course mean that an individual can arbitrarily choose any signifier for a given signified. The relation between a signifier and its signified is not a matter of individual choice; if it were then communication would become impossible. 'The individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in the linguistic community' (Saussure 1983, 68; Saussure 1974, 69). From the point-of-view of individual language-users, language is a 'given' - we don't create the system for ourselves. Saussure refers to the language system as a non-negotiable 'contract' into which one is born (Saussure 1983, 14; Saussure 1974, 14) - although he later problematizes the term (ibid., 71). The ontological arbitrariness which it involves becomes invisible to us as we learn to accept it as 'natural'.
The Saussurean legacy of the arbitrariness of signs leads semioticians to stress that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is conventional - dependent on social and cultural conventions. This is particularly clear in the case of the linguistic signs with which Saussure was concerned: a word means what it does to us only because we collectively agree to let it do so. Saussure felt that the main concern of semiotics should be 'the whole group of systems grounded in the arbitrariness of the sign'. He argued 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; Saussure 1974, 68). He did not in fact offer many examples of sign systems other than spoken language and writing, mentioning only: the deaf-and-dumb alphabet; social customs; etiquette; religious and other symbolic rites; legal procedures; military signals and nautical flags (Saussure 1983, 15, 17, 68, 74; Saussure 1974, 16, 17, 68, 73). Saussure added that 'any means of expression accepted in a society rests in principle upon a collective habit, or on convention - which comes to the same thing' (Saussure 1983, 68; Saussure 1974, 68). However, whilst purely conventional signs such as words are quite independent of their referents, other less conventional forms of signs are often somewhat less independent of them. Nevertheless, since the arbitary nature of linguistic signs is clear, those who have adopted the Saussurean model have tended to avoid 'the familiar mistake of assuming that signs which appear natural to those who use them have an intrinsic meaning and require no explanation' (Culler 1975, 5).
At around the same time as Saussure was formulating his model of the sign, of 'semiology' and of a structuralist methodology, across the Atlantic independent work was also in progress as the pragmatist philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce formulated his own model of the sign, of 'semiotic' and of the taxonomies of signs. In contrast to Saussure's model of the sign in the form of a 'self-contained dyad', Peirce offered a triadic model:
'A sign... [in the form of a representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as 'semiosis' (ibid., 5.484). Within Peirce's model of the sign, the traffic light sign for 'stop' would consist of: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles halting (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).
Peirce's model of the sign includes an object or referent - which does not, of course, feature directly in Saussure's model. The representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure's signifier whilst the interpretant is similar in meaning to the signified (Silverman 1983, 15). However, the interpretant has a quality unlike that of the signified: it is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter. Peirce noted that 'a sign... addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). Umberto Eco uses the phrase 'unlimited semiosis' to refer to the way in which this could lead (as Peirce was well aware) to a series of successive interpretants (potentially) ad infinitum (ibid., 1.339, 2.303). Elsewhere Peirce added that 'the meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation' (ibid., 1.339). Any initial interpretation can be re-interpreted. That a signified can itself play the role of a signifier is familiar to anyone who uses a dictionary and finds themselves going beyond the original definition to look up yet another word which it employs. This concept can be seen as going beyond Saussure's emphasis on the value of a sign lying in its relation to other signs and it was later to be developed more radically by poststructuralist theorists. Another concept which is alluded to within Peirce's model which has been taken up by later theorists but which was explicitly excluded from Saussure's model is the notion of dialogical thought. It stems in part from Peirce's emphasis on 'semiosis' as a process which is in distinct contrast to Saussure's synchronic emphasis on structure (Peirce 1931-58, 5.484, 5.488). Peirce argued that 'all thinking is dialogic in form. Your self of one instant appeals to your deeper self for his assent' (Peirce 1931-58, 6.338). This notion resurfaced in a more developed form in the 1920s in the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1981). One important aspect of this is its characterization even of internal reflection as fundamentally social.
Peirce, clearly fascinated by tripartite structures, made a phenomenological distinction between the sign itself [or the representamen] as an instance of 'Firstness', its object as an instance of 'Secondness' and the interpretant as an instance of 'Thirdness'. Such unfamiliar terms are relatively modest examples of Peircean coinages, and the complexity of his terminology and style has been a factor in limiting the influence of a distinctively Peircean semiotics.
