Basically, a sign is something that stands for something else. You will find variations of this definition in different in authors. In Korzybski's terms, the sign is a map and its meaning a territory. This definition is very abstract and doesn't deal with some important aspects of signs.
Some examples of this definition: The simplified pictures used internationally to identify restaurants (knife and fork), telephones (silhouette of a handset), or rest rooms (silhouette of a man or a woman). Here is a diagram illustrating three types of sign.
Since my classes focus on language and writing, further examples will come from language.
Some writers use symbol to refer to what most writers call signs. Notably, S. I. Hayakawa does this in his exposition of General Semantics, Language in Thought and Action. I am reserving the word symbol for a different use. If you are reading Hayakawa, please remember that when he talks about symbols he means the same thing that I do when I talk about signs.
Click here to see a diagram of the triadic definition of a sign. Here is another diagram. And here is a diagram of the Structuralists' dyadic definition of a sign.
Words are signs: The word "tree" stands for the nonverbal tree which you may climb or chop down. The word "run" stands for an action which you may perform or perhaps the place where you keep your dog.
As the last paragraph suggests, words have meaning in two different ways.
If I write the word "tree" on the chalkboard, without giving it a context or application, it has only vague potential meaning. If I use it in a sentence, it has specific meaning; one of its potential meanings is applied to a specific thing or experience.
The definition I gave at the beginning should be made more specific: "A sign is something that stands for something else to someone in some respect" (C. S. Peirce). This definition is more complex and more accurate.
A sign stands for something "to someone": Peirce includes the necessary person. The sounds that make up the word "tree" have no meaning in themselves. They have meaning only for people who use them to have that meaning. The same combination of sounds may have entirely different meanings in different languages. The meaning does not inhere in the sounds as such, but in the conventions of the language which uses them meaningfully.
A sign stands for something "in some respect": Signs are selective and abstract. They do not represent all of the thing or experience to which they refer. Peirce painstakingly catalogued the modalities of signs in a detail which cannot be repeated here. In the signs we are concerned with, almost all are related to their meaning by linguistic convention. That is, "tree" means tree in English because that's the convention of English.
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