Rene Magritte. 1928-29. The Treachery of Images.

A sign is a substance that interpreters recognize as denoting something other than itself. [2] For example, a picture of a pipe (denoting a pipe), the word "snow" (denoting snow), pulling my earlobe is a sign to auctioneer [2], blushing (denoting embarrassment) [5]_, the elaborate waggle-dance of a honeybee (denoting the direction and distance of a source of nectar) [4], or Vervet monkeys (native to East Africa) have three distinctive vocal alarm calls that signal the presence of leopards, eagles and snakes, their three main predators. Upon hearing one or another call, a Vervet will respond appropriately--climbing a tree in response to the leopard call, scanning the ground when the snake call is sounded.[4]_


1   Matter

Signs consist of substance or other signs.

According to Saussure, a sign consists of:

  1. A signifier
  2. A signified

Note: Both the signifier and the signified are form rather than substance. Note: There is no necessary relationship between signifier and signified.[1] The relationship is determined by convention, rule, or agreement.

1.1   Signifier

A signifier is a physical form that a sign takes; the perceivable part of the sign. [1]

For example, marks on paper, sounds in the air, or the lights of a traffic signal.

Note: Signifiers must provide a safety margin of discreteness. (redundancy)

Note: A signifier could stand for a different signified in a different context.

Note: Many signifiers could stand for the same signified.

1.2   Signified

The signified is the concept to which the sign refers. [1]

For example, _ship_ signifies 'ship', _green_ signifies 'go', _yellow_ signifies 'prepare to stop', _red_ signifies 'stop'.

What is signified is dependent on the signifier and the culture of the interpreter. All members of the same culture who share the same language should have common signified. [1]

A signified may be broken down into semes. For example, 'ship' contains semes such as /navigation/ and /concrete/.

An isotopy is created by the repetition of one seme. For example, "There was a fine ship, carved from solid gold / With azure reaching masts, on seas unknown" the words "ship", "masts", and "seas" all contain the seme /navigation/.

2   Form

Juxtaposition is the placement of multiple signs next to each other to create a new, separate, meaning.

Juxtaposition can happen for many reasons. For example, proximity (desired or not), randomness / surrealism, resemblance, contrast, or conflict.

Juxtaposition is a very popular technique for conflicting entities.

Juxtaposition is often useful for stories with limited ambitions. However, there are many examples of complexity resulting from conflict within a single entity: The anti-hero, the tragic villain, "twisted" fairy tales, etc.

Comics are "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

Atoms do not combine into molecules just because they happen to be next to each other; rather, their combinatorial possibilities are governed by their internal structure (for instance, the number of electrons on an atom's outermost shell and the relative number of protons and electrons).

-> Signs combine according to certain rules.

3   Meaning

3.1   Natural Meaning

Natural meaning (or an infallible-sign) describes a connection between certain events or states in the world and their natural consequences.

  • "Those spots mean measles" (spots are a unconventional signal for the presence of measles)
  • "The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year."
  • "Storm clouds mean rain."
  • "The rings on the stump mean the tree was old"

Formally, a sign x is a natural sign iff x means that p and x meant that p truly entails p.


  1. One cannot infer anything about what was meant by a natural sign
  2. One cannot mean anything by a natural sign
  3. One cannot restate sentences containing natural signs such that the verb "mean" is followed by a sentence or a phrase in inverted commas. (e.g. "Those spot meant 'measles'")
  4. One restate sentences containing natural signs so as to begin with "the fact that". (e.g. "That fact that he had those spots meant that he had measles.")

3.2   Non-natural meaning

Non-natural meaning (or a fallible-sign) describes a connection between an agent's action and its intended consequences.

  • In uttering "Please sit down" Paul meant that Jean was to sit down.
  • "Those three rings on the bell (of the bus) mean that the 'bus is full'" (note, it could just as easily be four rings)
  • "That remark, 'Smith couldn't get on without his trouble and strife,' mean that Smith found his wife indispensable."
  • "The sentence 'Snow is white' means that snow is white." could just as easily have meant anything else.

