From Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners

Semiotics for Beginners

Daniel Chandler


We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans – meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of ‘signs’. Indeed, according to Peirce, ‘we think only in signs’(Peirce 1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. ‘Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign’, declares Peirce(Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing forsomething other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.

The two dominant models of what constitutes a sign are those of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. These will be discussed in turn.

Saussure offered a ‘dyadic’ or two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of:

      • a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and
      • the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents.

The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’.

If we take a linguistic example, the word ‘Open’ (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a signconsisting of:

      • signifier: the word open;
      • signified concept: that the shop is open for business.

A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure 1983, 101Saussure 1974, 102-103). A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The same signifier (the word ‘open’) could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift (‘push to open door’). Similarly, many signifiers could stand for the concept ‘open’ (for instance, on top of a packing carton, a small outline of a box with an open flap for ‘open this end’) – again, with each unique pairing constituting a different sign.

Nowadays, whilst the basic ‘Saussurean’ model is commonly adopted, it tends to be a more materialistic model than that of Saussure himself. The signifier is now commonly interpreted as the material (or physical) form of the sign – it is something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted. For Saussure, both the signifier and the signified were purely ‘psychological’ (Saussure 1983, 12, 14-15, 66Saussure 1974, 12, 15, 65-66). Both were form rather than substance:

          A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern. The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. This sound pattern may be called a ‘material’ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. The sound pattern may thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is generally of a more abstract kind: the concept. (

Saussure 1983, 66Saussure 1974, 66)

Saussure was focusing on the linguistic sign (such as a word) and he ‘phonocentrically’ privileged the spoken word, referring specifically to the image acoustique (‘sound-image’ or ‘sound pattern’), seeing writing as a separate, secondary, dependent but comparable sign system (Saussure 1983, 15, 24-25, 117Saussure 1974, 15, 16, 23-24, 119). Within the (‘separate’) system of written signs, a signifier such as the written letter ‘t’ signified a sound in the primary sign system of language (and thus a written word would also signify a sound rather than a concept). Thus for Saussure, writing relates to speech as signifier to signified. Most subsequent theorists who have adopted Saussure’s model are content to refer to the form of linguistic signs as either spoken or written. We will return later to the issue of the post-Saussurean ‘rematerialization’ of the sign.

As for the signified, most commentators who adopt Saussure’s model still treat this as a mental construct, although they often note that it may nevertheless refer indirectly to things in the world. Saussure’s original model of the sign ‘brackets the referent’: excluding reference to objects existing in the world. His signified is not to be identified directly with a referent but is a concept in the mind – not a thing but the notion of a thing. Some people may wonder why Saussure’s model of the sign refers only to a concept and not to a thing. An observation from the philosopher Susanne Langer (who was not referring to Saussure’s theories) may be useful here. Note that like most contemporary commentators, Langer uses the term ‘symbol’ to refer to the linguistic sign (a term which Saussure himself avoided): ‘Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects… In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean. Behaviour towards conceptions is what words normally evoke; this is the typical process of thinking’. She adds that ‘If I say “Napoleon”, you do not bow to the conqueror of Europe as though I had introduced him, but merely think of him’ (Langer 1951, 61).

Thus, for Saussure the linguistic sign is wholly immaterial – although he disliked referring to it as ‘abstract’ (Saussure 1983, 15Saussure 1974, 15). The immateriality of the Saussurean sign is a feature which tends to be neglected in many popular commentaries. If the notion seems strange, we need to remind ourselves that words have no value in themselves – that is their value. Saussure noted that it is not the metal in a coin that fixes its value (Saussure 1983, 117Saussure 1974, 118). Several reasons could be offered for this. For instance, if linguistic signs drew attention to their materiality this would hinder their communicative transparency (Langer 1951, 73). Furthermore, being immaterial, language is an extraordinarily economical medium and words are always ready-to-hand. Nevertheless, a principled argument can be made for the revaluation of the materiality of the sign, as we shall see in due course.

