close up of chess pieces

Ferdinand de Saussure and Signs

Signifier and Signified

Ferdinand de Saussure was a linguist who was interested in the system of signs we use to communicate our ideas. In his lectures at the University of Geneva, Saussure argued signs consisted of two parts. He defined the physical form of the sign, whether it was written or spoken language, as the signifier. These shapes and sounds then signified certain mental concepts to the audience.

For instance, when we write or say the word “tree”, we immediately visualise a tree with its long roots, branches and leaves.

sign and signifier infographic of a tree
Signifier / Signified

The same basic process can be applied to any word. When you see the signifier “pull” on a door, you know to reach for the handle. If you hear the word “stop”, you know someone is trying to get your attention. You also know the signifiers “pass” and “fail” refer to two very different results in your exams.

We are taught the meanings of these words in school and take their definitions for granted.

Of course, sounds, images and gestures are also signs. Think about how the colour red (signifier) is used on traffic lights and other road signs to warn drivers of certain dangers and that we should be prepared to stop (signified). Or how blue is associated with boys and pink with girls. There is no obvious connection between the colours and their meanings, but the concepts are well-known and understood.

Consider how we use arrows to signify different directions. They might tell you which route to follow around the school corridors or help you go back and forward a page on an internet browser. It is a very simple but effective system of communication.

In conclusion, signifiers are the physical forms of the signs we use to signify meanings and concepts.

Classroom Activity

Look carefully and critically at the following logos. Begin your analysis by describing their physical form: colour; shape, form and words. Then suggest why the organisations used these particular signifiers.

You probably recognised the McDonald’s restaurant from the golden arches formed by the letter M, but can you suggest what other meanings the producer is trying to convey in the image? Think about the colour and shape. Are you reminded of anything?

Examine the other logos and try to find the hidden messages in their design.

Signs and Codes

For signs to have meaning, they need to be part of a system of well-defined codes.

The Swiss linguist used chess to demonstrate his model of communication, explaining to his students how the popular game was not defined by the physical aspects of the chess pieces but the mental concepts we attributed to them through the rules, or codes.

For instance, it does not matter if a knight is made from wood or glass because the rules of the game state players can move the piece in an “L” shape horizontally or vertically across the board. The fact it usually resembles a horse’s head has no real bearing on its ability to jump over other pieces in the game to reach its destination. All the other pieces are also governed by the codes and conventions of the game.

In his analogy, the sign consists of the actual chess piece (signifier) and how it moves on the board (signified) according to the rule book (codes). Therefore, signs cannot be understood on their own. Their mental concepts come from their relationship with other signs, so a rook only makes sense when it is compared to a knight according to the conventions of chess.

infographic - knight chess piece
Signs and Codes

For a more modern example of codes and conventions, you only need to look at your screen and the signs web designers use to communicate ideas. The magnifying glass icon at the top is a signifier but its meaning here refers to the ability to search this website for particular theories or theorists. If you are reading this guide to Saussure’s model of communication on your mobile, you can also see the “hamburger” icon, which signifies the menu function. These images are widely used and convey firmly established ideas and meanings.

common computer icons
Common computer icons

In terms of language, you need a good understanding of the rules regarding spelling, grammar and punctuation if you are to interpret a sentence correctly. Without these codes and conventions, the words (or signs) are meaningless.

For another look at this key concept, try our guide to the importance of codes in the study of signs. It has other examples and some tasks to help you get to grips with analysing codes.

Final Thoughts

Saussure’s approach to analysing a text remains an important model for studying any product. By identifying the dominant signifiers and appreciating how they combine to create meaning, we can develop a better understanding of the message being conveyed by the producers.

Remember, you can refer to the signifier in the examination but a proper explanation of what they signify is more important in terms of your marks.

Since signs need to be part of a system, they derive their meaning from their relationship to other signs. You can find out more in our guide to paradigms and syntagms in the media. Our introductions to the work of Roland Barthes and Charles Peirce are also essential reading if you are studying semiotics.

Exam Practice and Revision

The best way to learn the key concepts of Saussure’s sign theory is to apply the framework to a variety of media texts. You can find examples on our semiotics exam practice page, but the analysis of the FedEx advertisement is probably a good place to start.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!