At about the same time as Saussure was developing semiology, the American philosopher C. S. Peirce was developing semiotics (as it tended to be known in the
and is now generally known
across the world). US
Following Peirce, semiologists (or semioticians) often draw a distinction between icons, indexes and symbols.
Icons are signs whose signifier bears a close resemblance to the thing they refer to. Thus a road sign showing the silhouettes of a car and a motorbike is highly iconic because the silhouettes look like a motorbike and a car. A very few words (so-called onomatopoeic words) are iconic, too, such as whisper, cuckoo, splash, crash.
Most words, though, are symbolic signs. We have agreed that they shall mean what they mean and there is no natural relationship between them and their meanings, between the signifier and the signified.
Most words are symbolic signs. We have agreed that they shall mean what they mean and there is no natural relationship between them and their meanings, between the signifier and the signified.
In movies we would expect to find iconic signs - the signifiers looking like what they refer to. We find symbolic signs as well, though: for example when the picture goes wobbly before a flashback. Certainly the 'real world' doesn't go wobbly when we remember a scene from the past, so this device is an arbitrary device which means 'flashback' because we have agreed that that's what it means. The road sign with the motorbike and car has, as we have just seen, iconic elements, but it also has symbolic elements: a white background with a red circle around it. These signify 'something is forbidden' simply because we have agreed that that is what they mean.
In a sense, indexes lie between icons and symbols. An index is a sign whose signifier we have learnt to associate with a particular signified. For example, we may see smoke as an index of 'fire' or a thermometer as an index of 'temperature'.
In old movies, when they need to show the passing of time, they may typically show the sheets bearing the days of the month being torn off a calendar - that is iconic, because it looks like sheets being torn off a calendar; the numbers 1, 2, 3 etc., the names January, February etc. are symbols - they are purely arbitrary; the whole sequence is indexical of the passing of time - we associate the removal of the sheets with the passing of time.