Variants of Peirce's triad are often presented as 'the semiotic triangle' (as if there were only one version). Here is a version which is quite often encountered and which changes only the unfamiliar Peircean terms (Nöth 1990, 89):
One fairly well-known semiotic triangle is that of Ogden and Richards, in which the terms used are (a) 'symbol', (b) 'thought or reference' and (c) 'referent' (Ogden & Richards 1923, 14). The broken line at the base of the triangle is intended to indicate that there is not necessarily any observable or direct relationship between the sign vehicle and the referent. Unlike Saussure's abstract signified (which is analogous to term B rather than to C) the referent is an 'object'. This need not exclude the reference of signs to abstract concepts and fictional entities as well as to physical things, but Peirce's model allocates a place for an objective reality which Saussure's model did not directly feature (though Peirce was not a naive realist, and argued that all experience is mediated by signs). Note, however, that Peirce emphasized that 'the dependence of the mode of existence of the thing represented upon the mode of this or that representation of it... is contrary to the nature of reality' (Peirce 1931-58, 5.323). The inclusion of a referent in Peirce's model does not automatically make it a better model of the sign than that of Saussure. Indeed, as John Lyons notes:
The notion of the importance of sense-making (which requires an interpreter - though Peirce doesn't feature that term in his triad) has had a particular appeal for communication and media theorists who stress the importance of the active process of interpretation, and thus reject the equation of 'content' and meaning. Many of these theorists allude to semiotic triangles in which the interpreter (or 'user') of the sign features explicitly (in place of 'sense' or 'interpretant'). This highlights the process of semiosis (which is very much a Peircean concept). The meaning of a sign is not contained within it, but arises in its interpretation. Whether a dyadic or triadic model is adopted, the role of the interpreter must be accounted for - either within the formal model of the sign, or as an essential part of the process of semiosis. David Sless declares that 'statements about users, signs or referents can never be made in isolation from each other. A statement about one always contains implications about the other two' (Sless 1986, 6). Paul Thibault argues that the interpreter features implicitly even within Saussure's apparently dyadic model (Thibault 1997, 184).
Note that semioticians make a distinction between a sign and a 'sign vehicle' (the latter being a 'signifier' to Saussureans and a 'representamen' to Peirceans). The sign is more than just a sign vehicle. The term 'sign' is often used loosely, so that this distinction is not always preserved. In the Saussurean framework, some references to 'the sign' should be to the signifier, and similarly, Peirce himself frequently mentions 'the sign' when, strictly speaking, he is referring to the representamen. It is easy to be found guilty of such a slippage, perhaps because we are so used to 'looking beyond' the form which the sign happens to take. However, to reiterate: the signifier or representamen is the form in which the sign appears (such as the spoken or written form of a word) whereas the sign is the whole meaningful ensemble.
Whereas Saussure emphasized the arbitrary nature of the (linguistic) sign, most semioticians stress that signs differ in how arbitrary/conventional (or by contrast 'transparent') they are. Symbolism reflects only one form of relationship between signifiers and their signifieds. Whilst Saussure did not offer a typology of signs, Charles Peirce was a compulsive taxonomist and he offered several logical typologies (Peirce 1931-58, 1.291, 2.243). However, his divisions and subdivisions of signs are extraordinarily elaborate: indeed, he offered the theoretical projection that there could be 59,049 types of signs! Peirce himself noted wryly that this calculation 'threatens a multitude of classes too great to be conveniently carried in one's head', adding that 'we shall, I think, do well to postpone preparation for further divisions until there be a prospect of such a thing being wanted' (Peirce 1931-58, 1.291). However, even his more modest proposals are daunting: Susanne Langer commented that 'there is but cold comfort in his assurance that his original 59,049 types can really be boiled down to a mere sixty-six' (Langer 1951, 56). Unfortunately, the complexity of such typologies rendered them 'nearly useless' as working models for others in the field (Sturrock 1986, 17). However, one of Peirce's basic classifications (first outlined in 1867) has been very widely referred to in subsequent semiotic studies (Peirce 1931-58, 1.564). He regarded it as 'the most fundamental' division of signs (ibid., 2.275). It is less useful as a classification of distinct 'types of signs' than of differing 'modes of relationship' between sign vehicles and their referents (Hawkes 1977, 129). Note that in the subsequent account, I have continued to employ the Saussurean terms signifier and signified, even though Peirce referred to the relation between the 'sign' (sic) and the object, since the Peircean distinctions are most commonly employed within a broadly Saussurean framework. Such incorporation tends to emphasize (albeit indirectly) the referential potential of the signified within the Saussurean model. Here then are the three modes together with some brief definitions of my own and some illustrative examples:
Symbol/symbolic: a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but
which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional - so that the relationship must
be learnt: e.g. language in general (plus specific languages, alphabetical letters,
punctuation marks, words, phrases and sentences), numbers, morse code, traffic lights,
Icon/iconic: a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or
imitating the signified (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it) -
being similar in possessing some of its qualities: e.g. a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model,
onomatopoeia, metaphors, 'realistic' sounds in 'programme music', sound effects in radio drama,
a dubbed film soundtrack, imitative gestures;
Index/indexical: a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is
directly connected in some way
(physically or causally) to the signified - this link can be observed or inferred:
e.g. 'natural signs' (smoke, thunder, footprints, echoes, non-synthetic odours and
flavours), medical symptoms (pain, a rash, pulse-rate), measuring instruments (weathercock,
thermometer, clock, spirit-level), 'signals' (a knock on a door, a phone ringing),
pointers (a pointing 'index' finger, a directional signpost),
recordings (a photograph, a film, video or television shot, an
audio-recorded voice), personal 'trademarks' (handwriting, catchphrase) and indexical words
('that', 'this', 'here', 'there').
