mother and son as referents

The Referent


The referent is the “thing” denoted by the sign.

We use signs every day to communicate, record and organise our thoughts and ideas. They can point to anything, such as people, places, objects, concepts, behaviours, events, processes, and consequences.

In their study of signs, Ogen and Richards (1923) wanted a technical term to describe what the symbols “stood for”. They dismissed the word “thing” as unsuitable because its “popular usage” was “restricted to material substances”. The words “entity” and object” were similarly problematic. They believed “referent” was probably the best option.

Understanding the concept of referent can help you analyse the ways producers encode meaning in media texts and impact the audience. This guide focuses on how referent fits in with other sign theories because it is a great way to explore their differences.

Ferdinand de Saussure

In Saussure’s framework, the sign is divided into two parts. The signifier is the physical form of the sign, sometimes known as the “sign vehicle”, and the signified is the mental concept it communicates.

Saussure Sign Diagram

The linguist believed the meanings of signs are arbitrary and only achieve their values through their paradigmatic and syntagmatic relationships, and by being part of a system of codes.

Importantly, since signs are only vehicles for our conception of “things”, they do not point directly to the thing itself.

Saussure provided several examples which illustrate the issue. You might think the “8:25 p.m. Geneva-to-Paris” is the same train each day, but the “locomotive, coaches, personnel” are probably different. If a street is demolished and then completely rebuilt, is it the same street even though it has the same name? Or is every utterance of Gentlemen! a new psychological act?

Saussure strongly believed signs did not “constitute a purely material entity”. There is no “thing” or actual “object”. There is no referent.

Roland Barthes

Commenting on Saussure’s approach to understanding language, Roland Barthes (1958) agreed there was an “equivalence” between the signifier and signified. For example, the word “tree” might create the mental concept of a single “tree”.

However, he also argued a sign was a “concrete entity” because it was the “associative total of a concept and an image”. Therefore, it was necessary to distinguish the subtle difference between the “empty” signifier and the “full” sign.

He used the image of a “bunch of roses” to clarify his position. Although the concept of “passion” is signified by the physical form of the “roses”, the sign itself actually points to someone’s passion. In Barthes’ model, the sign is the referent.

Signs expressed cultural values, so Barthes added a second order to Saussure’s model – the myth.

Diagram of Roland Barthes' sign theory

At this second level of signification, the sign still points to a referent. From the previous example, someone’s passion becomes the signifier which evokes concepts of marriage and family. The referent is now that ideology.

The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent.

Roland Barthes (1982)

Finally, Barthes (1982) believed “every photograph” was “somehow co-natural with its referent” because each sign referred to a “real thing to which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph”. Therefore, we cannot immediately or generally distinguish the signs from its referent. Since this was different from other systems of representation, Barthes labelled the relationship the “photographic referent”.

Charles Peirce

Charles Peirce also includes the referent in his triadic model of signs.

The representamen is the physical form of the sign and how it is presented. This is similar to Saussure’s definition of the signifier. The interpretant is the mental concept created in the mind of the person interpreting the sign. However, this “equivalent sign” (or meaning) points to the object – the referent.

Charles Peirce's triadic model of signs diagram

We can also use the technical term referent in Peirce’s three categories of signs. Icons resemble or imitate the referents, so the sign should possess some their qualities even if the object does not exist. For example, the sound effects in a film, an oil painting of a pipe, or the line drawing of a person on an exit sign.

By contrast, symbols have an arbitrary relationship to the referent. Language is an obvious example because words and sounds do not resemble what is being signified. Even though we have to learn its meaning, the “8:25 p.m. Geneva-to-Paris” does point to a referent – the scheduling and route of a train.

Finally, in an indexical mode, the representamen is directly connected in some way to referent. For example, your phone rings and vibrates for notifications, a smile on an actor’s face communicates their emotions, a holiday photograph uploaded to social media points to the exotic location, and the knock on the door probably signals your delivery has arrived.

It does not matter if the sign can be categorised as an icon, symbol or index, there will be a referent.

Ogen and Richards

Ogden and Richards (1923) criticised Saussure for “neglecting entirely the things for which signs stand”. Their model of semiotics has three parts:

  1. symbol;
  2. thought or reference; and
  3. referent.

Symbols are signs, tokens, or the things we put together to communicate with one another. Importantly, the meanings of symbols are variable depending on the situation. Each person who reads the word “tree” will construct their own mental concept. Or the “8:25 p.m. Geneva-to-Paris” will evoke a different reaction from a traveller on holiday compared to the over-worked train conductor who is about to start a night shift.

A symbol’s definition is “caused partly by the reference we are making and partly by social and psychological factors”. Misunderstandings are simply the result of people having different references for the same symbol.

Ogden and Richards described reference as a psychological process which then “grasps” its object to some degree. Again, the referent could be anything, such as people, places, objects, concepts, behaviours, events, processes, and consequences.

They summarised the relationships between the symbol, thought or reference, and referent in their “Triangle of Meaning”:

the semiotic triangle

Ogden and Richards wanted to demonstrate the arbitrary relationship between the symbol and the referent, so they did not include a lining connecting the two features. They also noted there could be an incredibly complex chain of sign-situations between the Thought and Referent.

Final Thoughts

The referent is a key concept in semiotics. Understanding the difference between the referent and other aspects of the sign systems is essential for close analysis of any media text, especially if the signs are polysemic and open to interpretation.

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