Saussure noted that his choice of the terms signifier and signified helped to indicate ‘the distinction which separates each from the other’ (Saussure 1983, 67Saussure 1974, 67). Despite this, and the horizontal bar in his diagram of the sign, Saussure stressed that sound and thought (or the signifier and the signified) were as inseparable as the two sides of a piece of paper (Saussure 1983, 111Saussure 1974, 113). They were ‘intimately linked’ in the mind ‘by an associative link’ – ‘each triggers the other’ (Saussure 1983, 66Saussure 1974, 66). Saussure presented these elements as wholly interdependent, neither pre-existing the other (Silverman 1983, 103). Within the context of spoken language, a sign could not consist of sound without sense or of sense without sound. He used the two arrows in the diagram to suggest their interaction. The bar and the opposition nevertheless suggests that the signifier and the signified can be distinguished for analytical purposes. Poststructuralist theorists criticize the clear distinction which the Saussurean bar seems to suggest between the signifier and the signified; they seek to blur or erase it in order to reconfigure the sign or structural relations. Some theorists have argued that ‘the signifier is always separated from the signified… and has a real autonomy’ (Lechte 1994, 68), a point to which we will return in discussing the arbitrariness of the sign. Commonsense tends to insist that the signified takes precedence over, and pre-exists, the signifier: ‘look after the sense’, quipped Lewis Carroll, ‘and the sounds will take care of themselves’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 9). However, in dramatic contrast, post-Saussurean theorists have seen the model as implicitly granting primacy to the signifier, thus reversing the commonsensical position.

Louis Hjelmslev used the terms ‘expression’ and ‘content’ to refer to the signifier and signified respectively (Hjelmslev 1961, 47ff)The distinction between signifier and signified has sometimes been equated to the familiar dualism of ‘form and content’. Within such a framework the signifier is seen as the form of the sign and the signified as the content. However, the metaphor of form as a ‘container’ is problematic, tending to support the equation of content with meaning, implying that meaning can be ‘extracted’ without an active process of interpretation and that form is not in itself meaningful (Chandler 1995 104-6).

Saussure argued that signs only make sense as part of a formal, generalized and abstract system. His conception of meaning was purely structural and relational rather than referential: primacy is given to relationships rather than to things (the meaning of signs was seen as lying in their systematic relation to each other rather than deriving from any inherent features of signifiers or any reference to material things). Saussure did not define signs in terms of some ‘essential’ or intrinsic nature. For Saussure, signs refer primarily to each other. Within the language system, ‘everything depends on relations’ (Saussure 1983, 121Saussure 1974, 122). No sign makes sense on its own but only in relation to other signs. Both signifier and signified are purely relational entities (Saussure 1983, 118Saussure 1974, 120). This notion can be hard to understand since we may feel that an individual word such as ‘tree’ does have some meaning for us, but its meaning depends on its context in relation to the other words with which it is used.

Together with the ‘vertical’ alignment of signifier and signified within each individual sign (suggesting two structural ‘levels’), the emphasis on the relationship between signs defines what are in effect two planes – that of the signifier and the signifier. Later, Louis Hjelmslev referred to the planes of ‘expression’ and ‘content’ (Hjelmslev 1961, 60). Saussure himself referred to sound and thought as two distinct but correlated planes. ‘We can envisage… the language… as a series of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously imprinted both on the plane of vague, amorphous thought (A), and on the equally featureless plane of sound (B)’ (Saussure 1983, 110-111Saussure 1974, 112). The arbitrary division of the two continua into signs is suggested by the dotted lines whilst the wavy (rather than parallel) edges of the two ‘amorphous’ masses suggest the lack of any ‘natural’ fit between them. The gulf and lack of fit between the two planes highlights their relative autonomy. Whilst Saussure is careful not to refer directly to ‘reality’, Fredric Jameson reads into this feature of Saussure’s system that ‘it is not so much the individual word or sentence that “stands for” or “reflects” the individual object or event in the real world, but rather that the entire system of signs, the entire field of the langue, lies parallel to reality itself; that it is the totality of systematic language, in other words, which is analogous to whatever organized structures exist in the world of reality, and that our understanding proceeds from one whole or Gestalt to the other, rather than on a one-to-one basis’ (Jameson 1972, 32-33).

