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{{#invoke:Sidebar|sidebar}} In semiotics, a sign is something that can be interpreted as having a meaning, which is something other than itself, and which is therefore able to communicate information to the one interpreting or decoding the sign. Signs can work through any of the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or taste, and their meaning can be intentional such as a word uttered with a specific meaning, or unintentional such as a symptom being a sign of a particular medical condition.

There are two major theories about the way in which signs acquire the ability to transfer information; both theories understand the defining property of the sign as being a relation between a number of elements. In the tradition of semiotics developed by Ferdinand de Saussure the sign relation is dyadic, consisting only of a form of the sign (the signifier) and its meaning (the signified). Saussure saw this relation as being essentially arbitrary motivated only by social convention. Saussure's theory has been particularly influential in the study of linguistic signs. The other major semiotic theory developed by C. S. Peirce defines the sign as a triadic relation as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity"<ref>Marcel Danesi and Paul Perron, Analyzing Cultures.</ref> This means that a sign is a relation between the sign vehicle (the specific physical form of the sign), a sign object (the aspect of the world that the sign carries meaning about) and an interpretant (the meaning of the sign as understood by an interpreter). According to Peirce signs can be divided by the type of relation that holds the sign relation together as either icons, indices or symbols. Icons are those signs that signify by means of similarity between sign vehicle and sign object (e.g. a portrait, or a map), indices are those that signify by means of a direct relation of contiguity or causality between sign vehicle and sign object (e.g. a symptom), and symbols are those that signify through a law or arbitrary social convention.

Dyadic signs

According to Saussure (1857–1913), a sign is composed of the signifier<ref name="definition">Mardy S. Ireland defines a signifier as:
A unit of something (i.e., a word, gesture) that can carry ambiguous/multiple meanings (e.g., as U.S. President Bill Clinton once said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is', is")
{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }} p. 13.</ref> (signifiant), and the signified (signifié). These cannot be conceptualized as separate entities but rather as a mapping from significant differences in sound to potential (correct) differential denotation. The Saussurean sign exists only at the level of the synchronic system, in which signs are defined by their relative and hierarchical privileges of co-occurrence. It is thus a common misreading of Saussure to take signifiers to be anything one could speak, and signifieds as things in the world. In fact, the relationship of language to parole (or speech-in-context) is and always has been a theoretical problem for linguistics (cf. Roman Jakobson's famous essay "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics" et al.).

A famous thesis by Saussure states that the relationship between a sign and the real-world thing it denotes is an arbitrary one. There is not a natural relationship between a word and the object it refers to, nor is there a causal relationship between the inherent properties of the object and the nature of the sign used to denote it. For example, there is nothing about the physical quality of paper that requires denotation by the phonological sequence ‘paper’. There is, however, what Saussure called ‘relative motivation’: the possibilities of signification of a signifier are constrained by the compositionality of elements in the linguistic system (cf. Emile Benveniste's paper on the arbitrariness of the sign in the first volume of his papers on general linguistics). In other words, a word is only available to acquire a new meaning if it is identifiably different from all the other words in the language and it has no existing meaning. Structuralism was later based on this idea that it is only within a given system that one can define the distinction between the levels of system and use, or the semantic "value" of a sign.


Sign (semiotics) sections
Intro  Triadic signs  20th century theories  Postmodern theory  See also  Notes  External links  

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