Signifying Reality - How Signs Construct the
Last time was Language, Culture, Prejudice
• Nature vs . Nurture?
Human universals and divisions
• Prejudice: racism, ethnocentrism
• Anthropology and imperialism: history
• (not done: Anthropology and ethnocentrism; cultural relativism)
Signifying Reality: How Signs Construct the World
• Signification: making sense, making signs
Linguistic and non-linguistic signs
o Linguistic signs: every word, language is a sign system
• The nature of signs:
o Signifier and signified
Symbols, icon, index
o Denotation and connotation
• How signs "construct" reality
How we construct our self
Homo sapiens - "human that knows"
• Knowing: making sense (reflecting, representing)
To make sense = to signify
• Study of signs (signifying): semiotics
• Study of language: linguistics
• Linguistics is part of semiotics
Semiotics is the study of :
• Other signs (semiotics proper)
A Classic ("Saussurean") View of Signification
Ferdinand de Saussure, 1857-1913
o Swiss scholar, he never published anything. His students were
writing down every word he said, writing the book to general
semiotics • "signifier" and "signified"
• Example: Winding road sign (Signifier + Signified)
o Physical object is the signifier, the metal plate
o The concept or notion of the winding road is the signified.
• Signifier + Signified = Sign (must include both!!)
Three kinds of sign
Icons share some of their physical form (shape, sound, etc.) with the
o Icons are a physical manifestation of a person, and it forms an
• Two icons: Picture of a TA, and a warning sign of moose
Indexes do not share any of their form with the referent ...
o We cannot say that the moose scat is the moose itself. This is
an indication of the form.
… they don't sound / look "the same" as the referent …
o The excrement does not look like a moose… but it indicates the
• … yet they "indicate" what they refer to
• Two indexes: Poison and moose scat (excrement)
• Symbols have arbitrary relation to signified ("referent")
o Connected only via the system of signification (e.g. language)
• Arbitrary is opposite of "motivated"
Motivated: icons and indexes
• Two symbols: Flag of St.George and barber pole
Most words are arbitrary (symbols)
• Cat, Chat, etc… no reason for it to be a cat
• Happy - same as cat, no reason for it
• Totally • But some words are not symbols: moo, oink, splash, scratch
o These are onomatopoeia
o Are onomatopoeia symbols, icons, or indexes?
o These are icons, they represent the sound, but they do
represent an index of the object the sound is associated with.
Examples (from the online book)
• Telephone icon
• Airplane icon for "airplane"; index for "airport" (actually two different
• Crescent moon star symbol ("Islam")
• Yin-Yang index ("Tao")
Turn icon (turn as indicated, "back")
• Windows icon, indexic