Semiotic triangle

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The semiotic triangle represents the relation between the symbol, the term evoked by it and the real thing it refers to.

The semiotic triangle is a model used in linguistics and semiotics . It is intended to illustrate that a symbol carrier ( grapheme , syntagm , symbol ) does not refer directly and directly to an extra-linguistic object, but that this reference only occurs indirectly through an idea / concept . The semiotic triangle was first published by Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards in The Meaning of Meaning (1923).

The semiotic triangle in a simplified description

  • The world consists of objects, facts, events and the like. These are real and determine everything that happens. The symbol for a single one of these stands in the following triangles on the right and means, in simplified terms: thing or “what is thing”.
  • When a person notices a thing or introduces himself, he makes an imaginary picture of it. The symbol for this is in the following triangles above and means: term or "what you mean".
  • When people talk about things with these terms, they use signs (mostly audible, occasionally also visible or differently perceptible). These are words (also designations, terms, symbols or the like). The symbol for this is in the following triangles on the left and means: word or “what you say about it”.
  • Thing, concept and word should clearly belong together. This does not always succeed; rather, one must always be careful whether the term just used correctly captures the thing under consideration, whether the word just used matches the term in question, and even whether the thing just considered is one at all and not some or none at all. The three corners don't match,

"This is how the most fundamental confusions easily arise (of which the whole philosophy is full)."

- Wittgenstein : Tractatus 3.324

The semiotic triangle as a pictorial representation of the multidimensionality of the signs

         /  \
        /    \
       /      \
      /        \
Zeichen ...... Gegenstand
 (Wort)           (Ding)

The semiotic triangle is initially only a visual aid to illustrate relationships “in” or “the” sign. Its interpretation and further elaboration therefore depends on the underlying epistemology .

The semiotic triangle illustrates in a decisive way that there is no direct relationship between the word (the form of signs, i.e. the written image or the phonetic image) and the signified (thing, object), but only through (at least) one so-called mediating authority consists. This is shown graphically by a different line.

A triangle is common. The decisive factor is the non-direct relationship between sign (word) and object (thing). Depending on the number of reference points and intermediaries to be illustrated (not to be hidden) and the type of relationships emphasized, one can also use a square, another polygon or a multidimensional body.

It should be pointed out that the mediating instance - referred to here with the ambiguous expression “ term ” - is viewed very differently, which is clear from the terminology findings below.

The semiotic triangle is an illustration of an understanding of the sign that corresponds to Ferdinand de Saussure's concept of sign , according to which a sign is a "psychological unity" between an "acoustic image" ( signifier ) and a "concept" (signified) (for him in the sense of a psychological idea) should be, is likely to contradict: instead of the “paper sheet metaphor” for the relationship between signifier / signified (by de Saussure), an optical separation and distancing of sign and concept (meaning) is made in the semiotic triangle .

The semiotic triangle also hides pragmatic conditions and references or reduces them to the semantic dimension and is therefore criticized by pragmatic theories of meaning (cf. semiotics ).

The lack of a direct relationship between sign and object is interpreted at the same time as an expression of the arbitrariness and conventionality of signs (emphasized by de Saussure) .


A distinction must be made between the semiotic triangle as an image and a three-sided (triadic) concept of sign, which it serves to illustrate.

The linguistic development is widely represented as if there had only been a semiotic triangle since Ogden / Richards , who thereby modified / overcome de Saussure's only two-part concept of sign. It is said that up to the 19th century the concept of sign was essentially discussed as a "two-digit relation" in terms of its factual relation.

Others emphasize the underlying three-sided ("triadic") concept of sign, which is mostly used by Aristotle, sometimes even by Plato.


Even with Plato there is a conceptual word-object-model between name (sign) - idea (concept) and thing.


With Aristotle a sign ( semeion , by which he means a word) is a symptom of a soul excitation, i.e. H. for something the speaker imagines. This idea of ​​the speaker is then an icon for a thing. For him, these are the primary sign relations (red in the figure below). The secondary sign relation (black in the figure) is derived from this.

The semiotic triangle in Aristotle

Since Aristotle it has been argued that signs do not designate things in the world suddenly, but conveyed through a “concept”, “idea” etc. This means a differentiation from the simple aliquid-stat-pro-aliquo conception and is "decisive for the whole history of semiotics". With Aristotle, "signs [...] stand for things that have been represented by the contents of consciousness". "Things are not presented by the signs, they are represented." The interpretation of De interpretatione has been controversial for thousands of years. The interpretation given above corresponds to a psychological interpretation that suggests a psychologism . This appears questionable, since Aristotle is more likely to have represented an epistemological realism .


In the scholastic philosophy of language there are reflections on the triple scheme res (thing, thing), intellectus (understanding, thought, concept), vox (word sign).

