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There are many models of the linguistic sign (see also sign (semiotics)). A classic model is the one by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. According to him, language is made up of signs and every sign has two sides:
- the signifier (French signifiant)
- the "shape" of a word, i.e. the sequence of letters or phonemes
- e.g. C-A-T
- the signified (French signifié)
- the concept or object that appears in our minds when we hear or read the signifier
- e.g. a small domesticated animal with fur, four legs and a tail
(The signified is not to be confused with the referent. The former is a mental concept, the latter the actual object in the world)
According to Saussure, the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, i.e. there is no direct connection between the shape and the concept (cf. Bussmann 1996: 434). For instance, there is no reason why the letters C-A-T (or the sound of these phonemes) produce exactly the image of the small, domesticated animal with fur, four legs and a tail in our minds. It is a result of convention: speakers of the same language group have agreed (and learned) that these letters or sounds evoke a certain image.
Compare an aerial drawing of London (field of potential signifieds) with a grid (field of signifiers) placed on it. The grid is arbitrary. Its structure (however motivated) divides the drawing into areas (which can then be referred to). The division of the drawing is arbitrary. A square 'EC1' is an inseparable fusion of grid and area of drawing i.e. is a sign - just like two sides of the same sheet of paper - which refers to 'real' land. EC1 does not have to refer to the particular part of London it does. Drawing + grid = map = language.
The concept of arbitrariness of linguistic signs is relativized in word formation, e.g. in compounds such as living room or in onomatopoeic expressions (onomatopoeia) such as miaow or crash (cf. Bussmann 1996: 32).
- Bussmann, Hadumod (1996), Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London: Routledge.
- Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916), "Nature of the Linguistics Sign", in: Charles Bally & Albert Sechehaye (Ed.), Cours de linguistique générale, McGraw Hill Education. ISBN 0-07-016524-6.
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