The three forms are listed here in decreasing order of conventionality. Symbolic signs such as language are (at least) highly conventional; iconic signs always involve some degree of conventionality; indexical signs 'direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.306). Indexical and iconic signifiers can be seen as more constrained by referential signifieds whereas in the more conventional symbolic signs the signified can be seen as being defined to a greater extent by the signifier. Within each form signs also vary in their degree of conventionality. Other criteria might be applied to rank the three forms differently. For instance, Hodge and Kress suggest that indexicality is based on an act of judgement or inference whereas iconicity is closer to 'direct perception' making the highest 'modality' that of iconic signs. Note that the terms 'motivation' (from Saussure) and 'constraint' are sometimes used to describe the extent to which the signified determines the signifier. The more a signifier is constrained by the signified, the more 'motivated' the sign is: iconic signs are highly motivated; symbolic signs are unmotivated. The less motivated the sign, the more learning of an agreed convention is required. Nevertheless, most semioticians emphasize the role of convention in relation to signs. As we shall see, even photographs and films are built on conventions which we must learn to 'read'. Such conventions are an important social dimension of semiotics.
Peirce and Saussure used the term 'symbol' differently from each other. Whilst nowadays most theorists would refer to language as a symbolic sign system, Saussure avoided referring to linguistic signs as 'symbols', since the ordinary everyday use of this term refers to examples such as a pair of scales (signifying justice), and he insisted that such signs are 'never wholly arbitrary. They are not empty configurations'. They 'show at least a vestige of natural connection' between the signifier and the signified - a link which he later refers to as 'rational' (Saussure 1983, 68, 73; Saussure 1974, 68, 73). Whilst Saussure focused on the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, a more obvious example of arbitrary symbolism is mathematics. Mathematics does not need to refer to an external world at all: its signifieds are indisputably concepts and mathematics is a system of relations (Langer 1951, 28).
For Peirce, a symbol is 'a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the symbol to be interpreted as referring to that object' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.249). We interpret symbols according to 'a rule' or 'a habitual connection' (ibid., 2.292, 2.297, 1.369). 'The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using animal, without which no such connection would exist' (ibid., 2.299). It 'is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such' (ibid., 2.307). It 'would lose the character which renders it a sign if there were no interpretant' (ibid., 2.304). A symbol is 'a conventional sign, or one depending upon habit (acquired or inborn)' (ibid., 2.297). 'All words, sentences, books and other conventional signs are symbols' (ibid., 2.292). Peirce thus characterizes linguistic signs in terms of their conventionality in a similar way to Saussure. In a rare direct reference to the arbitrariness of symbols (which he then called 'tokens'), he noted that they 'are, for the most part, conventional or arbitrary' (ibid., 3.360). A symbol is a sign 'whose special significance or fitness to represent just what it does represent lies in nothing but the very fact of there being a habit, disposition, or other effective general rule that it will be so interpreted. Take, for example, the word "man". These three letters are not in the least like a man; nor is the sound with which they are associated' (ibid., 4.447). He adds elsewhere that 'a symbol... fulfills its function regardless of any similarity or analogy with its object and equally regardless of any factual connection therewith' but solely because it will be interpreted as a sign (ibid., 5.73; original emphasis).
Turning to icons, Peirce declared that an iconic sign represents its object 'mainly by its similarity' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.276). A sign is an icon 'insofar as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it' (ibid., 2.247). Indeed, he originally termed such modes, 'likenesses' (e.g. ibid., 1.558). He added that 'every picture (however conventional its method)' is an icon (ibid., 2.279). Icons have qualities which 'resemble' those of the objects they represent, and they 'excite analogous sensations in the mind' (ibid., 2.299; see also 3.362). Unlike the index, 'the icon has no dynamical connection with the object it represents' (ibid.). Just because a signifier resembles that which it depicts does not necessarily make it purely iconic. The philosopher Susanne Langer argues that 'the picture is essentially a symbol, not a duplicate, of what it represents' (Langer 1951, 67). Pictures resemble what they represent only in some respects. What we tend to recognize in an image are analogous relations of parts to a whole (ibid., 67-70). For Peirce, icons included 'every diagram, even although there be no sensuous resemblance between it and its object, but only an analogy between the relations of the parts of each' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.279). 'Many diagrams resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists' (ibid., 2.282). Even the most 'realistic' image is not a replica or even a copy of what is depicted. We rarely mistake a representation for what it represents.
Semioticians generally maintain that there are no 'pure' icons - there is always an element of cultural convention involved. Peirce stated that although 'any material image' (such as a painting) may be perceived as looking like what it represents, it is 'largely conventional in its mode of representation' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.276). 'We say that the portrait of a person we have not seen is convincing. So far as, on the ground merely of what I see in it, I am led to form an idea of the person it represents, it is an icon. But, in fact, it is not a pure icon, because I am greatly influenced by knowing that it is an effect, through the artist, caused by the original's appearance... Besides, I know that portraits have but the slightest resemblance to their originals, except in certain conventional respects, and after a conventional scale of values, etc.' (ibid., 2.92).
Guy Cook asks whether the iconic sign on the door of a public lavatory for men actually looks more like a man than like a woman. 'For a sign to be truly iconic, it would have to be transparent to someone who had never seen it before - and it seems unlikely that this is as much the case as is sometimes supposed. We see the resemblance when we already know the meaning' (Cook 1992, 70). Thus, even a 'realistic' picture is symbolic as well as iconic.
