The Inevitability and Arbitrariness of Signs

Linguistics is the study of language. And language is, if you think about, a beautiful and very intricate system. It has all sorts of rules or conventions that allow us to communicate with each other. Without these rules, no-one would be able to understand each other. I want to take a look at a central concept in linguistics: ‘signs’. For what exactly is a sign? Probably all kinds of associations with road signs and the like pop into your mind. But when used in a different context, a religious context for example, it can refer to ‘a sign from above’; a message from God. In other words: the notion of ‘sign’ is multi-interpretable.

There is something very peculiar about signs. Something that a man called Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out: the inevitable – but utterly arbitrary – connection between ‘signifiers’ and ‘signifieds’. But what does this mean? And why is this connection both inevitable and arbitrary at the same time? Let’s take a look at that.

According to De Saussure, a sign consist of two parts: (1) a concept or meaning (the signified) and (2) a sound image (the signifier). The signified is your mental image of – let’s say – a tree. When you hear the word ‘tree’, you immediately think about a big green thing standing in a park. That’s the conceptual level of language. The other is the phonetic level or the sound image of ‘tree’. When you write the word tree, you write a ‘t’,’r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’. And when you pronounce these letters in your head, the meaning or concept of a tree immediately arises. De Saussure claims that every sign we know of (whether it is a road sign or a sign from God) consists of these two parts: the thing representing and the thing being represented.

Now De Saussure points out the following: the connection between the word ‘tree’ and the concept (or mental picture) of a tree is utterly arbitrary. It is just because the English community has chosen to take the word ‘tree’ to stand for the mental image of a tree that this connection – or sign – exists. The concept of a tree could have just as easily been called ‘worm’ or ‘water’. You can see this arbitrariness at work when comparing different languages. The Dutch word for a tree is ‘boom’, yet  it still refers to the same mental image as the English word ‘tree’. It’s a convention. Nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, De Saussure claims that the fact that we know that ‘tree’ refers to the mental image of a tree is because we also know what other terms refer too, and where the word ‘tree’ doesn’t refer to. By that he means that we can understand the meaning of a word only in relation to other words. It is only because we know that the word ‘branch’ refers to a specific part of a tree that we obtain the mental picture of what the concept of a tree looks like. If we wouldn’t have mental images of ranches or leaves, and all the other parts making up a tree, we wouldn’t know what a tree would be.

So now you know that the connection between a “word” and a “concept” is arbitrary but necessary for the mental image to exist. We can “choose” the connection between the word “tree” and the mental image “tree”, but it nevertheless has to exist for us to grasp the mental image of a “tree”. Because our mental image of a “tree” only exists in relation to other words referring to other mental images.

This observation made me ask the following question: if we wouldn’t have the “phonetic sound” (the tones you hear when a word is uttered) of the word “tree” resonating inside of our heads, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” was? In other words: if we wouldn’t have the word “tree”, or any other word referring the the mental image “tree”, would that imply that we wouldn’t know what a “tree” – in our every day conception of it – was? That we wouldn’t know what that big green thing standing in the park was?

Maybe animals can clarify this issue. Cats – for example – don’t seem to use words like “food” to refer to a mental image of “food”. However, they still are able to distinguish “food” from “non-food”. That is, when I put down real food in front of my cat, he runs straight to it. He doesn’t do this when I put a television in front of his nose. So he must have some “system of thought” that makes the concept of “food” different from the concept of “television”. The real question is: is this “system of thought” purely based on unconscious, intuitive and impulse driven forces – like “the smell of food” – that trigger him into moving towards the food, or does the cat have a “sound image” connected to his “mental image” of food that allows him to differentiate “food” from “non-food”?

I don’t know, but I find it pretty fascinating to think about.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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