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In the broadest sense, a sign is something that indicates something else, denotes something.

Sign theorists see this as a semiotic phenomenon and, in the narrower sense, define signs as a subclass of this phenomenon. There signs contrast with other semiotic phenomena such as symbols and signs (cf. index , signal ). Language signs are basic elements of a language .

Sign is generally something that can be distinguished, to which a meaning is assigned; a linguistic characters as the basic element of a communication system (including gestures , gesture , sounds , marks and symbols).

Sign comes from Indo-European dei for "bright shine", "shimmer", "shine", and in Old High German it becomes zeihhan "miracle", "miracle sign". The German word is originally based on the earthly appearance of a higher power.

Sign concept

One-sided and two-sided character term

The word "sign" can mean:

  1. only the character body
    (one-sided, unilateral character term)
  2. the unity of the relationship between the body of the symbol and its meaning
    (two-sided, dyadic concept of the symbol, "bilateral"), conceived as inseparable .

A one-sided concept of sign was not only represented by Ogden / Richards, but also by classical sign theory. If one assumes that a body of symbols does not directly designate something extra-linguistic , but only on the basis of a mediating instance {idea, concept , usage}, this three-digit relation can be illustrated as a semiotic triangle .

De Saussure represented a two-sided (bilateral) concept of sign (according to prevailing beliefs) : the sign as a psychological unit, consisting of an expression page ( signifiant) and a content page (signifié) , like two pages of a sheet of paper. According to another opinion, de Saussure is said to have used the expression “sign” to designate the signifier (sign in the sense of [1.]). Then it is unclear whether de Saussure uses characters in the sense of [1.] [2.] or in the sense of a combination of both.

If one defines the sign as a psychological unit , then the reference to reality and the pragmatic reference to the language users are faded out.


In the broadest sense, a sign is anything that stands for something else; what as “previously recognized leads to the knowledge of another”, “represents another givenness ... or designates or represents this ...”, “anything that is assigned to another, what is designated”; that which is in a "reference relationship" to this. "A sign indicates something, i. that is, it refers to something that lies outside the sign itself. ”A sign“ is everything that and in so far as it serves to indicate or to make something recognizable ”.

Signs are "physical things" (markings with ink on paper, sound waves etc.). “What makes them signs is the mediating (intermediary) position they have between an object and a sign-user, i.e. H. one person. "

According to God, Frege , the sign is what “serves us to designate, express or claim something”. It is “just an arbitrarily chosen means of thought expression that remains completely out of consideration. The use of the signs lies in this representation ”.

The basis of the theory of signs is the principle of aliquid stat pro aliquo "something stands for something". "One of the characteristics of a sign is therefore its representative function: A sign stands by definition 'for something else', so it is in principle not self-referential." but already applied to Aristotle .

Since Aristotle it has been argued that signs do not designate things in the world suddenly, but rather conveyed via a concept , idea, etc., which overcomes a naive conception: "Things are not presented by the signs, they are represented." This insight becomes "decisive for the whole history of semiotics"

The concept of signs in structuralist linguistics

After Ferdinand de Saussure a character, the relationship (connection) between signified (signifie, signified ) and signifier (Signifiant, Significantly ). The signified corresponds to an idea or a concept, the signatory is a sound image. The sound image is also something imaginary (i.e. a psychological impression and not the physical sound wave), since one can mentally “pronounce” a sequence of sounds for oneself without moving one's lips. The connection between what is designated and what is significant is arbitrary (arbitrary). Arbitrary does not mean here that every person can freely choose a signifier for a signified, but that the original definition of a sign is unmotivated. Signs for communication between people require an "appointment", a convention . Once the symbol has become a convention, it remains firmly assigned.

The concept of symbols in pragmatism

Charles S. Peirce developed a pragmatic semiotics and expanded the dyadic concept of sign to a specific triadic model. This leads to a process-based and dynamic theory of signs.

Peirce defines the sign as a triadic relationship between a representative , an interpreter and an object .

