09. Selection and Ordering


When the human brain (interpreter) receives a stimulus (signifier), it refers to the meaningful units (signs) it has learned and stored in memory to find the most relevant, corresponding “concept” (signified) to assign meaning to the message it has received. When the concept is found and linked with the stimulus, a new sign emerges (see “Meaning and Sign”). 

I would like to emphasize the fact that known signs are used in the formation of newer signs in this process of signification (semiosis). As I explained in the previous sections, the vast majority of the learned signs get organized into systems and then get codified. These codes, in various situations, construct the social frames.

Obviously the signification process is experienced not only by the receiver of the stimulus but by its sender as well, if there is one. For example, if someone asks me the question “How are you?”, this verbal stimulus will trigger my mind to go through the process. Yet, the sender of the message also goes through a signification process: In order to ask me how I am, s/he goes through the signs in his/her memory, finds the relevant concepts and transmits them through physical means (sound in this case).

How does the human mind refer to the signs in its memory and choose the particular concepts in the signification process? Considering the huge quantity of items, our brains seem to be as skillful and fast as the search engines on the internet. How do we manage to sort out this information and put it to work?

The key to the answer lies in one of Ferdinand de Saussure’s ideas which has left a significant mark in the studies of meaning: Signs and concepts are not defined according to what they are, but according to what they are not. Direct quotation: 

“… concepts are purely differential, not positively defined by their content but negatively defined by their relations with other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is that they are what the others are not.” (Saussure, Course, 117; in Culler, 26)

Saussure was pointing to “relational identification” to explain how signs signify: 

“… signification of the sign is determined not by the nature of that reality/experience, but by the boundaries of the related signifieds in the system. Meaning is therefore better defined by the relationships of one sign to another than by the relationship of that sign to an external reality.” (Fiske, 45) 

In communication studies it is mostly assumed that the mind uses a comparative method of classification and organizes the signs from general to specific. It finds what it is looking for in a manner similar to finding a word in a sentence in a book sitting in a section of a gigantic library.

The system uses “potential of substitutability” between the signs as the criterion or benchmark in its method of classification. This is the criterion that determines the “from general to specific” aspect: higher degree of substitutability between two units (signs) makes them similar, lower degree makes them differentiated and “general to specific” represents organization from different to similar.  Even if two units look extremely similar and highly substitutable, one unit can never ever substitute for the other. That is why we say “similar,” otherwise they would have been the “same.”

Similarity dominates when we look at a class or a category as a whole. When we form sub-categories, differentiation takes over. 

Let us imagine a group of items consisting of a shirt, a jacket, a pair of trousers and a drinking glass. If we classify these units, we first put the shirt, jacket and trousers (clothing items) on one side and the glass on the other side, because there is zero potential for the glass to substitute for any of the other units. After that, if we sub-categorize the clothing items, we will keep the shirt and the jacket together, since they are almost substitutable, and move the trousers away.

Now let us imagine a restaurant menu with two big categories, titled “food” and “drinks,” structured in accordance with differentiation: food cannot be drunk, drinks cannot be eaten. Items under each category are listed according to similitude: eatables are on one side, drinkables on the other. But, when we choose an item from a category, difference becomes the criterion, because items, particularly those under “food,” tend to be quite different from each other.

To help us make selections, the restaurant managers create sub-categories under “food,” such as “soups,” “salads,” “main courses,” and “deserts.” The substitutability potential among these sub-categories are stronger compared to the larger food-drink division but, again, when we pick an item, we consider the differences.

Let’s take a short cut and jump to the final stage and say that we decide to eat chicken as the main course and that there are three choices on the menu: grilled chicken, baked chicken and chicken stew. At this level the substitutability potential is at its peak but we don’t tell the waiter to take some from each dish and mix them on a plate, we pick one according to the differences between them. At this point, to use Saussure’s terminology, the “value” of one of the three is determined by its not being the other two. This is called “the principle of differentiation.”

Here is another popular example used to explain the principle of differentiation: Imagine that there is a person in the room who doesn’t speak a word of English and we want to teach him/her the word “yellow.” If we point at a yellow bag, s/he will think that the bag is called “yellow.” If we show a yellow pencil, s/he might think that the pencil is called “yellow” too. The shortest way would be to gather bags or pencils in different colors and point at the item in yellow. The reason why we call the particular color “yellow” is the fact that it is not red, black, brown, green or some other color. We see it as a color that is different from the other colors. (Culler, 24-25; Chandler, 21)

If we think about it, we can realize that one encounters differentiation whenever there is a choice to be made. Let’s say that one person turns to another and, pointing at a third person, says “the man is sitting in the chair.” This might sound strange but his/her decision to voice this sentence is also a matter of differentiation: s/he says it as opposed to not saying it. To sound a bit more philosophical, the utterance contains “no utterance” in itself.