Iconic and indexical signs are more likely to be read as 'natural' than symbolic signs when making the connection between signifier and signified has become habitual. Iconic signifiers can be highly evocative. Kent Grayson observes: 'Because we can see the object in the sign, we are often left with a sense that the icon has brought us closer to the truth than if we had instead seen an index or a symbol' (Grayson 1998, 36). He adds that 'instead of drawing our attention to the gaps that always exist in representation, iconic experiences encourage us subconsciously to fill in these gaps and then to believe that there were no gaps in the first place... This is the paradox of representation: it may deceive most when we think it works best' (ibid., 41).
The linguist John Lyons notes that iconicity is 'always dependent upon properties of the medium in which the form is manifest' (Lyons 1977, 105). He offers the example of the onomatopoeic English word cuckoo, noting that it is only iconic in the phonic medium (speech) and not in the graphic medium (writing). Whilst the phonic medium can represent characteristic sounds (albeit in a relatively conventionalized way), the graphic medium can represent characteristic shapes (as in the case of Egyptian hieroglyphs) (Lyons 1977, 103). We will return shortly to the importance of the materiality of the sign.
Indexicality is perhaps the most unfamiliar concept. Peirce offers various criteria for what constitutes an index. An index 'indicates' something: for example, 'a sundial or clock indicates the time of day' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.285). He refers to a 'genuine relation' between the 'sign' and the object which does not depend purely on 'the interpreting mind' (ibid., 2.92, 298). The object is 'necessarily existent' (ibid., 2.310). The index is connected to its object 'as a matter of fact' (ibid., 4.447). There is 'a real connection' (ibid., 5.75). There may be a 'direct physical connection' (ibid., 1.372, 2.281, 2.299). An indexical sign is like 'a fragment torn away from the object' (ibid., 2.231). Unlike an icon (the object of which may be fictional) an index stands 'unequivocally for this or that existing thing' (ibid., 4.531). Whilst 'it necessarily has some quality in common' with it, the signifier is 'really affected' by the signified; there is an 'actual modification' involved (ibid., 2.248). The relationship is not based on 'mere resemblance' (ibid.): 'indices... have no significant resemblance to their objects' (ibid., 2.306). 'Similarity or analogy' are not what define the index (ibid., 2.305). 'Anything which focusses the attention is an index. Anything which startles us is an index' (ibid., 2.285; see also 3.434). Indexical signs 'direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion' (ibid., 2.306; see also 2.191, 2.428). 'Psychologically, the action of indices depends upon association by contiguity, and not upon association by resemblance or upon intellectual operations' (ibid.).
Whilst a photograph is also perceived as resembling that which it depicts, Peirce noted that a photograph is not only iconic but also indexical: 'photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that in certain respects they are exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the... class of signs... by physical connection [the indexical class]' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.281; see also 5.554). So in this sense, since the photographic image is an index of the effect of light on photographic emulsion, all unedited photographic and filmic images are indexical (although we should remember that conventional practices are always involved in composition, focusing, developing and so on). Such images do of course 'resemble' what they depict, and it has been suggested the 'real force' of the photographic and filmic image 'lies in its iconic signification' (Deacon et al. 1999, 188). However, whilst digital imaging techniques are increasingly eroding the indexicality of photographic images, it is arguable that it is the indexicality still routinely attributed to the medium which is primarily responsible for interpreters treating them as 'objective' records of 'reality'. Peirce observed that 'a photograph... owing to its optical connection with its object, is evidence that that appearance corresponds to a reality' (Peirce 1931-58, 4.447). In many contexts photographs are indeed regarded as 'evidence', not least in legal contexts. As for the moving image, video-cameras are of course widely used 'in evidence'. Documentary film and location footage in television news programmes depend upon the indexical nature of the sign. In such genres indexicality seems to warrant the status of the material as evidence. Photographic and filmic images may also be symbolic: in an empirical study of television news, Davis and Walton found that A relatively small proportion of the total number of shots is iconic or directly representative of the people, places and events which are subjects of the news text. A far greater proportion of shots has an oblique relationship to the text; they 'stand for' the subject matter indexically or symbolically (Davis & Walton 1983b, 45).
It is easy to slip into referring to Peirce's three forms as 'types of signs', but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive: a sign can be an icon, a symbol and an index, or any combination. Peirce was fully aware of this: for instance, he insisted that 'it would be difficult if not impossible to instance an absolutely pure index, or to find any sign absolutely devoid of the indexical quality' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.306). A map is indexical in pointing to the locations of things, iconic in its representation of the directional relations and distances between landmarks and symbolic in using conventional symbols the significance of which must be learnt. The film theorist Peter Wollen argues that 'the great merit of Peirce's analysis of signs is that he did not see the different aspects as mutually exclusive. Unlike Saussure he did not show any particular prejudice in favour of one or the other. Indeed, he wanted a logic and a rhetoric which would be based on all three aspects' (Wollen 1969, 141). Film and television use all three forms: icon (sound and image), symbol (speech and writing), and index (as the effect of what is filmed); at first sight iconic signs seem the dominant form, but some filmic signs are fairly arbitrary, such as 'dissolves' which signify that a scene from someone's memory is to follow.
