As written language developed and became increasingly abstract and formulaic, and numerous, varied spoken languages appeared throughout the world, it is no surprise that it got to a point in history when we needed to start studying what it all meant. Language is full of nuances, subtleties and a plethora of things that require interpreting, a key example being signs. A sign is something that communicates something other than itself and out of the desire to understand the complexities of signs came semiotics.
In simple terms semiotics is the study of signs and was originally linked to linguistics and to understanding languages, although it has since branched out from these. Umberto Eco described semiotics as “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign”. (Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press / London: Macmillan, 1976, p.7) This makes it a very large, open field of study as signs, as studied in semiotics, can take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Signs are essentially anything that we take meaning from, yet meaning is rarely naturally occurring in the sign, but is invested by the one who interprets it, whether based on their own assumptions or through learned conventions, such as traffic signs.
“Signs take on 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.”
(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Abington: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2007, p.13)
Nothing is a sign unless we invest it with meaning; we make the sign signify something else through our individual associations and experiences. Thus signs can be interpreted in drastically different ways by different people. Cognition is a process that happens in our brains to help us make sense of the world around us and everything within it, yet semiotics demonstrates how complex this process is as we can take one thing and our brains, through making connections and associations based on our personal knowledge and experience, leads us to think of something else that may be entirely different from the original object that has now become a sign. Most impressive is that rarely are we aware of this process going on, so brief is the time between acknowledging the sign, interpreting it and relaying the meaning. Chandler discusses the importance of signs that are present in our everyday lives and the merit of being able to understand and decode them:
“Exploring semiotic perspectives, we may come to realise that information is not ‘contained’ in the world or in books, computers or audio-visual media. Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering. We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the the codes into which they are organized. Through the study of semiotics, we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in reading them. Living in a world of increasingly visual signs, we need to learn that even the most realistic signs are not what they appear to be.”
(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, 2007, p.11)
Two individuals that contributed greatly to semiotics in its early days are the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Both attempted to define signs and the ways in which our brains translate signs to convey meaning. The Saussurean Model consists of two parts; the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. The signifier tends to be the form that the sign takes, often a physical, perceptible form. The signified is the concept to which the sign refers; its meaning. The signified may be a mental contruct, but still refers “indirectly to things in the world” (Chandler, 2007, p.16). A simple example is when you see the word “open” in a shop doorway. This is a sign consisting of a signifier: the word “open”, and a signified concept: that the shop is open for business. This is also an example of a sign that the meaning of which is interpreted based on not only individual associations and experience, but also convention; it is logical that the shop will be open for business rather than closed due to the meaning of the word “open” and previous experience of shops will prompt quick associations. This is of course just one example of a sign pair as a signifier can have multiple signified concepts depending on the situation.
“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.”
(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, 2007, p.25)
Peirce’s model is triadic in nature, as opposed to Saussure’s two-part one and consists of (as taken from Chandler, 2007, p.29):
- The representamen: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material, though usually interpreted as such) – called by some sign theorists the ‘sign vehicle’.
- An interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign.
- An object: something beyond the sign to which it refers (a referent).
To illustrate the Peircean Model I’ll use the example of a traffic sign.
The sign represents that a bridge is coming up (the object). It is represented by this icon that somewhat resembles a bridge in a red triangle (the representamen). Red is typically interpreted as meaning danger or warning, thus it draws attention to the sign. The success of the traffic sign depends on how well it is interpreted; as part of their theory test, drivers must learn the meanings of the many traffic signs (many of which are far more abstract and symbolic than this example), learning that this sign corresponds to the concept that a bridge is approaching (the interpretant).
Peirce describes the interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant as semiosis. For him, a sign is a unity of these three parts. Peirce went a step further in the study of semiosis and formed a classification of distinct types of signs. He divided them based on the differing relationships between the sign vehicles and what is signified. The three types of signs are as follows:
- Symbol/Symbolic: the signifier has no resemblance to the signified and is often culturally contextualised and thus must be agreed upon and learnt (forming a convention). Examples include languages and how they are constructed (alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, phrases, words etc.), numbers, morse code, traffic lights and signs, national flags, musical scores.
- Icon/Iconic: the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified in some way (through looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it to a recognizable degree). The signifier can even posses some of the qualities of the signified. Examples: portraits, cartoons, caricatures, scale models, onomatopoeia, gestures, metaphors.
- Index/Indexical: The signifier is not arbitrary (like the symbol) but is directly
connected in some way (physically or casually) to the signified. This link can be observed or implied e.g ‘natural signs’ including smoke, thunder, footprints. Other examples of indexical signs are medical symptoms, measuring instruments, recordings (photographs, films etc), ‘signals’ (knock at the door, phone ringing – even when set on silent, an iPhone still makes a specific vibration that relates to whether there is an incoming call, text or email and iPhone users are able to identify which through cognitive processes). An indexical sign can be compared to an index in a book or an ‘index’ finger pointing directly to what is being referred to.
(Reference: Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 1931-58)
However, these three types of signs cannot be called ‘mutually exclusive’ as a sign can easily be any combination of icon, symbol and index due to the open and individual nature of interpretation. How each person reads and interprets signs is entirely unique as we all have different associations and personal experiences that shape how we read the world around us. Difficulties arise with signs that need to have a particular context, previous knowledge or cultural understanding. This is why signs that one person sees as being definitively representative of one thing can mean something completely different to a person with a different background or culture.
How quickly we interpret signs can be visualised as on a continuum or spectrum. At one end are received signs that are quickly and easily interpreted by our brains; they are clearer, often resembling the signified and thus require less cognitive processes to interpret. The continuum moves across to perceived signs. These are often the abstract symbols that must first be translated by the brain before being linked to their meaning.
“Look after the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 9