What Saussure refers to as the ‘value’ of a sign depends on its relations with other signs within the system – a sign has no ‘absolute’ value independent of this context (Saussure 1983, 80Saussure 1974, 80). Saussure uses an analogy with the game of chess, noting that the value of each piece depends on its position on the chessboard (Saussure 1983, 88Saussure 1974, 88). The sign is more than the sum of its parts. Whilst signification – what is signified – clearly depends on the relationship between the two parts of the sign, the value of a sign is determined by the relationships between the sign and other signs within the system as a whole (Saussure 1983, 112-113Saussure 1974, 114).

          The notion of value… shows us that it is a great mistake to consider a sign as nothing more than the combination of a certain sound and a certain concept. To think of a sign as nothing more would be to isolate it from the system to which it belongs. It would be to suppose that a start could be made with individual signs, and a system constructed by putting them together. On the contrary, the system as a united whole is the starting point, from which it becomes possible, by a process of analysis, to identify its constituent elements. (

Saussure 1983, 112Saussure 1974, 113)

As an example of the distinction between signification and value, Saussure notes that ‘The French word mouton may have the same meaning as the English word sheep; but it does not have the same value. There are various reasons for this, but in particular the fact that the English word for the meat of this animal, as prepared and served for a meal, is not sheep but mutton. The difference in value between sheep and mouton hinges on the fact that in English there is also another word mutton for the meat, whereas mouton in French covers both’ (Saussure 1983, 114Saussure 1974, 115-116).

Saussure’s relational conception of meaning was specifically differential: he emphasized the differences between signs. Language for him was a system of functional differences and oppositions. ‘In a language, as in every other semiological system, what distinguishes a sign is what constitutes it’ (Saussure 1983, 119Saussure 1974, 121). As John Sturrock points out, ‘a one-term language is an impossibility because its single term could be applied to everything and differentiate nothing; it requires at least one other term to give it definition’ (Sturrock 1979, 10). Advertising furnishes a good example of this notion, since what matters in ‘positioning’ a product is not the relationship of advertising signifiers to real-world referents, but the differentiation of each sign from the others to which it is related. Saussure’s concept of the relational identity of signs is at the heart of structuralist theory. Structuralist analysis focuses on the structural relations which are functional in the signifying system at a particular moment in history. ‘Relations are important for what they can explain: meaningful contrasts and permitted or forbidden combinations’ (Culler 1975, 14).

Saussure emphasized in particular negative, oppositional differences between signs, and the key relationships in structuralist analysis are binary oppositions (such asnature/culturelife/death). Saussure argued that ‘concepts… are defined not positively, in terms of their content, but negatively by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not‘ (Saussure 1983, 115Saussure 1974, 117; my emphasis). This notion may initially seem mystifying if not perverse, but the concept of negative differentiation becomes clearer if we consider how we might teach someone who did not share our language what we mean by the term ‘red’. We would be unlikely to make our point by simply showing them a range of different objects which all happened to be red – we would be probably do better to single out a red object from a sets of objects which were identical in all respects except colour. Although Saussure focuses on speech, he also noted that in writing, ‘the values of the letter are purely negative and differential’ – all we need to be able to do is to distinguish one letter from another (Saussure 1983, 118Saussure 1974, 119-120). As for his emphasis on negative differences, Saussure remarks that although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, the sign in which they are combined is a positive term. He adds that ‘the moment we compare one sign with another as positive combinations, the term differenceshould be dropped… Two signs… are not different from each other, but only distinct. They are simply in opposition to each other. The entire mechanism of language… is based on oppositions of this kind and upon the phonic and conceptual differences they involve’ (Saussure 1983, 119Saussure 1974, 120-121).