We make choices according to the principle of differentiation in the way we voice a sentence too. When we speak, we emphasize certain syllables by adjusting the volume and pitch, which is known as “intonation.” If we say our sentence with emphasis on “man” (the man is sitting in the chair), the meaning “not a woman or a child or a cat, the man is sitting in the chair” will be foregrounded. If we emphasize the word “chair” (the man is sitting in the chair), it will mean “the man is not sitting on a couch or on the floor, he is sitting in the chair.” If we utter this sentence with equal emphasis on each syllable (we can let a computer read it, for example), the person who hears it will still perceive it by choosing one of the possible interpretations.

In conclusion, the signs we know are classified in a systematic way. When we refer to these signs during signification, we find the set of signs that are most relevant to the context we are in. The set consists of signs that have a commonality among themselves, signs that seem to be the most substitutable with each other. These sets are called paradigms in semiotics. We choose the most relevant member in the group (according to its difference from the rest) for our context. This sign, which is to be used in signification (as a signifier or a signified) is termed “paradigmatic choice.” 

The chicken dishes, colors, intonation options in the examples above constitute paradigms. They bear the highest potential for substitutability but still there are differences between them. We choose according to these differences. In short, “where there is a choice, there is meaning, and the meaning of what was chosen is determined by the meaning of what was not.” (Fiske, 58)

[The word ‘paradigm,’ which was used only in linguistics and semiotics until the 1960s, is now used to mean a typical example or pattern of something. It is also used as the fundamental view underlying a philosophical or theoretical view. I use it here only as a semiotic term.]


We choose the communicative signs we use from sets of paradigms and then we either deliver them one after another in a sequence (in timelined communication) or create a static composition by putting them side by side in order to form a message. The sequence or the composition consisting of paradigmatic choices is called syntagm.

If I have five hats in my closet (paradigm), I pick one according to the differences between them. When doing that, I consider their relevance to the context (am I going to a party or to school or to work?) and their relevance to the other items I am going to wear: “Since I am going to work, it would be appropriate to wear this coat with that hat and those shoes.” (The appropriateness judgement is defined by the social codes and frames.) 

Since language is the primary vehicle of sharing of meaning, let me give an example from verbal communication. Let’s say that a child wants his father to throw him/her the ball and lets him know of this by transmitting verbal signs. S/he will choose the words and line them up according to the codes and the set of rules (grammar) developed by people speaking the same language.

Paradigm is based on choice, whereas syntagm is based on combination. The relationship between the two is often shown in a coordinate plane as in the figure below. The vertical line is called the paradigmatic axis and the horizontal one, syntagmatic axis (with timelined transmission in mind). The paradigmatic axis shows the paradigmatic options while the syntagmatic axis shows their ordering and succession. The paradigmatic axis consists of ‘that-or-that-or-that’ while the syntagmatic axis consists of ‘that-and-that-and-that.’ The sequence of words in the sentence “Daddy-throw-me-the-ball” forms the syntagmatic axis.

To repeat, the child chooses the words from the groups of paradigms that are most relevant to the context s/he is in and builds a sequence (syntax) according to the established grammatical codes. Since a sign has to be referred to in order to create a new sign, these two axes demonstrate the “structural relationship” of the signs. 

Can we predict what the child in the above example will say before s/he opens his/her mouth to speak? If we detach the child from that particular context, the first word to come out of his/her mouth can be any word out of all the words s/he has learned: the predictability or probability of utterance per word would be equal. This “it can be any” situation is called “equiprobability” in communications. If we know that the child is in the backyard of the house with his/her mother, father and sister and that there is a ball on the ground, that information would disturb the equiprobability. When the child begins to transmit the words, the degree of predictability will increase with each word uttered: it is more difficult to predict the word “throw,” after “daddy” then predicting “the ball” after “me.”

At first glance we may assume that the established grammatical codes of a language determine the most logical sequences in terms of efficient communication. For example, we can say that the child’s starting the sentence with the word “daddy” is the most practical choice in terms of establishing the addressee, attracting attention and creating expectation. Following that, s/he lines up the words in verb-pronoun-noun order, which is a pretty efficient sequence. But, the French say “daddy, to me throw the ball” (père, me jettent la balle), the Turks say “daddy, the ball to me throw” (baba, topu bana at). This shows that randomness is involved even in the formation of grammatical rules which one might assume to be established for maximum communicative efficiency.

Paradigm-syntagm relationship is of course not limited to language. As I mentioned above, the clothes we wear are not only to protect our bodies from the cold or heat, they also are a form of communication with those who may or do see us. When we choose a hat from a set of options, we consider its relationship with the other items we are wearing and think about the signs we will present for interpretation. The items we choose from the paradigmatic sets of hats, coats, trousers, socks, shoes form a syntagm and we create the combination according to the established social codes. 

The combination and ordering of choices are as important as what is chosen. The difference in the meaning of two sentences consisting of the same words that are ordered differently (“daddy, throw me the ball” and “daddy, throw the ball to me”), is structurally parallel to the different impressions created by the presentation of five separate dance moves in different orders.