The Great Conversation:
Sign & Symbol—Part I

By Gabriel Blanchard

Though they may sound mysterious, signs and symbols are some of the most ubiquitous elements of our lives.

Signs are one of the most ubiquitous of the great ideas. The alphabet, in which this sentence is written, is a system of signs; for that matter, language as such is a system of signs.

What is a sign? In brief, it is a thing that points to another thing. In a handful of cases, like one-way street signs, this “pointing to” is quite literal, but most of the time “suggests” or “indicates” would do as a substitute. Additionally, making abstract signs seems to be a peculiarly human activity; other animals communicate for practical purposes, but only humans seem to be interested in, or have much knack, for “pointing at” invisible concepts. The study of signs (with due respect to Dan Brown’s fictional professor of “symbology”) is called semiotics, from the Greek σημεῖον (sēmeion), “sign.” Given its definition, semiotics technically covers every form of communication and thought; however, “ideas” is not a very distinctive intellectual turf in Academe, and most semioticians specialize. Many pursue linguistics; some study the techniques and conventions of the arts; one could consider the many regimes of rituals used by institutions (religious, military, athletic, etc.), or the intricate rules of heraldry and vexillology, or the subtleties of computer programming—they do call it “coding” for a reason!

One of the immediately obvious facts about a sign is that it is not identical to the thing it signifies. In many cases, though not in all, the connection between a sign and its meaning seems arbitrary; this is where the distinction between signs and symbols comes in. Sign covers all “indicators”; although the distinction is not absolute, symbol is often restricted to those less-common signs which do have a natural link with the thing they signify. Our next Great Conversation installment will pick up the topic of symbols; here, we will discuss what are called conventional or artificial signs. Understanding a conventional sign normally requires being told what it means by somebody who knows already, and using that knowledge in further encounters with the sign to unite it with its meaning.

Some signs, like letters, are created to serve the sign function and do not meaningfully exist apart from that function. We may speak of “an L-shaped couch,” but, even though it was intentionally designed to have that shape, the couch does not “mean” the sound at the beginning of the word linger; and even in calling it “L-shaped,” we are ignoring the fact that L has two shapes (so that nearly all couches are L-shaped if we include the lower-case l). Lots of letter shapes can be found anywhere, but they are letters—signs—only when they are put there on purpose in order to convey meaning.

Today, all writing systems consist in conventional signs. This was less true five thousand years ago, around when writing was first invented. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform both started out as mainly logographic systems, each character indicating not a sound but a word. They usually achieved this by starting out as pictograms, i.e. looking like what they meant (so, the character for “apple” would be a drawing of an apple). These earliest ancestors of hieroglyphics and cuneiform thus fall at least partly into our postponed subcategory of symbols. But pictograms are hard to adapt for some words—how do you depict concepts like “absence” or “probably” or “decide”?—besides which even the most pictorial characters became stylized over time, eventually losing all clear resemblance to the objects they once depicted; they remained signs but ceased to be symbols. But both before and after this transition was complete, learning to read and write was a truly formidable task. It is no accident that “scribe” was a synonym for “educated person”; there were hundreds if not thousands of characters, whose meanings and formation techniques the aspiring scribe had to get down by heart. (Chinese characters afford a modern parallel: they are still largely logographic though stylized past the “non-symbolic” tipping point, and require several years of study to achieve even basic literacy.)

Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, it cannot be used to tell the truth; indeed, it cannot be used "to tell" at all.

Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

The Phoenicians pioneered the transition from logographic to sound-based scripts, which are far more “economical” and thus easier to learn! It originally worked rather like an acrostic: hieroglyphics were already in use among the Phoenicians, so they chose one hieroglyph for each sound of their language, based on what object the hieroglyph represented and what sound the name for that object began with—much as we might use a drawing of an apple for A, a bat for B, a car for C, and so forth. This made the new script a little bit like a code as well, since anyone familiar with hieroglyphics but not with the new conventions that governed these characters would look at a passage written in alphabetic script and see gibberish: the signs might be clear, but what they signified was locked in the minds of those who knew how to unite the old sign with its new meaning.

