Signs, Signifiers, and Signified


Semiotics is concerned with signs and their relationship with objects and meaning. One way to view signs is to consider them composed of a signifier and a signified. Simply put, the signifier is the sound associated with or image of something (e.g., a tree), the signified is the idea or concept of the thing (e.g., the idea of a tree), and the sign is the object that combines the signifier and the signified into a meaningful unit. Stated differently, the sign is the relationsip between the concept and the representation of that concept. For example, when I was a child I had a stuffed animal. OK, it was a stuffed green rat, but it was a smiling rat. That rat was the signifier. Think what a stuffed animal could signify to a child. In my case, it signified safety, warmth, and comfort. So, when I walked into my room and looked at my stuffed green rat it was a sign to me that everything was ok. Notice that the signifier and the signified cannot be separated and still provide a meaningful basis for the sign.

Today, that stuffed green rat is just a memory to me. I cannot even recall what I named it. In fact, as time passed that rat became a sign of something else. The rat is still a signifier but it signifies my early childhood when the world seemed calm, safe, and inviting. Now the rat could be considered a sign of my youthful innocence, long past and hard to remember, just like the name of that rat.


For detailed information read:

Barthes, R. (1968). Elements of semiology, A. Lavers & C. Smith (trans.). New York: Hill and Wang.

de Saussure, F. de. (1966). A course in general linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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