sign (semiotics)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In A Theory of Semiotics, novelist, critic, and semiotician Umberto Eco defines sign as "everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else.". Getty Images


A sign is any motion, gesture, image, sound, pattern, or event that conveys meaning.

The general science of signs is called semiotics. The instinctive capacity of living organisms to produce and understand signs is known as semiosis.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "mark, token, sign"

Examples and Observations

  • "We live in world full of signs. Whatever our eyes take in is pervaded by signs, ranging from traffic signs to the constellation of stars in the night sky; from the silhouette of a mother's image in our dreams to the seven color bands of the rainbow. . . . Conceiving of a world without signs is impossible."
    (Kyong Liong Kim, Caged in Our Own Signs: A Book About Semiotics. Greenwood, 1996)
  • "A sign is any physical form that has been imagined or made externally (through some physical medium) to stand for an object, event, feeling, etc., known as a referent, or for a class of similar (or related) objects, events, feelings, etc., known as a referential domain. In human life, signs serve many functions. They allow people to recognize patterns in things; they act as predictive guides or plans for taking actions; they serve as exemplars of specific kinds of phenomena; and the list could go on and on. The English word cat, for example, is an example of a particular kind of human sign--known as verbal--which stands for a referent that can be described as a 'carnivorous mammal with a tail, whiskers, and retractile claws.'"
    (Thomas A. Sebeok, Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics. University of Toronto Press, 1994)
  • Saussure on Signs
    - "[Swiss linguist Ferdinand de] Saussure argued that the meaning of a sign is arbitrary and variable. . . . In Saussure's terms, any sign consists of a signifier (the sound a word makes, its physical shape on the page) and a signified (the word's content). For language to work, the sign needs to be a unified whole."
    (David Lehman, Signs of the Times. Poseidon, 1991)

    - "Psychologically our thought--apart from its expression in words--is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed in recognizing that without the help of signs we would be unable to make a clear-cut, consistent distinction between two ideas. Without language, thought is a vague uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language."
    (Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. Philosophical Library, 1959)
  • Graphical Symbols in Airports
    "Much of the innovation in the sign world has been spurred by airports, places where people of all nationalities and tongues must move quickly, efficiently, and safely through huge spaces. For years, designers have been developing graphical symbols to help non-natives find the bathrooms, the baggage claims, and the bureaux de change, and, in the process, they've been inventing a global language, a kind of pictorial Esperanto."
    (Julia Turner, "The Secret Language of Signs." Slate, March 1, 2010)
  • Culturally Determined Signs
    "At checkpoints [in Iraq], U.S. troops tried to stop cars by holding up an open palm and waving downward. Iraqi drivers interpreted that as 'come,' not 'stop.' When a car kept advancing, troops shot warning shots, displaying an unnecessary hostility. Sometimes they'd shoot directly at the car, killing drivers and passengers. It was months before the troops came up with an unambiguous alternative, the outstretched clenched fist--by which time some Iraqis had died for an elementary cultural misunderstanding."
    (Bobby Ghosh, "Iraq: Missed Steps." Time magazine, Dec. 6, 2010)


Pronunciation: SINE