Another near-universal sign system that has come unmoored from what it originally signified is money. Its earliest form was commodity money, some designated good with a value of its own which was also employed as a medium for trade. Precious metals like silver and gold (used by the ancients not only for luxuries like jewelry, but more practical goods like mirrors) became popular commodity monies in the Near East and Mediterranean; by the seventh century BC, since it is easy to cheat people by covertly mixing these metals with less valuable ones, they were being made into coins: little lumps of metal stamped with a royal seal. This was a sign that the purity of the metal in the coin was guaranteed by the state. When paper money was invented, it likewise represented a given quantity of some precious metal. However, most currencies today are fiat money, which has no inherent use and is not “backed” by anything that does, but is simply declared to be of worth by the government issuing it: one dollar is not a sign of a twentieth of an ounce of gold; one dollar is a sign of one dollar. Those who have read Charles Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres may perhaps recall the ominous lines on King Arthur’s new coins, stamped with his royal dragon crest: “Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols. / I am afraid of the little loosed dragons. / When the means are autonomous, they are deadly …”

Returning to the topic of language, the semiotics of religion, scholarship, and law may all assign significance not only to unusual vocabulary, but to what language is used. Whether two dialects are legally treated as distinct languages often points to other political issues; for example, Danish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible, but are classified as separate languages partly to highlight the independent national identities of Denmark and Norway. In a different vein, one the reason French influenced the history of English so heavily was the use of “law French,” which has bequeathed us many technical words and phrases (such as culprit and mortgage, or putting the adjective second in attorney general). The religious significance of language naturally varies by religion: for Muslims, since the Qur’an was revealed specifically in Arabic, translations are considered human interpretations of the text, and thus are not technically versions of the Qur’an; among Roman Catholics, the Mass was only celebrated in Latin until 1965, and that language thus acquired an aura of the sacred. Moreover, in the academic world, Latin and Greek both were important markers of the educated until three or four generations ago—the modern reader of a novel by an Oxford-educated woman in the 1930s may be surprised to find brief passages in both languages dropped in without translation!

Within a single language, much of the beauty of literature, the fun of word games, and the special charm of wit depend on treating words as being different types of sign at the same time. Poetry, legal and political rhetoric, and traditional religious language all allow for (or even require) special terms and grammatical constructions, not necessarily to accommodate special meanings but as a sign of their distinctive context and purpose: a poet or a priest is entitled to archaic words like chalice and vouchsafe, even though we never use them anymore outside such specialized contexts. Riddles and puns often turn upon different senses of the same word, like a pair of one-way signs pointing in different directions but mounted on a single pole. They may also use homophones, as in the stock joke, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Word games can be played between languages as well, and in some languages, such as Hebrew, they are a favorite rhetorical device. In Exodus 10.10, when refusing to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship with their families and livestock, pharaoh tells Moses רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם (ra’ah neged peneikhem) or “evil is before your face,” i.e. Moses is planning something fishy. But the word ra’ah for “evil” sounds like the name of the Egyptian sun god Ra, whom the pharaohs claimed to be closely linked to, if not avatars of. Thus, an “Egyptian” reading of the word makes the verse a vaunt—along the lines of You have Ra here in front of you, so you can worship here—while a “Hebrew” reading implies the unintentional self-accusation I, in claiming to be a god, am evil. (Of course, these cross-language puns are not always so deliberate. Native English speakers studying Spanish, for instance, must often be warned not to confuse the adjective embarazada with the word “embarrassed”!)

These forms of wit and wordplay are distantly related to other sign systems, such as metaphor, parable, and allegory. Interestingly, rather than the two-layer system of sign and signified that we have thus far been working with, these literary devices have a sort of nested structure, in which the signs’ meanings are signs in turn. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, the words are all signs because that’s how words work, but the story itself and the characters in it are signs on a different level: they signify general or abstract realities in the spiritual life, often by personifying them as characters. This populace of anthropomorphized abstractions is what makes the book an allegory (a term sometimes applied, wrongly, to any work that makes extensive use of symbolism). But at this, we must turn to that subset of signs which are properly called symbols.

Part II to come!

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Rhetoric
St. Augustine, On Christian Teaching
St. Bede, A Book of Epigrams, “Enigmas”
John Donne, Letter to Lady Kingsmel on the Death of Her Husband
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle, a freelance writer, and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like other posts in our series on the great ideas too—take a look at our installments on animals, the family, hypothesis, temperance, and truth. Or, if you’re feeling an appetite for live conversation, check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder Jeremy Tate.

Published on 7th September, 2022. Page image of the Codex Runicus, a Danish law code (composed ca. 1300) written in Norse runes.

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