Hawkes notes, following Jakobson, that the three modes 'co-exist in the form of a hierarchy in which one of them will inevitably have dominance over the other two', with dominance determined by context (Hawkes 1977, 129). Whether a sign is symbolic, iconic or indexical depends primarily on the way in which the sign is used, so textbook examples chosen to illustrate the various modes can be misleading. The same signifier may be used iconically in one context and symbolically in another: a photograph of a woman may stand for some broad category such as 'women' or may more specifically represent only the particular woman who is depicted. Signs cannot be classified in terms of the three modes without reference to the purposes of their users within particular contexts. A sign may consequently be treated as symbolic by one person, as iconic by another and as indexical by a third. As Kent Grayson puts it, 'When we speak of an icon, an index or a symbol, we are not referring to objective qualities of the sign itself, but to a viewer's experience of the sign' (Grayson 1998, 35). Signs may also shift in mode over time. As Jonathan Culler notes, 'In one sense a Rolls-Royce is an index of wealth in that one must be wealthy in order to purchase one, but it has been made a conventional sign of wealth by social usage' (Culler 1975, 17).
Despite his emphasis on studying 'the language-state' 'synchronically' (as if it were frozen at one moment in time) rather than 'diachronically' (studying its evolution), Saussure was well aware that the relationship between the signified and the signifier in language was subject to change over time (Saussure 1983, 74ff; Saussure 1974, 74ff). However, this was not the focus of his concern. Critics of structuralist approaches emphasize that the relation between signifier and signified is subject to dynamic change: Rosalind Coward and John Ellis argue that any 'fixing' of 'the chain of signifiers' - is both temporary and socially determined (Coward & Ellis 1977, 6, 8, 13).
In terms of Peirce's three modes, a historical shift from one mode to another tends to occur. Although Peirce made far more allowance for non-linguistic signs than did Saussure, like Saussure, he too granted greater status to symbolic signs: 'they are the only general signs; and generality is essential to reasoning' (Peirce 1931-58, 3.363; see also 4.448 & 4.531). Saussure's emphasis on the importance of the principle of arbitrariness reflects his prioritizing of symbolic signs whilst Peirce referred to Homo sapiens as 'the symbol-using animal' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.299). The idea of the evolution of sign-systems towards the symbolic mode is consistent with such a perspective. Peirce speculates 'whether there be a life in signs, so that - the requisite vehicle being present - they will go through a certain order of development'. Interestingly, he does not present this as necessarily a matter of progress towards the 'ideal' of symbolic form since he allows for the theoretical possibility that 'the same round of changes of form is described over and over again' (ibid., 2.111). Whilst granting such a possibility, he nevertheless notes that 'a regular progression... may be remarked in the three orders of signs, Icon, Index, Symbol' (ibid., 2.299). Peirce posits iconicity as the original default mode of signification, declaring the icon to be 'an originalian sign' (ibid., 2.92), defining this as 'the most primitive, simple and original of the categories' (ibid., 2.90). Compared to the 'genuine sign... or symbol', an index is 'degenerate in the lesser degree' whilst an icon is 'degenerate in the greater degree'. Peirce noted that signs were 'originally in part iconic, in part indexical' (ibid., 2.92). He adds that 'in all primitive writing, such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics, there are icons of a non-logical kind, the ideographs' and he speculates that 'in the earliest form of speech there probably was a large element of mimicry' (ibid., 2.280). However, over time, linguistic signs developed a more symbolic and conventional character (ibid., 2.92, 2.280). 'Symbols come into being by development out of other signs, particularly from icons' (ibid., 2.302).
The historical evidence does indicate a tendency of linguistic signs to evolve from indexical and iconic forms towards symbolic forms. Alphabets were not initially based on the substitution of conventional symbols for sounds. Marcel Danesi notes that 'archaeological research suggests... that the origins of alphabetical writing lie in symbols previously made out of elemental shapes that were used as image-making objects - much like the moulds that figurine and coin-makers use today. Only later did they take on more abstract qualities' (Danesi 1999, 35; see Schmandt-Besserat 1978). Some of the letters in the Greek and Latin alphabets, of course, derive from iconic signs in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The early scripts of the Mediterranean civilizations used pictographs, ideographs and hieroglyphs. Many of these were iconic signs resembling the objects and actions to which they referred either directly or metaphorically. Over time, picture writing became more symbolic and less iconic (Gelb 1963). This shift from the iconic to the symbolic may have been 'dictated by the economy of using a chisel or a reed brush' (Cherry 1966, 33); in general, symbols are semiotically more flexible and efficient (Lyons 1977, 103). The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss identified a similar general movement from motivation to arbitrariness within the conceptual schemes employed by particular cultures (Lévi-Strauss 1974, 156).
Taking a historical perspective is one reason for the insistence of some theorists that 'signs are never arbitrary' (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996, 7). Gunther Kress, for instance, emphasizes the motivation of the sign users rather than of the sign (see also Hodge & Kress 1988, 21-2). Rosalind Coward and John Ellis insist that 'every identity between signifier and signified is the result of productivity and a work of limiting that productivity' (Coward & Ellis 1977, 7).
