Linguistic sign Characteristics elements in detail

Linguistic sign

The linguistic sign is an acoustic image (a word) associated with one or more meanings, within a language or linguistic system. For example, the word house is a structured sound associated with the concept of dwelling or home. Linguistic sign Characteristics elements

Another way of defining the linguistic sign is that it is a vocal- graphic manifestation associated with one or more concepts. In other words, it is a representation of an object, attribute or concept made by means of a word or chain of sounds.

The linguistic sign is part of a system shared by a group of human beings, by a linguistic community, such as speakers of Spanish, Chinese or German.

The concept of linguistic sign is due to two researchers:

  • The Swiss linguist and semiologist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), creator of the so-called structural linguistics.
  • To the American scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), considered one of the fathers of semiotics.

Characteristics of the linguistic sign

1-It is essential for intellectual activity

According to Peirce, without linguistic signs, thought is impossible. We need signs, linguistic and otherwise, to represent the world to us and to communicate this knowledge.

2-The linguistic sign is arbitrary

The union between the signifier (the graphic-vocal manifestation) and the signified is the result of a cultural convention, not of a natural union between the sign and what it represents, hence the existence of different languages ​​in the world. Linguistic sign Characteristics elements

Even in different languages, onomatopoeia (sounds that try to imitate natural noises or sounds of other animals) are different. For example, wow , the barking of the dog in Spanish, in English it is woof , in Japanese it is uan or wan and in Ethiopian it is oi .

We say that the linguistic sign is arbitrary because there is no natural relationship between them and the things or concepts represented; it is a consensual arbitrariness (that is, the product of an agreement), a linguistic invention that has evolved in different ways in each culture.

3-It is “biunivocal”

The linguistic sign is similar to a coin, with two united and indivisible sides: signifier and signified. In this way, the sign is an acoustic image that in our mind we automatically identify with an idea or concept.

4-Is linear

The linguistic sign extends in space and time: either as a sequence of sounds or letters, the sign is produced linearly, one after the other, forming a sequence or chain, as in “word”, or in “not” .

5-It is part of a system (code)

The linguistic sign makes sense, it works, as part of a system that contains it: the language. It is part of a code shared by a linguistic community, such as the one that speakers of Spanish, Portuguese, English, etc. integrate.

The value and meaning of a linguistic sign is given by its position in the code or language, which in turn has a system of rules, which governs the way the signs are organized. For example, in Spanish, nouns and adjectives must agree on gender and number.

6-It is mutable and immutable at the same time

Both the signifier and the meaning can vary over time, mutate. That is why the linguistic sign is said to be mutable. For example, the word man evolved from the Latin homine to “homne” and eventually to “man.” Linguistic sign Characteristics elements

The mutation can also occur in the meaning, as in the case of “computer”, which before the digital revolution meant “the one in charge”, and today it is one of the nicknames of computers (in Spain).

When it is said that it is immutable, that it does not change, it refers to the fact that the individual sign is always equal; the word man indicates the same thing, although the way it is written varies over time.

7-It is the product of a “triadic” relationship

Both Saussure and Peirce saw the sign as part of a relationship that involves three elements. Saussure calls them signifier, signified, and object or thing; Pierce, representamen (the sign as such), interpretant (the one that decodes the sign) and the object itself.

Classes of signs according to Peirce

For Peirce there are three classes of signs: indices, icons and symbols.

  • Indices : the sign is linked in some way with the object or concept represented, by a cause-effect relationship or another kind of link. In the linguistic sign it could be the case of interjections (ah !, ouch !, hey !, etc.).
  • Icons : the signs try to reflect the object or concept represented, such as emoticons or road signs. In linguistic signs, onomatopoeia could be considered iconic, due to their attempt to represent natural sounds (tic tac, meow, moa, glú glu).
  • Symbols : are those signs that maintain an arbitrary relationship, the product of a cultural convention, with the object or concept represented. In this sense, all linguistic signs are symbolic in nature.

Elements of the linguistic sign

According to Saussure, the elements of the linguistic sign are two:

1-The signifier

It is the acoustic image, the material part of the sign, expressed vocally or graphically. It is the word, written or articulated vocally. The signifier can have more than one meaning depending on the use and the context.

2-The meaning

It is the mental part of the linguistic sign, the idea or the concept associated with the acoustic image, the mental representation invoked by the signifier. Linguistic sign Characteristics elements

On the other hand, Peirce, as we have already seen, said that the linguistic sign is not constituted by two elements but by three, since it handles a “triadic” conception of the sign.


It is the sign itself, the image that replaces or represents an idea or object in the mind of an individual. It would be the signifier of Saussure.

4-The object

That which is represented by the representamen: an idea or external object, what is represented.

5-The interpreter

It becomes a more elaborate expression of the representamen, the mental image and in turn the interpretation that the individual gives to the sign. The interpretant associates the sign with the object.

Examples of linguistic signs


It is a linguistic sign made up of four phonemes (branch), whose meaning may vary according to the context: branch of a tree, branch of an institution, Rama (avatar of Vishnu in the Hindu religion).


This signifier of seven phonemes (pl-á-tano) can refer to a fruit, but also to a completely different tree from the one that provides the fruit. Again, a signifier with several meanings.


It is a signifier made up of five phonemes (charge), with various meanings: action of carrying something, occupation, accusation. Linguistic sign Characteristics elements


It is a signifier made up of six phonemes (brunette), with different meanings: dark-skinned woman, black-haired woman, eel fish present in reefs, Mexican political party.

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