A representative name is a symbol (e.g. a picture, a word), a symbol in the narrower sense, "which stands for something for someone in some respect or through some characteristic."

An interpreter is a thought that the sign carrier evokes in an interpreter and is itself a sign (in the narrower sense).

In the words of Peirce: “A sign or representative is everything that is in such a relation to a second, which is called its object, that it is able to determine a third, which is called its interpreter, in that direction triadic relation to that relation to the object in which it itself stands. This means that the interpreter himself is a sign that determines a sign of the same object and so on without end. "

Umberto Eco suggests naming all signs that, based on a previously agreed social convention, can be understood as something that stands for something else . He largely adopts the definition of Charles W. Morris (1938).

Other meanings

In religious and spiritual contexts, signs are used

  • Premonitions
  • dreams
  • reinforcing repetitions of certain events within a short period of time
  • Coincidences, d. H. strange coincidence of conspicuous circumstances

Roger that.

Characteristics of the sign

Communication intention?

Whether an intention to communicate is part of the concept of a symbol depends on the concept of symbol and communication used.

When it says: "Every sign is used for understanding, for communication", then this applies to language signs. The semiotic concept of sign can be wider. He also includes mere signs in the concept of signs (smoke as a sign of fire).

See also below for the distinction between indexical and communication symbols.

Arbitrariness and conventionality

"Arbitrariness and conventionalization are the two central characteristics of linguistic signs."

  • Arbitrariness (arbitrariness) means : "Between what is indicative (signifier, sign, symbol) and what is designated (signified, concept, thought) there is any meaning that is not naturally necessary or depicting, but rather conventionally defined."
    “However, the arbitrary character of the linguistic sign cannot be taken absolutely. On the contrary, since Saussure one has on the motivated, i.e. H. the immediately intelligible character of certain lexical units. Three types of motivation structure the lexicon: phonetic motivation, morphological motivation and semantic motivation. "
  • Conventionality means: The signs are based on (also tacit) agreements (habits), on “achievements of a language community”. What is meant is a usually tacit convention “which, as a linguistic rule or social norm, belongs to the culture of a society”. It gives the arbitrary assignment of character content and character form the stability necessary for communication.
In part, emphasis is placed on the distinction between convention and agreement : only the concept of convention in the sense of Lewis should be taken as a basis: According to this, conventions are "behavioral regularities of individuals in a group that are generated by complex, mutually directed expectations".

Their mutability follows from the arbitrariness and conventionality of signs .


In addition to arbitrariness and conventionality, the third characteristic property of language signs, according to de Saussure's theory, is the associativity of signs.

This presupposes a psychologically (mentalist, cognitively (istic)) oriented theory of signs and describes the relationship between sign form and sign content as associative in a psychological perspective . The fact that, as the phenomenon of aphasia shows, the form and content of the sign “are lost independently of one another” is not seen as a contradiction to de Saussure's claim that sign content and sign expression are inseparable.

Context and situation relatedness

Signs are always updated in a physical, social and psychological context ( situation ) so that we understand the sign because we interpret it in the context of an overall situation.

Sign as a system element and the system functionality of the sign

A character or a set of characters belong to a certain system of characters (chemistry, Morse code, flag signals, etc.).

The (one) system of linguistic signs has been called Langue in linguistics since Ferdinand de Saussure .

The meaning of a sign depends on its position in the sign system and its structure. De Saussure used the expression valeur (French: value), which is represented in German with value , linguistic value , status of a sign or with systemic value .

  • Example: The grade (the word, the sign) “good” has “very good |” in the grading system good | sufficient | poor ”has a different grade value, a different meaning than in the grading scale“ good | satisfactory | inadequate".

According to (extreme) structuralism alone: ​​“Every sign has a value only through its opposition to the other signs of the system. What is important here is not the positive quality, but the differential character of the characters. "

It should be noted that a sign can be found in different systematic contexts and thus can have "completely different values" (depending on the system in concrete terms).

