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Linguistic sign

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.

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Linguistic signs as the basis of language

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.

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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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