04. Meaning and Sign

The human brain continuously produces meaning.

If you don’t believe it, try to think without using a language you speak (the most basic tool of generating meaning). Even better, try not to think for a minute or two.

We produce meaning and transmit it to and share it with others.

There are two main approaches to the study of this reality. The first one is called “communications” in the academic world and it mostly focuses on the “transmission” of meaning and studies communication as a linear process of messages travelling from point to point. As a result, those studies revolve around mediums of communication, channels, sender, receiver, noise, interference, feedback, etc. and they are closely connected to technology.

The second approach primarily focuses on the production and sharing of meaning. What is meaning? How is it created? How is it shared? How is it perceived? Because it gives priority to the formation and interpretation of meaning, this approach gets linked to culture, language and the arts. These studies generally gather in the field of “semiotics” (also, semiology) and its extension, “structuralism.”

I used the words “generally,” “primarily,” “mostly” when describing the two approaches above, because they are not the opposites; indeed, they complete and complement each other and often overlap. If you begin your studies in one field, at some point you will find yourself roaming around in the second. (Fiske, 2)

Since our subject matter is the arts and since every work of art is aimed at communication, I think that our starting point should be the phenomenon of meaning, therefore, semiotics. Yet, I can liken this to entering the “communications building” through the semiotics door on the right instead of the one on the left. Everything in the building is relevant for us and, when necessary, I will mention some of the findings in the other field as well.*


I have to start with the most basic concepts of semiotics, in the simplest way I can think of, mainly to be able to express my thoughts in subsequent parts of the website. I am not intending to teach semiotics here, I am trying to use its very basic ideas for guidance as I zoom in on the performing arts. Below is a very simplified combination of ideas put forward by the two founders of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce.

Semiological studies focus on three main areas, which one may visualize as three concentric circles:

1. Sign

This is the smallest meaningful unit constituting the core of semiotics, which I will try to explain below. 

2. Codes

In order for the sign to become a meaningful unit and for communication to take place, there ought to be traditions, rules, “organizing systems” for the interpreting minds to refer to. They are called “codes.”

3. Culture

The total of all social structures and meaning-making activities where signs and codes are created and used. In turn, culture is formed and determined by the use of signs and codes [Fiske, 40]

Semiotics is the study of the generation and perception of meaning. It begins with the study of the smallest unit of meaning, called “sign.”

What is a sign? 

Here is the most quoted definition by Peirce (among several others): “A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” (Fiske, 42)

Let me condense it: A sign is something that stands for something other than itself according to someone.

One practical way of understanding this definition is to see that it consists of four parts:

1. something

2. stands for

3. something else

4. according to someone

I will try to explain it with a few examples:

For example: One of two people who speak English turns to the other and, while letting out some air from his/her mouth, brings his upper and lower teeth together and lowers his/her tongue and produces the hissing sound symbolized by the letter “S,” then brings the tip of the tongue up, to the back of the upper teeth while pushing more air out and lets the sound symbolized by the letters “IT” pop. The other person sits down.

For example: A blind person touches a piece of fabric and says “corduroy.”

For example: The street food vendor puts some meat skewers on his grill, the smoke rises and reaches our noses through the window and we say “the food cart has arrived.”

For example: When a person raises his/her arm up, with index finger pointing up, we say “s/he wants to say something.” When the straight arm with the pointing finger is lowered to the shoulder level, we say “s/he is pointing at something.” When the arm gets bent at the elbow in a 45 degree angle, we say “s/he is threatening.”

For example: When the traffic light changes to red, we stop the car.

There is absolutely nothing that resembles, imitates, implies the action of sitting in the form or the generation of the string of sounds symbolized with the letters “S-I-T.” The sound “sit,” the fabric, the smoke, the arm and the traffic light in the above examples function as the evokers of specific concepts in the brain. Such triggers can be anything that physically exists which we can perceive through our five senses — a word, image, movement, smell, taste, texture, sound, etc. This physical or material part of the sign is called the “signifier.” The sound “sit,” the fabric, the smell of roasting meat, the sight of the arm with pointed finger and the red light in the examples above are signifiers.

The reason why the signifying sound “sit” makes the perceiver sit down is that that particular sound stands for the concept of sitting in the person’s mind. Attention: the sound does not stand for the action of sitting, it stands for its concept, something mental. If you say “sit” to someone who doesn’t speak English, that person won’t sit, because s/he has no concept to be triggered by that sound. Similarly, we stop the car when the traffic light turns red because it corresponds to the concept of “stopping the car” — the light does not lift our foot and put it on the brake pedal. The concept addressed by the signifier is called the “signified.”

Signifier and signified together form the unit of meaning which is called a sign. And the process of forming this unit is called signification.

There needs to be a brain to connect the signifier with the signified (Peirce has said “… an intelligence capable of learning by experience” (Chandler, 3)). For the sake of simplicity, I take the liberty and a short-cut and call this the “interpreter.” There can be no sign if there is no interpreter: if there is no smelling nose connected to a brain, the roasting meat can produce as much smelly smoke as it wishes, it cannot become a sign. “Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. ” [Chandler, 13]

Now let us look at the above definition with regard to the terms:

1. something (signifier)

2. stands for (signification)

3. something else (signified)

4. according to someone (interpreter)

Here is the most important reason why I am trying to explain the idea of sign here:

Why does the interpreter who smells the roasting meat call it “the smell of roasting meat,” as opposed to the smell of perfume, gas, alcohol, etc.? Where does this information come from?

The information comes from a storage where all the information the person has learned through the experiences in his/her life is stored. There are certain data units in that room which indicate that that is the smell of the roasting meat, that is the type of fabric called corduroy, that is the red traffic light which requires you to stop your car. These are all signs which the person previously has formed and stored. “We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions.” (Chandler, 13)

In that respect, we can say that we form the new signs by referring to the older signs, which constitute the source of references in the interpreter’s memory. This continuous process, which consists of signs giving birth to newer signs, is called semiosis (Umberto Eco calls it “unlimited semiosis”). (Eco, 69)

The above is the simplest explanation of the sign that I can think of and I think it is sufficient for our purposes. Next, I will outline the “modes” of signs.


∗ I have referred to two major sources, which I would highly recommend if the reader wants further information on these topics. I have followed the organizational logic of John Fiske’s book in ordering the essays from here to “11. Structuralism and Binary Oppositions”:

Fiske, John (1993), Introduction to Communication Studies, London and New York: Routledge (2nd Edition).

Chandler, Daniel (2002), Semiotics: the Basics, London: Routledge. (There is also a website)