According to de Saussure, a sign in a system has a fixed value “as a product of differential relations”.

In (structuralist) linguistics, a distinction is made between two system aspects in particular:

  1. paradigmatic relationships: relationships between signs of the same type or function;
  2. syntagmatic relationships: relationships between signs of different types or functions, which form the basis of the structure of complex signs.


Another property of a sign is its linearity . This is based on the fact that the sign is realized in time.

Classifications of characters

Symbol - Icon - Index


The term symbol is sometimes equated colloquially with the term sign.

Technically speaking, symbol

  • in the European tradition (e.g. Ferdinand de Saussure ) a sign in the broader sense in which there is some similarity between the sign and what it denotes. The opposite concept is then the sign in the narrower sense = the purely arbitrary sign.
  • in the American tradition (founded by Charles S. Peirce ) symbol denotes the opposite: the purely arbitrary sign. The symbol types Icon (depicting symbol) and Index (indicating symbol) are then opposed.

Peirce's terminology

Under the influence of American linguistics, a terminology by Charles S. Peirce is also widespread in German linguistics , in which a distinction is made between symbol, icon and index. Peirce's terminology for the expression “symbol” contradicts European tradition.

Peirce divides the characters into three character trichotomies, so that nine sub-character classes and, by combining them with one another, ten main character classes result. Among the sub-character classes, the best-known are: icon, index and symbol. They belong to the second trichotomy, in which the object relation of the sign is discussed.

  • An icon is a sign that points by similarity to its object (an image ratio): onomatopoeia (onomatopoeic) expressions ( "Cuckoo", "Owl", "neigh", "Wau" for the barking of a dog, etc.) as well as formikonische Words ("S-curve", "T-beam", "V-neck" etc.).
  • An index is a sign that refers to it through the direct causal effect of its object. B. Smoke a sign of the fire causing it. Another meaning of index as an individually assigned character (e.g. proper name) is in line with this insofar as such an index only comes about through a physical act of naming in which its object is involved (e.g. baptism).
  • Symbols (in the sense of Peirce) are signs in the above-mentioned sense: between the form of the sign (indicative) and its meaning ( denoted ) there is a relationship that is characterized by arbitrariness and conventionality: there is no relationship between the letter sequence chair and the object in question Likeness relationship. In other words, the symbol refers to its object through pure habit.

The division is ideal. In reality, signs are combinations of these basic types.

Linguistic and non-linguistic characters

The division into linguistic and non-lingual - including verbal and non-verbal - signs is at right angles to the division of the characters into index, icon and symbol. The reason for the classification is the use of language for the purpose of communication.

The terminology is not standardized, however. In a broader sense, non-linguistic characters are all characters that are not of a linguistic nature. This includes paraverbal and non-verbal signs in the narrower sense ( non-verbal signs ).

Paraverbal signs are non-verbal signs in the broader sense that manifest themselves in a linguistic utterance. This refers to vocal qualities and the communicated mood (e.g. fear, insecurity ...).

Non-lingual characters in the narrower sense are non-lingual characters that exist independently of the language. This concerns z. B. the gestures, facial expressions, the posture, in a broader sense also the clothing, the home furnishings, the hairstyle or z. B. Traffic signs, pictograms.

Indexical symbols and communication symbols

Characters in the broader sense can be divided into characters with communication intent ( communication characters ; characters in the narrower sense ; characters for ) and characters without communication intent ( indexical characters (in the narrower sense); characters of ).

This is an ideal-type distinction, since the boundary often cannot be determined (e.g. the boundary between a natural, spontaneous smile and e.g. a deceptive smile ).

Signs with no intention of communication are also called clues ( signs , natural , improper signs ) and are indexes (in the sense of Peirce) or symptoms (in other terminology).

The distinction presupposes that - like the prevailing understanding - one demands intentionality and thus directionality for communication. If, like Watzlawick, one takes the concept of communication more broadly and regards communication as a message and message as something that can be interpreted independently of the intention to communicate, then all signs are signs of communication.