Although the signifier is treated by its users as ‘standing for’ the signified, Saussurean semioticians emphasize that there is no necessary, intrinsic, direct or inevitable relationship between the signifier and the signified. Saussure stressed the arbitrariness of the sign (Saussure 1983, 67, 78Saussure 1974, 67, 78) – more specifically the arbitrariness of the link between the signifier and the signified (Saussure 1983, 67Saussure 1974, 67). He was focusing on linguistic signs, seeing language as the most important sign system; for Saussure, the arbitrary nature of the sign was the first principle of language (Saussure 1983, 67Saussure 1974, 67) – arbitrariness was identified later by Charles Hockett as a key ‘design feature’ of language (Hockett 1958Hockett 1960Hockett 1965). The feature of arbitrariness may indeed help to account for the extraordinary versatility of language (Lyons 1977, 71). In the context of natural language, Saussure stressed that there is no inherent, essential, ‘transparent’, self-evident or ‘natural’ connection between the signifier and the signified – between the sound or shape of a word and the concept to which it refers (Saussure 1983, 67, 68-69, 76, 111, 117;Saussure 1974, 67, 69, 76, 113, 119). Note that Saussure himself avoids directly relating the principle of arbitrariness to the relationship between language and an external world, but that subsequent commentators often do, and indeed, lurking behind the purely conceptual ‘signified’ one can often detect Saussure’s allusion to real-world referents(Coward & Ellis 1977, 22). In language at least, the form of the signifier is not determined by what it signifies: there is nothing ‘treeish’ about the word ‘tree’. Languages differ, of course, in how they refer to the same referent. No specific signifier is ‘naturally’ more suited to a signified than any other signifier; in principle any signifier could represent any signified. Saussure observed that ‘there is nothing at all to prevent the association of any idea whatsoever with any sequence of sounds whatsoever’ (Saussure 1983, 76Saussure 1974, 76); ‘the process which selects one particular sound-sequence to correspond to one particular idea is completely arbitrary’ (Saussure 1983, 111;Saussure 1974, 113).

This principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign was not an original conception: Aristotle had noted that ‘there can be no natural connection between the sound of any language and the things signified’ (cited in Richards 1932, 32). In Plato’s Cratylus Hermogenes urged Socrates to accept that ‘whatever name you give to a thing is its right name; and if you give up that name and change it for another, the later name is no less correct than the earlier, just as we change the name of our servants; for I think no name belongs to a particular thing by nature’ (cited in Harris 1987, 67). ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, as Shakespeare put it. Whilst the notion of the arbitrariness of language was not new, but the emphasis which Saussure gave it can be seen as an original contribution, particularly in the context of a theory which bracketed the referent. Note that although Saussure prioritized speech, he also stressed that ‘the signs used in writing are arbitrary, The letter t, for instance, has no connection with the sound it denotes’ (Saussure 1983, 117Saussure 1974, 119).

The arbitrariness principle can be applied not only to the sign, but to the whole sign-system. The fundamental arbitrariness of language is apparent from the observation thateach language involves different distinctions between one signifier and another (e.g. ‘tree’ and ‘free’) and between one signified and another (e.g. ‘tree’ and ‘bush’). The signified is clearly arbitrary if reality is perceived as a seamless continuum (which is how Saussure sees the initially undifferentiated realms of both thought and sound): where, for example, does a ‘corner’ end? Commonsense suggests that the existence of things in the world preceded our apparently simple application of ‘labels’ to them (a ‘nomenclaturist’ notion which Saussure rejected and to which we will return in due course). Saussure noted that ‘if words had the job of representing concepts fixed in advance, one would be able to find exact equivalents for them as between one language and another. But this is not the case’ (Saussure 1983, 114-115Saussure 1974, 116). Reality is divided up into arbitrary categories by every language and the conceptual world with which each of us is familiar could have been divided up very differently. Indeed, no two languages categorize reality in the same way. As John Passmore puts it, ‘Languages differ by differentiating differently’ (cited in Sturrock 1986, 17). Linguistic categories are not simply a consequence of some predefined structure in the world. There are no ‘natural’ concepts or categories which are simply ‘reflected’ in language. Language plays a crucial role in ‘constructing reality’.