Port-Royal logic

The semiotic triangle is said to have been introduced in the grammar of Port-Royal (mid-17th century). In the logic of Port-Royal , the objects and the language signs are not linked to one another directly, but rather via universals.


According to Kant , the element that mediates between conceptuality and sensuality or object is the schema as a pictorial and clear sign. The process of the understanding, with the help of the 'imagination', to sensualize the pure understanding concepts is called schematism .


Even Arthur Schopenhauer , a German philosopher of the 19th century, differs in his major work The World as Will and Representation strictly between word, concept and intuition.

Hiding the reference in the de Saussure drawing model

According to widespread opinion, modern linguistics and the modern concept of signs only began with de Saussure. According to de Saussure, a sign is the connection of an expression (French: signifiant ) with a content (French: signifié ), whereby the sign was understood as a "psychological unit with two sides". In this two-part (dyadic) sign model “the real world has no meaning”: “Here what is designated as a mental concept, there what is designated as its materialization in language, but no space for the object itself”.

Triadic sign model according to Peirce

Charles S. Peirce developed a pragmatic semiotics and the pragmatics should be based on the triadic symbol model of Peirce. Instead of a dyadic, Peirce developed a communicative-pragmatic, triadic symbol model: the symbol is a "triadic relation (semiotic triangle)". He did this by adding the “interpretant” to the means of drawing and the object; H. the meaning that comes about through the interpretation of the sign user (speaker or listener) in an action context.

“What appears as the content of consciousness, the interpretant , is the individually recognized meaning, which in turn can be culturally shaped or shaped. Therefore, in this concept the meaning of the sign (...) is also postulated as a "cultural unit" ( Eco , 1972). "

Peirce interpreters such as Floyd Merrell or Gerhard Schönrich oppose the triangular representation of Peirce's drawing triads, as they could suggest that the irreducible triadic relation can be broken down into individual two-digit relations. Instead, they propose a Y-shaped representation in which the three relates are each connected by a line with the center point, but no lines run along the sides of the "triangle".

Charles Kay Ogden / Ivor Armstrong Richards

Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards are widely cited as "the" representatives of a three-sided drawing model or a semiotic triangle (while suppressing their predecessors) . These explicitly recognized a world outside of human consciousness and turned against "idealistic concepts".

According to Charles Kay Ogden and Ivor Armstrong Richards, the sign ( symbol ) symbolizes something and evokes a corresponding content of consciousness (reference) that relates to the object (referent). The semiotic triangle is explained as follows: “Environmental issues are represented conceptually or conceptually in memory and associated with language signs. So is z. For example, the word "tree" is a linguistic sign that is associated with the term or concept of "TREE" and can refer to real trees (beeches, birches, oaks, etc.) through it. ".

See also


  • Metamorphoses of the Semiotic Triangle . In: Journal of Semiotics . tape 10 , no. 3 , 1988, pp. 185–327 (including 8 individual articles).
  • Umberto Eco : Semiotics - Drafting a Theory of Signs . 2nd Edition. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-7705-2323-7 .
  • Umberto Eco: Introduction to Semiotics . Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1994, ISBN 3-7705-0633-2 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ CK Ogden , IA Richards : The Meaning of Meaning . 1923
  2. Kassai: Sense . In: Martinet (Ed.): Linguistics . 1973, p. 251
  3. Without problematizing, despite the proximity to Saussure, however, in Kassai: Sinn . In: Martinet (Ed.): Linguistics . 1973, p. 251 (p. 254 f.)
  4. So probably Fischer Kolleg Abiturwissen, German (2002), p. 27
  5. So z. B. Schülerduden, Philosophy (2002), Semiotics
  6. a b c Triadic sign relation . In: Homberger: Subject dictionary for linguistics . 2000
  7. ^ Trabant: Semiotics . 1996, p. 25
  8. a b Trabant: Semiotics . 1996, p. 24
  9. So also Triadic Sign Relation . In: Homberger: Subject dictionary for linguistics . 2000, according to which Aristotle is said to have "psychologized" the Platonic model
  10. ^ So Schülerduden, Philosophie (2002), Philosophy of Language
  11. Schülerduden, Philosophie (2002), Philosophy of Language
  12. Baumgartner : Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason", instructions for reading. [1988], newly published 5th edition. ALBER, Freiburg 2002, ISBN 978-3-495-47638-3 , p. 81
  13. For this, especially the chapter: "On the doctrine of abstract, or reason-knowledge" (second volume)
  14. Fischer Kolleg Abiturwissen, German (2002), p. 26
  15. a b Ernst: Pragmalinguistics . 2002, p. 66
  16. a b c Schülerduden, Philosophie (2002), Peirce
  17. So Pelz: Linguistics . 1996, p. 242
  18. drawing process . In: Homberger: Subject dictionary for linguistics . 2000
  19. meaning . In: Homberger: Subject dictionary for linguistics . 2000