Character pattern (type) and character occurrence (token)

Charles S. Peirce made a distinction between type and token for a character . In German one speaks differently of pattern (or type) - occurrence or of virtual character - current character .

Example: In the word “Hallo!” The letter l as a pattern (type) has two occurrences (token).

The sign as a pattern is called a virtual sign, since it is an abstractive quantity on which the individual use is based, but it is not realized as such, but only occurs (in the concrete use) as a current sign.

(Other) character types


The Chinese script is the prototype of an iconic script . The example in particular shows that these also require conventional definitions in order to counteract misunderstandings . Words in an alphabet are made up of sequences of letters.

Only the entire single word is a sign in the linguistic sense, and a symbolic one at that. Not to be confused with the concept of the character is the concept of the character (the "letter"). The latter does not have to be assigned to a meaning (designated), but is assigned to a certain sound or function within the writing system in alphabet and syllabary fonts. (In English the distinction is clearer: sign vs. character .)


The numerals are related to the characters, but only arbitrarily in their form and less in their function. Contrary to the formal parallels between number and letter and number and word , only in the most elementary mathematics (" counting ") does the number - in words, gestures and characters - take on the function of the sign, in actual mathematics (" arithmetic ") it takes over Digit that represents the number system .

Characters in math, physics and engineering

Mathematical and physical quantities ( variables and constants ) are identified in calculations, but also in texts, using formula symbols ( DIN 1304 ). There are mathematical symbols for calculation rules ( DIN 1302 ). There are internationally established unit symbols ( DIN 1301 ) for specific values ​​of physical quantities that are specified as the product of numerical value and unit of measurement .

Characters in calculi

Signs are the building blocks of logical calculations . Its essential property is that logical inference rules are only carried out on symbolic formulas. Certain character combinations are derived purely formally from other character combinations. The reference to a reality, something designated, does not exist within the calculus - it only arises through the interpretation of the signs. The investigation of such interpretations is the subject of model theory .

See also


  • Hadumod Bußmann (Ed.) With the collaboration of Hartmut Lauffer: Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. 4th, revised and bibliographically supplemented edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-520-45204-7 .
  • Jacques Derrida : The structure, the sign and the game in the discourse of the human sciences. In: Jacques Derrida: The writing and the difference. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1976, p. 422 ff.
  • Jacques Derrida: The Voice and the Phenomenon. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-518-10945-6 .
  • Umberto Eco : Sign. Introduction to a term and its history. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1977
  • Umberto Eco: semiotics. Draft a theory of signs. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1987.
  • Sven Frotscher: 5000 signs and symbols of the world. Haupt Verlag, Bern / Stuttgart / Vienna 2006, ISBN 3-258-06802-X .
  • Jochen Hörisch : The being of signs and the signs of being. Marginalia on Derrida's Ontosemiology. In: Jacques Derrida: The voice and the phenomenon. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1979, pp. 7-50.
  • Ferdinand de Saussure : Basic questions in general linguistics. 2nd Edition. with a new register and an afterword by Peter von Polenz . de Gruyter, Berlin 1967. (Translation of the French original edition from 1916). Part One, Chapter I, The Nature of the Linguistic Sign, 1916.
  • Thomas Bernhard Seiler: Understanding and Understanding. Verlag Allgemeine Wissenschaft, Darmstadt 2001, ISBN 3-935924-00-3 .
  • Boris Aleksandrovich Serebrennikov : General Linguistics. Volume 1: Forms of Existence, Function and History of Language. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich / Salzburg 1973, ISBN 3-7705-1161-1 .
  • Elisabeth Walther: Sign. VDG, Weimar 2002, ISBN 3-89739-310-7 .
  • Guenther Witzany: The Logos of the Bios 1. Contributions of the foundation of a three-leveled biosemiotics. Umweb, Helsinki 2006, ISBN 952-5576-01-9 .

Web links

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


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