Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Significance of the Signified


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss professor of linguistics who changed the way language is understood. He was a peer of Freud, Durkheim, Darwin and Marx.

Saussure argued that meaning is created inside language in the relations of difference between its parts.

In the image below, our mind conjures up two images; (1) Michael Jackson's famous dance moves and (2) a Cancer awareness ribbon. 

For Saussure, the meaning exists somewhere between the two, i.e., the place where we fill in a connection with the personal meanings we associate to each concept as well as with their relationship to one another.

Particular concepts of interest here include:
  • Semiotics: The study of signs.
  • Langue (language) and Parole (speech): The system of language and utterances. (Langue refers to the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, and parole refers to its use in particular instances. In semiotics, this principle could be applied to understand the distinction between code and message). 
  • Signifier and Signified: The components of a sign.
  • Synchrony and Diachrony: Meaning of signs.
  • Syntagm and Paradigm: Relationships between signs.

Saussure's approach was to study the system 'synchronically' as if it were frozen in time (like a comic) - rather than 'diachronically' - in terms of its evolution over time.

He argued that 'concepts... are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. This incongruity is a feature of cartoons, which are visual representations of humorous information.

While not all humorous inventions make us laugh, in particular not the ones that convey more serious issues such as the comic below (read the article here), cartoons and comics have historically served as signifiers of "something else" being signified. 

Mohammad Saba'aneh

Saussure saw society as a system of institution and social norms that form a collective system that provides conditions for meaning-making and hence decisions and actions for individuals.

Mimi and Eunice

The cartoon below depicts a social norm that began with the exercise of power on behalf of powerful affiliations. The fact that this action is common place arouses in individuals the desire for change, which, in turn, serves as the impetus for taking action.

Saussure criticized the philology-based system that studied origins of words and hence started the field of semiotics, defining language as a system of representation (which is akin to talking about a ladder that it is not there).

Saussure's 'theory of the sign' defined a sign as being made up of the matched pair of signifier and signified.


The signifier is the pointing finger, the word, or sound-image.

US Propaganda Material (for recruiting)
James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960)

A word is simply a jumble of letters. The pointing finger is not the star. It is in the interpretation of the signifier that meaning is created, as in the cartoon below wherein the knife serves as a type of pointing finger: the guilt felt in speciesism (discrimination directed toward non-domesticated animals).  


The signified is the concept, the meaning, the thing indicated by the signifier. It does not have to be a 'real object' but is some referent to which the signifier refers.

In other words, the thing signified is created in the mind of the perceiver and is internal to them. While we share concepts, we do so via signifiers. 

While the signifier is more stable, the signified varies between people and contexts.

Notwithstanding, the signified does stabilize with habit, as the signifier cues thoughts and images from memory.


The signifier and signified, while superficially simple, form a core element of semiotics.

Saussure's ideas are contrary to Plato's notion of ideas being eternally stable. Plato saw ideas as the root concept that was implemented in individual instances. A signifier without signified has no meaning, and the signified changes with person and context. For Saussure, even the root concept is malleable.

The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary (Saussure called this 'unmotivated'). A real object need not actually exist 'out there'. While the letters 'c-a-t' spell cat, they do not embody 'catness'. 

Saussure inverts the usual reflectionist view that the signifier reflects the signified: the signifier creates the signified in terms of the meaning it triggers for us. The meaning of a sign needs both the signifier and the signified as created by an interpreter. A signifier without a signified is noise. A signified without a signifier is impossible.

In a 2008 article written by Satisfactory Comics, the 1956 (#94) edition of Lulu and Alvin is linguistically exposed. The article describes how Lulu and Alvin discover the arbitrary nature of linguistic signification. An excerpt from the article:

As you can see, the kids are delighted by the slippage between signifier and signified. 

In this very joyful panel, language is revealed to be a mere construct. Chaos ensues. 

By the time the game is a foot (pun intended), "foot" and "feet" have become so destabilized (pun intended, again) that they can only be conveyed in terms of natural (as opposed to arbitrary) signifiers: a kind of onomatopoeia. 

Language is a series of 'negative' values in that each sign marks a divergence of meaning betweens signs. Words have meaning in both their difference and in their relationships with other words.

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