Sign not in use by Joe Dunckley
Sign not in use by Joe Dunckley

In semiotics, the sign is the relation between a signifier and signified.

When introducing the concept of the sign, Jeremy Hawthorn outlines a distinction between sign and symptom. The conventional understanding of the sign, he says, is entirely cultural while the symptom is entirely natural.

But Hawthorn notes that some theorists see the symptom as a subset of the sign. For instance, Michel Foucault‘s study of the history of medicine and the “medical gaze” suggests that an ironclad distinction between sign and symptom is questionable, at best.

Speaking about the sign, itself, Hawthorn says that theorists like Jacques Lacan regard the relationship between signifier and signified as problematic because meanings are “shifting, multiple and context-dependent.”¹

M. H. Abrams, defines signs as “conveyors of meaning” and notes that they apply not just to language and text but to a wide array of human activities and productions—e.g. morse code, traffic signals, what clothing we wear, bodily postures, what we serve to guests for dinner, neighborhoods where we live, etc.²

¹ A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 161-163.

² A Glossary of Literary Terms, eighth edition, Boston: Thomson, 2005, p. 289.

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