Let’s take a brief look today at what constitutes a linguistic sign, which contains both the signifer and the signified.
Take the word DOG, for example.
It has a basic material aspect. This word, which is one syllable and contains the letters D – O – G (in this order from left to right), is the signifier. It refers to the signified, DOG-NESS, which is the general category to which a beagle, terrier, poodle, etc. belong. Upon thinking, saying, hearing, and/or writing the word DOG, we automatically think of certain qualities that apply to all (or at least most) dogs: they have four legs; they wag their tails; they bark, etc.
But say you want to talk about your beagle named Betsy. Here, then, the signifier DOG points directly to Betsy, the signified.
The mental concept of DOG-NESS, therefore, leads you to a particular dog, the one you call “Betsy,” the one who right now wants to go for a walk, let’s say! At the same time, when you think of Betsy, the ways in which she fulfills the form of DOG-NESS come floating to your mind, and soon you think back to the signifier that led you to the mental picture of her in the first place. This whole process is reflection of how all linguistic signs work.
At its core, however, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is completely arbitrary. The word DOG, for example, translates into EL PERRO in Spanish.
Which signifier is correct? Well, each is correct as it relates to the ways in which its parent language have been designed; in either case you’d be referring to the same Betsy if you called her a dog and your Spanish-speaking friend next to you called her el perro.
Then again, what we call a “dog” might just as easily been labeled “cat,” or “fish,” or “man,” or “woof-woof,” or some word that doesn’t exist in our standard English language. For conventual purposes, to communicate effectively with others–these are the reasons why D – O – G makes DOG and nothing else. Someone decided a very long time ago to call it thus, and in order for you to discuss Betsy with others you must refer to her as the dog that she truly is.
Of course, she’ll just bark at you. Dogs, after all, haven’t learned this stuff yet!
For a more detailed look at linguistic signs and the man who originated serious discussion about their nature, Ferdinand de Saussure, check out this link.
Below is the citation for the above Web page:
English 2010: Modern Critical Thought (Links to Lecture Notes). Mary Klages, Ph.D. Last updated: 06 September 2001. The University of Colorado at Boulder. Retrieved 01 December 2008 from http://www.colorado.edu/English/courses/ENGL2012Klages/saussure.html