What is the linguistic sign?

We explain what is the linguistic sign and the various elements that compose it. In addition, its characteristics and the types of signs that exist.

  1. What is the linguistic sign?

The minimal unit of verbal communication , part of a social and psychic system of communication between human beings, which we know as language is called linguistic sign . This mechanism acts by replacing the things of reality with signs that represent them, and in the case of verbal language, with signs that we can receive through the senses and then decode and interpret to retrieve an original message.

Every sign is a conventional representation of reality , which is framed in a conventional, social system of substitutions: in the case of verbal language, it is the word for the thing, or rather: a specific sound for the impression that Leave the aforementioned thing in mind.

On the other hand, the linguistic sign appears as part of a spoken chain, in which one sign happens to another , using silences to separate the ordered sets of signs that make up, for example, a word. That is why languages ​​have a logic , a sequence, a way of organizing the information we call  syntax . 

The linguistic sign was the subject of study by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce in the 19th century, whose studies laid the foundations for later modern linguistics. The work  General Saussure Linguistics Course  is a mandatory reference in the subject.

  1. Elements of the linguistic sign

Linguistic sign
Meaning is the mental image transmitted by language.

The elements of the linguistic sign, as defined by Saussure, are two:

  • Significant . It is the material part of the sign, the one that provides the  form  and is recognizable through the senses. In the case of spoken language, it is the mental image (the acoustic image) of the articulated and airborne sounds that are needed to communicate the sign.
  • Meaning . It is the immaterial, mental, social and abstract part of the linguistic sign, which is part of what is contemplated communally in the language (and which are the patrimony of all), but also of the expressive abilities of the individual (his individual lexicon). The meaning would be the psychic image or the  content  that is transmitted through language .

Both the signifier and the meaning are reciprocal facets of the sign, that is, they need each other as the two sides of a sheet of paper. Therefore, it is not possible to separate them, nor handle only one. This type of relationship is known as  dichotomy .

Pierce, on the other hand, attributed to the linguistic sign three faces, like a triangle:

  • Representamen . That is what is found instead of the real object, that is, that which is representing the thing: a word, a drawing , are forms of representation.
  • Interpretante . Every sign requires someone to read it or listen to it and grasp the senses in the sign, which necessarily addresses someone. This is the interpreter: the mental vision of the representation made by the individuals who communicate.
  • Object . It is the concrete reality that one wishes to represent, that is, that in whose place is the linguistic sign.
  1. Characteristics of the linguistic sign

According to Saussure’s studies, the linguistic sign has certain characteristics:

  • Arbitrariness . The relationship between meaning and significance is, in general, arbitrary, that is, conventional, artificial. There is no relationship of similarity between the sounds that make up a particular word (say:  heaven ) and the concrete meaning they seek to convey (the idea of ​​heaven). This is why languages ​​must be learned.
  • Linearity . As stated before, the signifiers of verbal language are part of a chain of signs whose order matters so that they can be understood correctly. That is understood as a linear character: the sounds that make up a word appear online, that is, one in front of the other, not all at once, or in a messy way:  sky  is not equivalent to  ociel .
  • Mutability  and  immutability . This means that the linguistic sign can  mutate : change, acquire new senses, displace the specific link between meaning and significance, but whenever it does so over time. An example of this is the etymology: the origin of modern words from old ones, which are slowly changing. But at the same time it tends to remain  unchanged : within a given community and at a specific moment in history, the relationship between meaning and significance tends to be static. An example of this is that we cannot alter the words of our language and impose that use on the rest of the speakers of it.
  1. Types of linguistic signs

Religious emblems are considered symbols.

According to Peirce, there are three different types of signs, according to the relationship between the object and its interpreter:

  • Indexes . The sign has a logical, causal, proximity relationship of some kind with its real referent. For example: the traces of a dog on the ground, refer to the presence of the animal.
  • Icons . In this case, the sign resembles what it represents, that is, it has a mimetic or similar relationship. For example: an onomatopoeia of the sound of an animal.
  • Symbols . They are those that present the most complex relationship between the object and the referent, since it is totally cultural, arbitrary. For example: religious emblems, flags, coats of arms.

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