If one accepts the arbitrariness of the relationship between signifier and signified then one may argue counter-intuitively that the signified is determined by the signifier rather than vice versa. Indeed, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in adapting Saussurean theories, sought to highlight the primacy of the signifier in the psyche by rewriting Saussure’s model of the sign in the form of a quasi-algebraic sign in which a capital ‘S’ (representing the signifier) is placed over a lower case and italicized ‘s‘ (representing the signified), these two signifiers being separated by a horizontal ‘bar’ (Lacan 1977, 149). This suited Lacan’s purpose of emphasizing how the signified inevitably ‘slips beneath’ the signifier, resisting our attempts to delimit it. Lacan poetically refers to Saussure’s illustration of the planes of sound and thought as ‘an image resembling the wavy lines of the upper and lower Waters in miniatures from manuscripts of Genesis; a double flux marked by streaks of rain’, suggesting that this can be seen as illustrating the ‘incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier’ – although he argues that one should regard the dotted vertical lines not as ‘segments of correspondence’ but as ‘anchoring points’ (points de capiton – literally, the ‘buttons’ which anchor upholstery to furniture). However, he notes that this model is too linear, since ‘there is in effect no signifying chain that does not have, as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units, a whole articulation of relevant contexts suspended ‘vertically’, as it were, from that point’ (ibid., 154). In the spirit of the Lacanian critique of Saussure’s model, subsequent theorists have emphasized the temporary nature of the bond between signifier and signified, stressing that the ‘fixing’ of ‘the chain of signifiers’ is socially situated (Coward & Ellis 1977, 6, 13, 17, 67). Note that whilst the intent of Lacan in placing the signifier over the signified is clear enough, his representational strategy seems a little curious, since in the modelling of society orthodox Marxists routinely represent the fundamental driving force of ‘the [techno-economic] base’ as (logically) below ‘the [ideological] superstructure’.

The arbitrariness of the sign is a radical concept because it proposes the autonomy of language in relation to reality. The Saussurean model, with its emphasis on internal structures within a sign system, can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not ‘reflect’ reality but rather constructs it. We can use language ‘to say what isn’t in the world, as well as what is. And since we come to know the world through whatever language we have been born into the midst of, it is legitimate to argue that our language determines reality, rather than reality our language’ (Sturrock 1986, 79). In their book The Meaning of Meaning, Ogden and Richards criticized Saussure for ‘neglecting entirely the things for which signs stand’ (Ogden & Richards 1923, 8). Later critics have lamented his model’s detachment from social context (Gardiner 1992, 11). Robert Stam argues that by ‘bracketing the referent’, the Saussurean model ‘severs text from history’ (Stam 2000, 122). We will return to this theme of the relationship between language and ‘reality’ in our discussion of ‘modality and representation’.

The arbitrary aspect of signs does help to account for the scope for their interpretation (and the importance of context). There is no one-to-one link between signifier and signified; signs have multiple rather than single meanings. Within a single language, one signifier may refer to many signifieds (e.g. puns) and one signified may be referred to by many signifiers (e.g. synonyms). Some commentators are critical of the stance that the relationship of the signifier to the signified, even in language, is always completely arbitrary (e.g. Lewis 1991, 29). Onomatopoeic words are often mentioned in this context, though some semioticians retort that this hardly accounts for the variability between different languages in their words for the same sounds (notably the sounds made by familiar animals) (Saussure 1983, 69Saussure 1974, 69).

Saussure declares that ‘the entire linguistic system is founded upon the irrational principle that the sign is arbitrary’. This provocative declaration is followed immediately by the acknowledgement that ‘applied without restriction, this principle would lead to utter chaos’ (Saussure 1983, 131Saussure 1974, 133). If linguistic signs were to be totallyarbitrary in every way language would not be a system and its communicative function would be destroyed. He concedes that ‘there exists no language in which nothing at all is motivated’ (ibid.). Saussure admits that ‘a language is not completely arbitrary, for the system has a certain rationality’ (Saussure 1983, 73Saussure 1974, 73). The principle of arbitrariness does not mean that the form of a word is accidental or random, of course. Whilst the sign is not determined extralinguistically it is subject tointralinguistic determination. For instance, signifiers must constitute well-formed combinations of sounds which conform with existing patterns within the language in question. Furthermore, we can recognize that a compound noun such as ‘screwdriver’ is not wholly arbitrary since it is a meaningful combination of two existing signs. Saussure introduces a distinction between degrees of arbitrariness:

      • The fundamental principle of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign does not prevent us from distinguishing in any language between what is intrinsically arbitrary – that is, unmotivated – and what is only relatively arbitrary. Not all signs are absolutely arbitrary. In some cases, there are factors which allow us to recognize different degrees of arbitrariness, although never to discard the notion entirely.

