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Relation and mutual reference of signified ( le signifié ) and signifier ( le signifiant ) in the use of a sign according to Saussure .
The arrow on the left-hand side symbolizes the use in which a sequence of sounds is indicative of a mental conception, which means that an expression as the signifier can be used to denote a term (see onomasiology ). The arrow on the right, on the other hand, shows the direction of a use with which a mental representation is understood as being designated by a sound sequence, whereby a conceptual content can become the signified of the meaning of an expression (see semasiology ).

As a signifier (French signifiant ) or signifier , German and signifier or identifier is in the structuralist linguistics and semiotics , the expression side of a linguistic character called - against the content side as signified or the signified . Both signified and signified are to be distinguished from the object and the real thing .

A signifier is the material or quasi-material form in which, for example, a character or a phonetic sign is expressed (as a formative ) and perceptible (as a character body ) - and thus refers to a meaning or a term , the signified (French "signifié") on the content page of a character.

The concept of the signifier also plays a key role in Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis, which is influenced by structuralism, as an element of the symbolic within the psyche .

Put simply, the signifier is something indicative and the signified something denoted. With this comparison, a distinction is first made between two sides of a linguistic sign, to which different terms of different terminologies can be assigned depending on the understanding of both sides . For a sign, for example, the letter sequence H ut can be differentiated - as a signifier , indicative , expression , form, formative, typeface or sign body on the one hand - and combined with "type of headgear" - as a signified , designated, content, concept, meaning, meaning or conceptual image on the other hand - with which that signifier now designates this signified ( signifies ). The mental representation of the sequence of letters is linked to an idea of ​​their meaning, which allows them to be read as a sign.

With de Saussure's conception of a sign as the connection between the signifier and the signified, a two-sided model is designed (dyadic sign relation), in contrast to a three-sided triangle like the semiotic triangle . The reference to a real world remains faded out, therefore the relationships of the signifier and the signified to the reference object as a referenced object as well as a real thing are not included.

Use in linguistics

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), who decisively coined the term signifier as well as modern semiotics and linguistics , defines the signifier as a "sound image" in his Cours de linguistique générale (English: basic questions of general linguistics ) of a signature. The signified is the "content" of the signifier to which it refers. For example, the word "tree" is the signifier for the image tree . The signifier is thus understood as the "signifying" (French signifiant ) and the signified as the "designated" (French signifié ). The relationship between the characteristic signifier and the designated signified based on the conventional agreement made between people and is therefore arbitrary .

A sign is made up of the signifier and the signified as well as the link between these two sides ( reference ). In this sense, characters form a unit of two parts, which can be represented with a circle, which is divided in the middle by a dividing line. In this representation, the two halves of the circle, which stands for the sign, are divided into the signifier and the signified. Saussure uses the metaphor of a sheet of paper for this separation .

The decisive factor in the signifier for Saussure is its differential character : A signifier is determined by the demarcation (difference) to other signifiers. Except for a few onomatopoeic words such as “cuckoo”, the associated signified is largely freely selectable and its meaning is therefore not determined in advance; Instead, the connection between the signifier and the signified, word and meaning, which seems so natural in everyday language, is basically arbitrary, i.e. determined arbitrarily, and not naturally given.

The concept of the signifier has been of great importance for the modern humanities , especially in the context of the linguistic turn , and appears as a central concept in structuralism and poststructuralism in particular .

Every now and then the term “significant” is used synonymously with the term referent or - imprecisely - generally in the sense of a sign or symbol .

Use in Lacan's psychoanalysis

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan , who was strongly influenced by structuralism (in particular by Jacobsen's Roman ) , whose conception of psychoanalysis is particularly influential in France, is also known as structural psychoanalysis , gives the concept of the signifier its own color, but is nevertheless closely based on Saussure's use. Sigmund Freud , who was not familiar with Saussure's work, did not yet use the term (cf. Dylan Evans, Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis , p. 269).

As a signifier, not only (as yet for Saussure) words, but also things like objects, relationships, and for Lacan symptom treatments act (see. Seminar IV. The object relationship ). The decisive condition for a signifier is that it must be inscribed in a system: the order of the symbolic , in which it receives its meaning through the difference to other signifiers.

The linguistic structure of the psychic

In this sense, the symbolic is a “chain of signifiers” (“chaîne de signifiants”), which stand in a certain order to one another and which is maintained by the existence of a “master signifier” who guarantees it and supports it with his authority: the name of the father . He is the "fundamental signifier" that gives the subject identity and enables him to take a fixed place in the symbolic order (of the family and society) (see also: The great other ). The subject is ultimately itself a signifier: "A signifier is what a subject represents for another signifier." (Lacan, Seminar XI. The Four Basic Concepts of Psychoanalysis , p. 208)

According to Lacan, unlike Saussure, the signifier is the primary instance compared to the signified : it is not the signified that is the cause of the signifier, but rather the signifier is present first in the form of ubiquitous language . Significants are the first thing the child encounters; every utterance by the child is always linguistic in the broadest sense. For Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language and consists of signifiers. The " chain of signifiers" is also to be understood in the sense of an ancestral chain : a line in which every subject is already inscribed before birth and also after death and which unconsciously influences his fate. (Dylan Evans, Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis , p. 271).

The pure signifier

By emphasizing the primary role of the signifier over the signified, Lacan radicalizes the arbitrariness of the signifier, which de Saussure already emphasized. "The signifier is first and foremost a meaningless, material element in a closed differential system." (Evans, Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis , p. 269) According to Lacan, one should not believe "that the symbols really come from the real ." ( Lacan, Das Seminar II , p. 279)

Lacan calls the “signifier without a signified” “pure signifier”. It forms a void within the structure of the symbolic (in other words: is an “empty” signifier) ​​that can be occupied by various signifieds. (See also object small a .) The complete "sliding of the signified" is prevented by so-called "step points" (in the sense of stabilizing seam points); if these stops against sliding, reality slips away from the subject, which leads to psychosis .

See also


  • Ferdinand de Saussure : Basic questions in general linguistics. 2nd Edition. De Gruyter, Berlin 1967, ISBN 3-11-000158-6
  • Jacques Lacan : The Seminar IV. The Object Relationship (1956–57), Vienna: Turia + Kant 2003, ISBN 3-85132-300-9
  • Jacques Lacan: The Seminar XI. The four basic concepts of psychoanalysis (1964), Weinheim / Berlin: Quadriga 1986, ISBN 3-88679-906-9
  • Dylan Evans: An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis , Routledge, London and New York 1996, ISBN 0-415-13522-2
    • German: Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis , Vienna: Turia + Kant 2002
  • Wolfram Bergande: Lacan's Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction , Vienna: Passagen Verlag 2002, ISBN 3-85165-520-6
  • Hermann Lang: Language and the unconscious: Jacques Lacan's foundations of psychoanalysis. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1986 (= Heidelberg, Univ., Diss., 1972), ISBN 3-518-28226-3
  • Juan-David Nasio : 7 main concepts of psychoanalysis , Vienna: Turia + Kant 1999 (2nd edition), ISBN 3-85132-160-X

Web links

Wiktionary: Significant  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Significant  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Johannes Kabatek; Claus D. Pusch: Spanish Linguistics. Narr Francke Attempto, Tübingen 2009, ISBN 978-3-8233-6404-7 , pp. 43-45
  2. Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.): Lexicon of Linguistics. 3rd updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 , p. 123.
  3. Compare this to mental model , concept map , cognitive map or concept map