A linguistic sign assigns meaning to things so that people can communicate about them. A linguistic sign is thus considered the basic element of a language. The concept of the sign was essentially developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who distinguished between the phonetic image and the idea of the linguistic sign.
When two people communicate with each other, the speaker sends signals to which the listener assigns a meaning. With the help of linguistic signs, people can categorise objects, experiences, behaviours, etc. in order to communicate about them. Words are a classical sign of language. The Saussure sign model is very common in linguistics.
Bilateral sign model according to Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure is considered the founder of structuralist linguistics. His sign theory has significantly shaped the linguistics of the 20th century. For Saussure, language is a system of signs that can initially be considered independent of external factors. In his view, linguistic signs are composed of the signified and signifier. This subdivision is called bilateral or two-part sign model.
Signified refers to the content side of a linguistic sign, i.e. its meaning. In contrast to the signifier, the signified means the pictorial idea of a word in the brain.
The signifier denotes the expressive side of a linguistic sign. In contrast to the signified, it describes the sound image of what is said in writing or speech, i.e. sounds or letters.
Saussure’s sign model explained simply
When most people think of the word “tree”, they probably think of a large wooden plant with a solid trunk on which branches, twigs and leaves grow. Saussure calls this figurative idea the content side or signified. The expressive side or signifier of the linguistic sign is the chain of sounds when speaking the word “tree” or the chain of letters when writing. In literature, the bilateral sign model is often compared to a sheet of paper whose two sides are inseparably connected: After all, you can’t cut the front without cutting the back at the same time. In the same way, one cannot separate content from expression.
Arbitrariness of the linguistic sign
An essential property of the linguistic sign according to Saussure is its arbitrariness. Accordingly, it is arbitrary which character strings are assigned to an object. Saussure proves his thesis with the fact that one and the same object is named differently from language to language.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Geneva in 1857 and lived to the age of 55. He studied Indo-European studies in Germany and lectured on general linguistics in his Swiss hometown. His system of signs and linguistic publications have strongly influenced 20th century linguistics.
FAQ: More questions about linguistic sign
Why is language a system of signs?
The linguistic sign is considered the basic element of a language and makes communication between people possible in the first place. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, who had a decisive influence on the concept of signs, signs are composed of the phonetic image and the idea of a word.
What is meant by a linguistic sign?
Linguistic signs categorise objects or experiences in terms of their meaning in order to make distinctions. Signs are not only sounds, but also include written words, gestures and symbols.
What does language have to do with signs?
Signs are the basis of our communication system. Each sign is assigned a meaning, which, according to Saussure, is arbitrary.
What is language according to Saussure?
Saussure distinguishes language in three aspects: ‘Langage’ is the human language itself, ‘langue’ refers to a single language such as German or English, and ‘parole’ is a person’s use of language.
What does Saussure understand by a linguistic sign?
For Saussure, language consists of signs that express ideas. Linguistic signs are therefore material units that have certain meanings. A linguistic sign thus connects the idea that a person has of a symbol with the sound image that belongs to this symbol.
What is different in Saussure’s theory of the linguistic sign?
The distinctive feature of Saussure’s sign model lies above all in its duality and the inseparable interaction of content and expression. The linguistic sign system brought structure to 20th century linguistics.
What is semiotics?
Semiotics is the study of signs. It deals with sign systems of all kinds. Without sign theory, communication would not be possible.
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