Formally, a sign x is a nonnatural sign iff a speaker, S, intended by x to cause effect E in audience A by means of A recognizing this intention, [5] or equivalently, in doing x, a speaker S means that for audience A if and only if (i) S intends that A recognize that p in part by recognize that i."[1]

For a sign to be nonnatural, a speaker must have three intentions:[2]

  1. S intends A to E by signaling x
  2. S intends A to recognize 1
  3. S intends A to E because A recognizes 1

Informally, we say something like:

  • "x meant E"
  • "S meant E by x"

Note: x is called a "locutionary act".

Note: E is called a "perlocutionary effect" or "perlocution".


  1. Non-natural signs do not entail what they stand for. (e.g.The director may (intentionally or unintentionally) ring the bell three times even if the bus is not full.)
  2. One can infer something about what was meant by a nonnatural sign
  3. One can mean something by a nonnatural sign
  4. One can restate such sentences such that the verb "mean" is followed by a sentence or a phrase in inverted commas. (e.g. "Those three rings on the bell mean 'the bus is full'.")
  5. One cannot restate such sentences so as to begin with "the fact that". (e.g. "The fact that the bell has been rung three times means that the bus is full")

4   Properties

4.1   Polysemy

Polysemy is the capacity for a sign to have multiple related senses.

Polysemy occurs when two or more signifieds are associated with the same signifier.

For example, the word "man" is polysemic:

  1. The human species (i.e. man vs. animal)
  2. Males of the human species (i.e. man vs. woman)
  3. Adult males of the human species (i.e. man vs. boy)

5   Classification

5.1   Character

A character is an abstract entity, such as "LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A" or "BENGALI DIGIT FIVE". [4]

The word "character" is derived from the Ancient Greek word "charaktêr", referring to a mark impressed upon a coin. Later it came to mean a point by which one thing was told apart from others. Meaning "sum of qualities that define a person" is from 1640s.

5.2   Signal

A signal is a sign that fades after sending; that is transient. (?)

6   History

6.1   Aristotle

A sign is a material for constructing enthymemes.[3] Aristotle divided signs into two kinds:

  1. Infallible signs
  2. Fallible (Ordinary) signs
  1. Infallible signs necessarily bear a relation.

    • "The fact that he has a fever is a sign that he is ill,"
    • "The fact that she is giving milk is a sign that she has lately borne a child."
  2. Fallible signs ...

    • "The fact that Socrates was wise and just is a sign that the wise are just." Here we certainly have a Sign; but even though the proposition be true, the argument is refutable, since it does not form a syllogism.
    • "The fact that he breathes fast is a sign that he has a fever." This argument also is refutable, even if the statement about the fast breathing be true, since a man may breathe hard without having a fever.

6.2   Ferdinand de Saussure

# History

Saussure was more concerned with the way signs related to other sign than he was with the way they related to Peirce's object, so the emphasis is different, on the sign.[1]

# Terms

The terms motivation and constraint are used to describe the extent to which the signified determines the signifier: they are almost interchangeable.

A highly motivated sign is a very iconic one.

Example: a photograph is more highly motivated than a road sign.

An arbitrary sign is unmotivated.

Or we can use the term constraint to refer to the influence which the signified exerts on the signifier.

The more motivated the sign is, the more its signifier is constrained by the signified.

Example: a photograph is highly motivated since it is determined mainly by what the subject looks like (framing, focus, lighting, etc. produce an arbitrary element in the final sign) Example: a painted portrait is less motivated Example: a cartoon is less motivated (less constrained)

Example: an unmotivated arbitrary sign is the word "man" itself

The less motivated the sign is, the more important it is for us to have learned the convetions agreed among the users; without them, the sign remains meaningless, or liable to wildly aberrant decoding.[1]

# Sign & System

To understand a sign, one must understand the sign relationship between the sign and other signs in the same system: that is, the relationship between a sign and other signs that it could conceivably be, but is not.[1]