A distinction is sometimes made between digital and analogical signs. Indeed, Anthony Wilden declares that 'no two categories, and no two kinds of experience are more fundamental in human life and thought than continuity and discontinuity' (Wilden 1987, 222). Whilst we experience time as a continuum, we may represent it in either analogue or digital form. A watch with an analogue display (with hour, minute and second hands) has the advantage of dividing an hour up like a cake (so that, in a lecture, for instance, we can 'see' how much time is left). A watch with a digital display (displaying the current time as a changing number) has the advantage of precision, so that we can easily see exactly what time it is 'now'. Even an analogue display is now simulated on some digital watches.
We have a deep attachment to analogical modes and we tend to regard digital representations as 'less real' or 'less authentic' - at least initially (as in the case of the audio CD compared to the vinyl LP). The analogue/digital distinction is frequently represented as 'natural' versus 'artificial'. Perhaps this is connected in part with the notion that the unconscious - that which we regard as 'deepest' within us - appears to operate analogically (Wilden 1987, 224). The privileging of the analogical may be linked with the status of the unconscious and the defiance of rationality in romantic ideology (which still dominates our conception of ourselves as 'individuals'). The deliberate intention to communicate tends to be dominant in digital codes, whilst in analogue codes 'it is almost impossible... not to communicate' (ibid., 225). Beyond any conscious intention, we communicate through gesture, posture, facial expression, intonation and so on. Analogical codes unavoidably 'give us away', revealing such things as our moods, attitudes, intentions and truthfulness (or otherwise). However, although the appearance of the 'digital watch' in 1971 and the subsequent 'digital revolution' in audio- and video-recording have led us to associate the digital mode with electronic technologies, digital codes have existed since the earliest forms of language - and writing is a 'digital technology'. Signifying systems impose digital order on what we often experience as a dynamic and seamless flux. The very definition of something as a sign involves reducing the continuous to the discrete. As we shall see later, binary (either/or) distinctions are a fundamental process in the creation of signifying structures. Digital signs involve discrete units such as words and 'whole numbers' and depend on the categorization of what is signified.
Analogical signs (such as visual images, gestures, textures, tastes and smells) involve graded relationships on a continuum. They can signify infinite subtleties which seem 'beyond words'. Emotions and feelings are analogical signifieds. Unlike symbolic signifiers, motivated signifiers (and their signifieds) blend into one another. There can be no comprehensive catalogue of such dynamic analogue signs as smiles or laughs. Analogue signs can of course be digitally reproduced (as is demonstrated by the digital recording of sounds and of both still and moving images) but they cannot be directly related to a standard 'dictionary' and syntax in the way that linguistic signs can. Bill Nichols notes that 'the graded quality of analogue codes may make them rich in meaning but it also renders them somewhat impoverished in syntactical complexity or semantic precision. By contrast the discrete units of digital codes may be somewhat impoverished in meaning but capable of much greater complexity or semantic signification' (Nichols 1981, 47; see also Wilden 1987, 138, 224). The art historian Ernst Gombrich insists that 'statements cannot be translated into images' and that 'pictures cannot assert' - a contention also found in Peirce (Gombrich 1982, 138, 175; Peirce 1931-58, 2.291). Nevertheless, whilst images serving such communicative purposes may be more 'open to interpretation', contemporary visual advertisements are a powerful example of how images may be used to make implicit claims which advertisers often prefer not to make more openly in words.
The Italian semiotician Umberto Eco has criticized the apparent equation of the terms 'arbitrary', 'conventional' and 'digital' by some commentators. He notes the way in which the following widespread pairings misleadingly suggest that the terms vertically aligned here are synonymous (Eco 1976, 190). He observes, for instance, that a photograph may be both 'motivated' and 'digital'. Nor is 'conventionality' (dependence on social and cultural conventions) equivalent to 'arbitrariness' (the lack of any intrinsic connection between the signifier and the signified). Yet it is easy to slip into treating such terms as equivalent - the current text far from immune to this. We may, as we shall see later, be so fond of analogy that we are often (perhaps unavoidably) its unwitting victims.
Another distinction between sign vehicles relates to the linguistic concept of tokens and types which derives from Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 4.537). In relation to words in a spoken utterance or written text, a count of the tokens would be a count of the total number of words used (regardless of type), whilst a count of the types would be a count of the different words used, ignoring repetitions. In the language of semantics, tokens instantiate (are instances of) their type. 'Word' and 'word' are instances of the same type. Language depends on the distinction between tokens and types, between the particular instance and the general category. This is the basis of categorization. John Lyons notes that whether something is counted as a token of a type is relative to one's purposes - for instance:
From a semiotic point-of-view, such questions could only be answered by considering in each case whether the different forms signified something of any consequence to the relevant sign-users in the context of the specific signifying practice being studied.
Eco lists three kinds of sign vehicles, and it is notable that the distinction relates in part at least to material form:
The type-token distinction may influence the way in which a text is interpreted. In his influential essay on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', the literary-philosophical theorist Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) noted that technological society is dominated by reproductions of original works - tokens of the original type (Benjamin 1992, 211-244). Indeed, even if we do see, for instance, 'the original' of a famous oil-painting, we are highly likely to have seen it first in the form of innumerable reproductions (books, postcards, posters - sometimes even in the form of pastiches or variations on the theme) and we may only be able to 'see' the original in the light of the judgements shaped by the copies or versions which we have encountered (see Intertextuality). In the postmodern era, the bulk of our texts are indeed 'copies without originals'.
