Linguistic Sign – Concept, characteristics and elements

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

Linguistic sign
Every sign is a conventional representation of reality.

What is the linguistic sign?

Linguistic sign is called the minimal unit of verbal communication, part of a social and psychic system of communication between human beings, which we know as language. This mechanism works by replacing things in 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 recover an original message.

Every sign is a conventional representation of reality, which is part of 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 the referred thing leaves on the mind.

On the other hand, the linguistic sign appears as part of a spoken string, in which one sign succeeds 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 information that we call syntax.

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

Elements of the linguistic sign

Linguistic signs
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 contributes shape and that is recognizable through the senses. In the case of spoken language, it is the mental image (the acoustic image) of 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 communally contemplated in the language (and which are the patrimony of all), but also of the expressive capacities of the individual (their individual lexicon). The meaning would be the psychic image or the content that is transmitted through language.

Both the signifier and the signified are reciprocal facets of the sign, that is, they need each other like the two faces of a sheet of paper. For this reason, it is not possible to separate them, nor to handle just one. This type of relationship is known as dichotomy.

Pierce, for his part, attributed three faces to the linguistic sign, like a triangle:

  • Represent. This 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.
  • Interpreting. Every sign requires someone who reads or listens to it and captures the senses in the sign, which necessarily addresses someone. This is the interpretant: the mental vision that the communicating individuals make of the representamen.
  • Object. It is the concrete reality that one wishes to represent, that is, that in whose place the linguistic sign is found.

Characteristics of the linguistic sign

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

  • Arbitrariness. The relationship between signified and signifier is generally arbitrary, that is, conventional, artificial. There is no similarity relationship between the sounds that make up a given word (say: heaven) and the concrete meaning they seek to convey (the idea of ​​heaven). This is why languages ​​must be learned.
  • Linearity As said before, the signifiers of verbal language are part of a chain of signs whose order matters so that they can be understood correctly. This is understood as a linear character: the sounds that make up a word appear in line, that is, one in front of the other, not all at once, nor in a disorderly way: heaven is not equivalent to ociel.
  • Mutability and immutability. This means that the linguistic sign can mutate: change, acquire new meanings, displace the specific link between signified and signifier, but as long as it does so over time. An example of this is etymology: the origin of modern words from ancient ones, which are slowly changing. But at the same time it tends to remain unchanging: within a given community and at a specific moment in history, the relationship between signified and signifier 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 its speakers.

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:

  • Indices. The sign has a logical, causal, proximity relationship of some kind with its real referent. For example: the tracks 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 resemblance relationship. For example: an onomatopoeia of the sound of an animal.
  • Symbols. They are the ones 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.