Thursday, November 16, 2017

THE SIGN (Structuralisim, De Saussure) - Explanation and definition

The sign or the nature of the lingual sign is a central topic for both linguistics, structuralism and culture theory at large. The debate about how signs function became to be closely related with the debate about how society it self functions.

The initial idea was that a sign 'denotes' or 'refers to' something 'out there in the real world' (called referent).  Words are labels attached to things. That seems a pretty sensible idea at first - we can readily see how 'London' can denote something 'out there'. But as soon as we get on to 'city', things start to get a bit vaguer. Which city? And when we get on to words like 'ask' or 'tradition', the relationship starts to fall apart.

Swiss linguist Fredinand de Saussure tried to get around this problem by saying that 'the linguistic sign does not unite a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image’.
Structuralism (i.e. the philosophy which derived later from Saussurean linguistics), then, 'brackets the referent'. In other words, the thing referred to (the referent) is taken out of the relationship and is replaced by 'concept'.

To put is more simply, the definition of the sign is not a symbol that points at something in the world but rather a symbol which points to a meaning, detached from any material objects. 

The sign according to de Saussure as made up of two parts: the signifier (the material aspect: sounds of written signs) and the signified (the mental meaning). For more on this matter see our summary on signifier and signified.  

These ideas by de Saussure may seem irrlevant at first glance but when they are combined with his entire theory you can see that they go a very long way.

For more on the nature of the sign an de Saussure's thought: 

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