Types of signs

TYPES OF SIGNS. In different semiotic classifications are based on the relations between the sign and the referent (an object or a class of objects), on the structure of the sign, its transformations, and their participation in the semiosis.

The most famous typology of signs was introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce, who described the trichotomy: a sign per se, a sign related to an object, a sign as a triadic model. Altogether, there are 66 types of signs, grouped into larger classess in the trichotomy structure. The first trichotomy “qualitative, single, general” comprises the followings types of signs:

  • Qualiasign (this type focuses on the qualities of a referent, e.g. adjectives or colour in pictorial art) 
  • Sinsign (it serves to refer to single objects, e.g. deictic units this, that)
  • Legisign (the so-called conventional sign, for example an emblem in non-verbal semiotics)

The second trichotomy distinguishes between icons, indexes, symbols, and the third one draws the line between a Rheme (a term a class name), Dicent (a proposition), Argument.

Pierces’ second trichotomy became the most widely used in linguistics. According to Pierce, icons include images, diagrams, metaphors, as they demonstrate the relations of similarity between a sign and an object (see the term  iconicity). Index signs show the relations of adjacency between a sign and an object (including cause-and-effect, whole-part, case-contents, action-reaction). For example, a knock at the door is an index (an indicator) that somebody wants to enter the house. In symbols there are no immediate links established between signs and objects,  there are no natural connections of similarity and adjacency. However symbols and objects they represent are connected via conventional relations, as the result of “mutual agreement” between the users of signs.

The typology of signs was offered in the works by Charles Morris, who differentiated between indexical signs (they refer to a unique object), characterizing signs (these signs denote a plurality of objects), universal signs (they denote all actually existing objects). Ch. Morris also introduced the notion of the systemic nature of signs, dividing them into designators, appraisors, prescriptors, identifiors and formators according to the modes of signifying.

Further reading

Иванов Вяч. Вс. Избранные труды по семиотике и истории культуры. М.: Языки русской культуры, 2004.

Степанов Ю. С. Семиотика. М.: Наука, 1971.

Chandler D. Semiotics. The Basics. L., NY.: Routledge, 2007.

Eco U.A theory of semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Merrel F. Sign, mind, time, space: Contradictory complementary coalescence // Semiotica. Vol.177. № 1/4. De Gruyter Mouton, 2009. — P. 29-116.

Morris Ch. Writings on the general theory of signs. The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1971.

Maria Kiose

Translated by Nastya Zhuchenko