The sign may be motivated to a certain extent(Saussure 1983, 130Saussure 1974, 131; original emphasis, see also following pages)

Here then Saussure modifies his stance somewhat and refers to signs as being ‘relatively arbitrary’. Some subsequent theorists (echoing Althusserian Marxist terminology) refer to the relationship between the signifier and the signified in terms of ‘relative autonomy’ (Tagg 1988, 167Lechte 1994, 150). The relative conventionality of relationships between signified and signifier is a point to which I return below.

It should be noted that whilst the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds are ontologically arbitrary (philosophically, it would not make any difference to the status of these entities in ‘the order of things’ if what we call ‘black’ had always been called ‘white’ and vice versa), this is not to suggest that signifying systems are socially or historically arbitrary. Natural languages are not, of course, arbitrarily established, unlike historical inventions such as Morse Code. Nor does the arbitrary nature of the sign make it socially ‘neutral’ or materially ‘transparent’ – for example, in Western culture ‘white’ has come to be a privileged signifier (Dyer 1997). Even in the case of the ‘arbitrary’ colours of traffic lights, the original choice of red for ‘stop’ was not entirely arbitrary, since it already carried relevant associations with danger. As Lévi-Strauss noted, the sign is arbitrary a priori but ceases to be arbitrary a posteriori – after the sign has come into historical existence it cannot be arbitrarily changed (Lévi-Strauss 1972, 91). As part of its social use within a code (a term which became fundamental amongst post-Saussurean semioticians), every sign acquires a history and connotationsof its own which are familiar to members of the sign-users’ culture. Saussure remarked that although the signifier ‘may seem to be freely chosen’, from the point of view of the linguistic community it is ‘imposed rather than freely chosen’ because ‘a language is always an inheritance from the past’ which its users have ‘no choice but to accept’ (Saussure 1983, 71-72Saussure 1974, 71). Indeed, ‘it is because the linguistic sign is arbitrary that it knows no other law than that of tradition, and [it is] because it is founded upon tradition that it can be arbitrary’ (Saussure 1983, 74Saussure 1974, 74). The arbitrariness principle does not, of course mean that an individual can arbitrarily choose any signifier for a given signified. The relation between a signifier and its signified is not a matter of individual choice; if it were then communication would become impossible. ‘The individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in the linguistic community’ (Saussure 1983, 68Saussure 1974, 69). From the point-of-view of individual language-users, language is a ‘given’ – we don’t create the system for ourselves. Saussure refers to the language system as a non-negotiable ‘contract’ into which one is born (Saussure 1983, 14Saussure 1974, 14) – although he later problematizes the term (ibid., 71). The ontological arbitrariness which it involves becomes invisible to us as we learn to accept it as ‘natural’.

The Saussurean legacy of the arbitrariness of signs leads semioticians to stress that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is conventional – dependent on social and cultural conventions. This is particularly clear in the case of the linguistic signs with which Saussure was concerned: a word means what it does to us only because we collectively agree to let it do so. Saussure felt that the main concern of semiotics should be ‘the whole group of systems grounded in the arbitrariness of the sign’. He argued that: ‘signs which are entirely arbitrary convey better than others the ideal semiological process. That is why the most complex and the most widespread of all systems of expression, which is the one we find in human languages, is also the most characteristic of all. In this sense, linguistics serves as a model for the whole of semiology, even though languages represent only one type of semiological system’ (Saussure 1983, 68Saussure 1974, 68). He did not in fact offer many examples of sign systems other than spoken language and writing, mentioning only: the deaf-and-dumb alphabet; social customs; etiquette; religious and other symbolic rites; legal procedures; military signals and nautical flags (Saussure 1983, 15, 17, 68, 74Saussure 1974, 16, 17, 68, 73). Saussure added that ‘any means of expression accepted in a society rests in principle upon a collective habit, or on convention – which comes to the same thing’ (Saussure 1983, 68Saussure 1974, 68). However, whilst purely conventional signs such as words are quite independent of their referents, other less conventional forms of signs are often somewhat less independent of them. Nevertheless, since the arbitary nature of linguistic signs is clear, those who have adopted the Saussurean model have tended to avoid ‘the familiar mistake of assuming that signs which appear natural to those who use them have an intrinsic meaning and require no explanation’ (Culler 1975, 5).