The type-token distinction in relation to signs is important in social semiotic terms not as an absolute property of the sign vehicle but only insofar as it matters on any given occasion (for particular purposes) to those involved in using the sign. Minute differences in a pattern could be a matter of life and death for gamblers in relation to variations in the pattern on the backs of playing-cards within the same pack, but stylistic differences in the design of each type of card (such as the Ace of Spades), are much appreciated by collectors as a distinctive feature of different packs of playing-cards.
As already indicated, Saussure saw both the signifier and the signified as non-material 'psychological' forms; the language itself is 'a form, not a substance' (Saussure 1983, 111, 120; Saussure 1974, 113, 122). He uses several examples to reinforce his point. For instance, in one of several chess analogies, he notes that 'if pieces made of ivory are substituted for pieces made of wood, the change makes no difference to the system' (Saussure 1983, 23; Saussure 1974, 22). Pursuing this functional approach, he notes elsewhere that the 8.25pm Geneva-to-Paris train is referred to as 'the same train' even though the combinations of locomotive, carriages and personnel may change. Similarly, he asks why a street which is completely rebuilt can still be 'the same street'. He suggests that this is 'because it is not a purely material structure' (Saussure 1983, 107; Saussure 1974, 108). Saussure insists that this is not to say that such entities are 'abstract' since we cannot conceive of a street or train outside of its material realization - 'their physical existence is essential to our understanding of what they are' (Saussure 1983, 107; Saussure 1974, 109; see also ibid, 15). This can be related to the type-token distinction. Since Saussure sees language in terms of formal function rather than material substance, then whatever performs the same function within the system can be regarded as just another token of the same type. With regard to language, Saussure observes that 'sound, as a material element... is merely ancillary, a material the language uses' (Saussure 1983, 116; Saussure 1974, 118). Linguistic signifiers are 'not physical in any way. They are constituted solely by differences which distinguish one such sound pattern from another' (Saussure 1983, 117; Saussure 1974, 118-119). He admits at one point, with some apparent reluctance, that 'linguistic signs are, so to speak, tangible: writing can fix them in conventional images' (Saussure 1983, 15; Saussure 1974, 15). However, referring to written signs, he comments that 'the actual mode of inscription is irrelevant, because it does not affect the system... Whether I write in black or white, in incised characters or in relief, with a pen or a chisel - none of that is of any importance for the meaning' (Saussure 1983, 118; Saussure 1974, 120). One can understand how a linguist would tend to focus on form and function within language and to regard the material manifestations of language as of peripheral interest. 'The linguist... is interested in types, not tokens' (Lyons 1977, 28).
This was not only the attitude of the linguist Saussure, but also of the philosopher Peirce: 'The word "man"... does not consist of three films of ink. If the word "man" occurs hundreds of times in a book of which myriads of copies are printed, all those millions of triplets of patches of ink are embodiments of one and the same word... each of those embodiments a replica of the symbol. This shows that the word is not a thing' (Peirce 1931-58, 4.447). Peirce did refer to the materiality of the sign: 'since a sign is not identical with the thing signified, but differs from the latter in some respects, it must plainly have some characters which belong to it in itself... These I call the material qualities of the sign'. He granted that materiality is a property of the sign which is 'of great importance in the theory of cognition'. Materiality had 'nothing to do with its representative function' and it did not feature in his classificatory schemes. However, he alludes briefly to the signifying potential of materiality: 'if I take all the things which have certain qualities and physically connect them with another series of things, each to each, they become fit to be signs'. For instance, if the colour of a red flower matters to someone then redness is a sign (ibid., 5.287).
Whilst Saussure chose to ignore the materiality of the linguistic sign, most subsequent theorists who have adopted his model have chosen to reclaim the materiality of the sign (or more strictly of the signifier). Semioticians must take seriously any factors to which sign-users ascribe significance, and the material form of a sign does sometimes make a difference. Contemporary theorists tend to acknowledge that the material form of the sign may generate connotations of its own. As early as 1929 Valentin Voloshinov published Marxism and the Philosophy of Language which included a materialist critique of Saussure's psychological and implicitly idealist model of the sign. Voloshinov described Saussure's ideas as 'the most striking expression' of 'abstract objectivism' (Voloshinov 1973, 58). He insisted that 'a sign is a phenomenon of the external world' and that 'signs... are particular, material things'. Every sign 'has some kind of material embodiment, whether in sound, physical mass, colour, movements of the body, or the like' (ibid., 10-11; cf. 28). For Voloshinov, all signs, including language, have 'concrete material reality' (ibid., 65) and the physical properties of the sign matter.
Psychoanalytic theory also contributed to the revaluation of the signifier - in Freudian dream theory the sound of the signifier could be regarded as a better guide to its possible signified than any conventional 'decoding' might have suggested (Freud 1938, 319). For instance, Freud reported that the dream of a young woman engaged to be married featured flowers - including lilies-of-the-valley and violets. Popular symbolism suggested that the lilies were a symbol of chastity and the woman agreed that she associated them with purity. However, Freud was surprised to discover that she associated the word 'violet' phonetically with the English word 'violate', suggesting her fear of the violence of 'defloration' (another word alluding to flowers) (Freud 1938, 382-3). If this sounds familiar, this particular dream motif featured in the film Final Analysis (1992). As the psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan emphasized (originally in 1957), the Freudian concepts of condensation and displacement illustrate the determination of the signified by the signifier in dreams (Lacan 1977, 159ff). In condensation, several thoughts are condensed into one symbol, whilst in displacement unconscious desire is displaced into an apparently trivial symbol (to avoid dream censorship).