Example: The meaning of the sign "man" is determined by how it is differentiated from other signs. So "man" can mean "not animal" or "not human" or "not rational".[1] Example: When Chanel chose the French star Catherine Deneuve to give their perfume an image of a particular kind of sophisticated traditional French chic, she became a sign in a system. And the meaning of Catherine- Deneuve-as-sign was determined by other beautiful stars-as-signs that she was not. She was not Susan Hampshire (too English); she was not Twiggy (too young, trendy, changeably fashionable); she was not Brigitte Bardot (too unsophisticatedly sexy); and so on.[1]

Signifieds are the mental concepts we used to divide reality up and categorize it so that we can understand it.[1]

The boundaries between categories are artificial.[1]

Example: There is no line between man and boy until we draw one.

The signification of a sign is determined not by the nature of that reality/experience but by the boundaries of the related signifies in the system.[1]

Meaning is therefore better defined by the relationships of one sign to another than by the relationship of that sign to an external reality.[1]

# Value

Value is the relationship of the sign to others in its system.[1]

Value is what primarily determines meaning.[1]

Signs have no value in themselves; the 'value' of a sign depends on its relations with other signs within the system.

Analogy: In the game of chess, the value of each piece depends on its position on the chessboard.

Note: A one-term language is impossible because its single term could be applied to everything and differentiate nothing.

> Although the signifier is treated by its user as 'standing for' the signified, Saussurean semioticians emphasize that there is no necessary, intrinsics, direct, or inevitable relationship between the signifier and the signified. > Saussure stressed the arbitrariness of the sign - more specifically, the arbitrariness of the link between the signifier and the signified.

Note: the above only applies to language and written words. And even this has except, for instance, onomatopoeia, though arguably the exceptions are entirely insignificant.

> 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')

# Classification

A signifier has an iconic relationship with the signified if it resembles the signified.[1] A signifier has an arbitrary relationship with the signified if the two are related only by agreement.[1]

[1]: Introduction to Communication Studies

6.3   C.S. Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce.

# Analysis

> A sign is something what stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person and equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. (In Zeman 1977) > I define a sign as anything which is so determined by something else, called its Object, and so determines an effect upon a person, which effect I call its interpretant, that the later is thereby mediately determined by the former. (Peirce)

Meaning consists of three interrelated parts:

  1. Sign
  2. Object
  3. Interpretant

Note: The interpretant is not the user of the sign, but 'the proper significate effect': a mental concept produced both by the sign and by the user's experience of the object.

Example: The interpretant of the word 'school' in any one context will be the result of the user's experience of that word and of his experience of institutions called 'schools', the object.

The interpretant is not fixed (defined by a dictionary) but may vary within limits according to the experience of the user.

The limits are set by social convention (in this case, conventions of the English language); the variation within them allows for social and psychological differences between the users.

Each can only be understood in terms of the others.

  1. (sign-object) A sign refers to something other than itself - the object
  2. (sign-interpretant) A sign is understood by somebody; it has an effect in the mind of the user -- the interpretant.

# Classification

Every sign is determined by its object, either first, by partaking in the character of the object, when I call the sign an Icon; secondly, by being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object, when I call the sign an Index; thirdly, by more or less approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object in consequence of a habit...when I call the sign a Symbol. (In Zeman, 1977)[1]

Signs fits a category depending on the intention of sender and interpretation of the viewer.

At the highest level, three kinds of signs exist:

  1. Index (natural, indexical)
  2. Icon (intentional, indexical)
  3. Symbol (intentional, arbitrary)

These categories are not separate and distinct. One sign may be composed of various types.[1]

7   Representation

A glyph is a visual representation of a sign; a mark made on screen or paper.

For example, a ligature.

8   References

[1](1, 2, 3) "Arkham City Art Direction and Semiotics Part 1"
[2](1, 2) Introduction to Communication Studies
[3]Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1 Chapter 2
[4](1, 2) The Unicode Consortium. 2012. The Unicode Standard: Version 6.2 - Core Specification.

[1]: Introduction To Communication Studies [2]: Krauss


A interesting example of the principle of meaning coming from multiple signs is when Apple introduced black skinned emojis. This add a racial component to emojis.