05. Modes of Signs

I believe that we should go over the classification of signs proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce that have been accepted and in use in semiotics. This will help us understand the basic concepts and the terminology to be used in the following sections.

Peirce divides signs into three groups according to the modes of relationship between the signifier and the signified:

1. Symbol

The signifier-signified relationship is completely “conventional.” That is, the relationship is based on learned information.

For example, the Roman numeral “III” consists of three sticks side by side: an illiterate person could possibly figure out this “signifier.” But the “3” in the Latin alphabet has nothing that suggests, implies or mimics three-ness. We have to go to school to learn what this abstract graphic figure symbolizes. The relationship between the figure and three-ness is completely arbitrary: “#” could have been the representation of number three as well, for example.

Arbitrariness has a useful side to it: once you learn what the signifier signifies, then the signification becomes very easy. For example, once you learn what the letter A is, then you don’t question if the A is an A or a B or a C: if it is an A, then it is an A; if not, then it is not. It is similar to 0 or 1 in computer language, that is why the relationship in symbolic signs are called “digital.” (It may be difficult to figure out the A written by a person with bad handwriting but this does not affect the digital quality, it only causes “interference” or “noise,” to use terms from communications.)

The best examples of symbolic signs are languages, written letters, numbers, traffic lights, flags, musical notation.

2. Icon

The signifier is perceived as resembling, copying or imitating the signified. 

For example, a person closes his eyes and tilts his/her head sideways as s/he says “I am sleepy.” Is the person falling asleep here? No. But with the gesture (signifier), s/he is directly showing the act of sleeping. Or, when we say “crunch crunch” about eating nuts or chips, we are using words that simulate the sound of chewing of crunchy food (onomatopoeia). Or, we say “this is Churchill” when we see his portrait on the wall.

Other examples of iconic signs: someone’s cartoon, a painting of a landscape, sound effects on the radio, imitative gestures, metaphors (“s/he is a fox,” “the world’s a stage”), onomatopoeia in language (cuckoo, bang, buzz). 

Due to the resemblance factor, interpretation of iconic signs is less dependent on conventions but it still requires established and learned references. For example, one has to know who Churchill was and what he looked like to be able to recognize his picture. Moreover, one has to know what a picture or a photograph is (such lack of knowledge being a situation encountered by researchers in primitive societies).

3. Index

There is a direct physical or causal connection between the signifier and the signified, a cause-effect relationship (that is, not arbitrary). The connection requires judgement or deduction from the interpreter.

A typical example: What do we think when we see someone cough? We think that the person may be sick or that something is stuck in his throat or that the person has smoked, etc. The action of coughing (signifier) is pointing at something that causes coughing. In a way, this type of signifier seems to have no value by itself, its only function is pointing.

Other examples: natural indicators (smoke, footprints, echo), health indicators (pain, rash, itch, pulse, sneeze), signals (telephone ring, door knock), road signs, pointing with the index finger, tools of measurement (clock, thermometer, speedometer), recorded voice, the words “this,” “that,” “here,” “there,” the index of a book.

Due to the cause-effect relationship, indexical sign is the least convention-dependent category, but it still requires learning: we are not born with the knowledge that cough can be the symptom of illness, we learn it through experience. Although it is easier to learn that an arrow points at a direction (because of its implying shape) than learning that “T” is the symbol of a certain sound, indexical signs require knowledge as well.

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Apart from these three groups, there is yet another mode which has been debated quite a bit without agreement upon a specific name for it (many consider it to be a derivative of the iconic sign).

I prepared the figure below to help me explain this mode: the letter “F,” which is a symbolic sign, gradually loses its identity as the mid-bar shortens at each step (I find it curious that the mind does not let F go even when the mid-bar is almost invisible at the fifth step). At the very end F turns into a shape which does not symbolize, point at or resemble anything. If we try to describe that last shape, we cannot go beyond saying something like “two lines meeting at a 90° angle to form a corner.” 


Now, can we claim that this figure cannot be considered to be a sign because it is not standing for something other than itself? We cannot, because there are some general concepts we are being sent to by the signifier, such as “figure,” “meaningless figure,” “abstract figure,” “it is what it is.” In other words, when we realize that the signifier is not standing for a specific concept, our minds begin to consider wider perspectives, the context, the matrix and the figure’s connotations. I will be mentioning such signs in the following sections and, for the sake of clarity, I will call them “abstract” and I will call the contextual information to which the interpreter refers, “off-subject.”

[Umberto Eco calls this type of sign “figurae” and says that it is interpreted at the levels of first and second “articulations” (from linguistic communication terminology). Claude Lévi-Strauss says that there are “primary and secondary levels” and that abstract visual arts and atonal music can be interpreted at the secondary level (Eco, 228-235). Roman Jakobson claims that this category, which seems to lack references, is interpreted through connotations brought about by “imputed similarities” (Chandler, 45).]

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I would like to point out a few things about the groupings above:

A true story: On a very rainy evening, when my theater company was performing to an audience of about twenty at our studio in New York City, water suddenly began to pour from the middle of the ceiling over the performance area. Probably because we were so used to such problems, the performers kept going. One of them decisively went out and brought back a big plastic bucket and put it under the water. The show went on and after a while the water turned into droplets and then stopped. After the performance a few members of the audience expressed their admiration for dealing with the problem in such a practical manner. And some others, despite the heavy rain outside, said “that was incredible, how did you manage to make that water pour from the ceiling at that very moment?”

When in action, the modes we have nicely grouped into categories above do not sit still like they do on paper or the computer screen. Signs operate in daily life in quite complicated, fast and slippery ways. For those who have the information that water leaks are common in New York’s shabby theater studios, the pouring water is, first, an iconic sign. Same people, looking at the unconcerned attitude of the performers, can also interpret it as the sign of the difficulties the artists have to deal with (indexical sign). But those who think that everything in theater is done deliberately and is part of the show (this also is a learned information), will interpret every signifier as a symbolic sign.

In addition to differing from person to person, a sign can be in two or three modes at the same time. For example, every object on a theater stage is a symbolic and an iconic sign simultaneously: a shiny, gold-colored, big sofa is both a part of the stage set (icon) and the symbol of the financial and social status and taste of the characters in the play. Indeed, it is accepted by many that a sign contains all three qualities at all times, which switch positions in the hierarchy according to the context. For example, there is a difference between hanging the photographs of famous movie stars on the walls of a restaurant and on the doors of the toilets (to identify the men’s and women’s rooms). 

References to examples are inevitable when one tries to explain the sign and its categories. Yet, different examples given one after another may make the signs look like some special phenomena one can detect here and there. Indeed, signification is a process we realize, mostly unconsciously, at every moment of our lives. Since we at least think at every instant and since there can be no thinking without language and since language consists of nothing but a series of signs, we can easily say that not a second in our lives passes without a sign. As Peirce has indicated, “we think only in signs.” (Chandler, 13)