Poststructuralist theorists have sought to revalorize the signifier. The phonocentrism which was allied with Saussure's suppression of the materiality of the linguistic sign was challenged in 1967, when the French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida, in his book Of Grammatology, attacked the privileging of speech over writing which is found in Saussure (as well as in the work of many other previous and subsequent linguists) (Derrida 1976). From Plato to Lévi-Strauss, the spoken word had held a privileged position in the Western worldview, being regarded as intimately involved in our sense of self and constituting a sign of truth and authenticity. Speech had become so thoroughly naturalized that 'not only do the signifier and the signified seem to unite, but also, in this confusion, the signifier seems to erase itself or to become transparent' (Derrida 1981, 22). Writing had traditionally been relegated to a secondary position. The deconstructive enterprise marked 'the return of the repressed' (Derrida 1978, 197). In seeking to establish 'Grammatology' or the study of textuality, Derrida championed the primacy of the material word. He noted that the specificity of words is itself a material dimension. 'The materiality of a word cannot be translated or carried over into another language. Materiality is precisely that which translation relinquishes' - this English translation presumably illustrating some such loss (ibid., 210). Roland Barthes also sought to revalorize the role of the signifier in the act of writing. He argued that in 'classic' literary writing, the writer 'is always supposed to go from signified to signifier, from content to form, from idea to text, from passion to expression' (Barthes 1974, 174). However, this was directly opposite to the way in which Barthes characterized the act of writing. For him, writing was a matter of working with the signifiers and letting the signifieds take care of themselves - a paradoxical phenomenon which other writers have often reported (Chandler 1995, 60ff). Subsequent theorists have also sought to 'rematerialize' the linguistic sign, stressing that words are things and that texts are part of the material world (e.g. Coward & Ellis 1977; Silverman & Torode 1980).
Jay David Bolter argues that 'signs are always anchored in a medium. Signs may be more or less dependent upon the characteristics of one medium - they may transfer more or less well to other media - but there is no such thing as a sign without a medium' (Bolter 1991, 195-6). This is a little misleading, because, as Justin Lewis notes, 'the sign has no material existence, since meaning is brought to words or objects, not inscribed within them. Only the signifier - the unit prior to meaning - exists as a material entity' (Wren-Lewis 1983, 181). Nevertheless, Bolter's point does apply to the sign vehicle, and as Hodge and Tripp note, 'fundamental to all semiotic analysis is the fact that any system of signs (semiotic code) is carried by a material medium which has its own principles of structure' (Hodge & Tripp 1986, 17). Furthermore, some media draw on several interacting sign systems: television and film, for example, utilize verbal, visual, auditory and locomotive signs. The medium is not 'neutral'; each medium has its own constraints and, as Umberto Eco notes, each is already 'charged with cultural signification' (Eco 1976, 267). For instance, photographic and audio-visual media are almost invariably regarded as more 'real' than other forms of representation. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen argue that 'the material expression of the text is always significant; it is a separately variable semiotic feature' (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996, 231). Changing the signifier at the level of the form or medium may thus influence the signified - the sense which readers make of what is ostensibly the same 'content'. Breaking up a relationship by fax is likely to be regarded in a different light from breaking up in a face-to-face situation.
I have alluded to the problematic distinction between form and content. The linguist Louis Hjelmslev acknowledged that 'there can be no content without an expression, or expressionless content; neither can there be an expression without a content, or content-less expression' (Hjelmslev 1961, 49). However, he offered a framework which facilitated analytical distinctions (ibid., 47ff). Whilst he referred to 'planes' of expression and content (Saussure's signifier and signified), he enriched this model (ibid., 60). His contribution was to suggest that both expression and content have substance and form. Thus there are four categories: substance of expression, form of expression, substance of content, form of content. Various theorists such as Christian Metz have built upon this theoretical distinction and they differ somewhat in what they assign to the four categories (see Tudor 1974, 110; Baggaley & Duck 1976, 149; Metz 1981).
plane of expression
|Substance of expression:|
physical materials of the medium (e.g. photographs, recorded voices, printed words on paper)
|Form of expression:|
language, formal syntactic structure, technique and style
plane of content
|Substance of content:|
'human content' (Metz), textual world, subject matter, genre
|Form of content:|
'semantic structure' (Baggaley & Duck), 'thematic structure' (including narrative) (Metz)
Whereas Saussure had insisted that language is 'a form, not a substance', Hjelmslev's framework allows us to analyse texts according to their various dimensions and to grant to each of these the potential for signification. Such a matrix provides a useful framework for the systematic analysis of texts, broadens the notion of what constitutes a sign, and reminds us that the materiality of the sign may in itself signify.
From an explicitly social semiotic perspective, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen adapt a linguistic model from Michael Halliday and insist that any semiotic system has three essential metafunctions:
Specific semiotic systems are called codes.