Saussure’s analysis of sign and its main characteristics

This essay is an analysis of sign and its salient characteristics as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure. According to him, it is the combination of signifier and signified. Signifier refers to the sound image while signified to its inherent meaning or idea. Mary Klages defines signified as the “psychological imprint of the sound” (35). Meaning is possible if there is inseparable connectivity between the signifier and signified, and this connection takes place in a psychological process called to be signification. So, sign or the determination of meaning has a very distinctive place in Saussure’s structural analysis of language. He clearly advocates for some salient characteristics in his analysis of sign. These characteristics highlight how sign conveys different meanings. The following paragraphs deal with the main aspects that sign offers.

Arbitrariness in sign

Saussure clearly argues that a sign functions properly when there is a connection between a signifier and its signified. With the utterance of the sound or the signifier, the particular signified must reflect in one’s mind. For describing the nature of the relationship between signifier and signified, Saussure says that this connectivity between them is arbitrary. Klages expresses it stating that the “bond between the signifier (sfr) and signified (sfd) is arbitrary” (35). According to him, it is arbitrary because there is no “natural, intrinsic, or logical relation between a particular sound image and a concept” (35). Peter Barry describes this disconnected state as the “unmotivated signs meaning that there is no inherent connection between a word and what it designates” (40). In two ways, it can be exemplified. Whenever we utter the word “cat”, we refer to the four-legged animal that mews. Let us ask some questions:

Why should a cat be a cat?

Why should not a cat be an animal that barks?

Who determines the connection between the word cat and the idea of mewing?

Who makes these two go together?

Is it natural?

Is there any logical connection between the signifier and signified?

Analyzing these questions, it can be argued that the connection between a signifier and a signified is arbitrary as there is no natural or scientific rule to call the animal that mews a cat. Moreover, the idea of arbitrariness is at the core of Saussure’s analysis which makes it possible to separate the signifier and signified or to change the relationship between them. From the idea of arbitrariness, it also becomes clear that a signifier may refer to more ideas. It should be remembered that having more ideas is associated with literary writing in which multiplicity of meanings is the primary notion. It means literature offers different meanings simultaneously because of the slipperiness of the signified.

Characteristic of sign: Linearity

The second characteristic of a sign is its linearity. It refers to the fact that the signifier or the sound image exists in time. It means that one word can be uttered in a particular time reality. Two meaningful or intelligible words cannot be uttered at the same time. One word must be uttered after another in a chain. This is called the linearity of the signs. Signs must be structured in a linear way one after another to form a sign chain to get a complete meaning. A sentence can be taken as an example of this sequentiality. In a sentence, words come one at a time and in a line. Though we can read the words individually, they are connected together.

Sign and the impossibility of the separation between signifier and signified

Saussure argues that both the signifier and the signified are inseparably connected with each other. He compares these two with the front and back sides of a piece of paper. Here, the paper itself is the sign and two of its sides refer to the signifier and signified which combinedly produce meaning. It is quite impossible to separate these two sides. In the same way, signifier and signified cannot be separated from one another. In order to get a meaning or sign, they must be combined in any possible way.

Sign and signification

Generally, a sign is taken similar to a meaning. Saussure is not interested in calling the combination of signifier and signified as meaning. He introduces the idea of signification instead of meaning. He argues that the signifier and the signified are connected with each other psychologically which is called signification. He adds that signification can be found in the parole level or the formation of meaningful words with the connection of signifier and signified.

He further argues that signification can also be found at the langue level. It is done at the broader level in a social system. Saussure terms this system of signification in the langue level as value. It is the responsibility of the value to confirm the relation between the signs within an entire signifying system. Value cannot be determined in isolation. Langue gets value because it is a part of the relationship of the elements available in society as a system or institution.

Sign and relationality

According to Saussure, meanings or signs or words are relational. No word can be understood in isolation. Peter Barry, in his Beginning Theory, exemplifies the relationality of meanings in the following way:

“Hovel – shed – hut – house – mansion – palace” (41)

In this chain of words, the meaning of the hovel is dependent on the meaning of shed. All of these words can be analyzed in different ways. Considering the size, a hovel is smaller than a shed, a shed is smaller than a hut, a hut is smaller than a house, a house is smaller than a mansion, and finally, a mansion is smaller than a palace. It is an example of the differencing network as told by Saussure. Nayar analyses it by saying, “words existed in creation to other words and the meaning of one word was dependent upon the meaning of other words” (5).

Sign, meaning, and binary opposite

Meanings are determined through binary opposites. Binary opposite refers to the position of two opposite words on both sides of a slash. The opposite words are inseparably connected with each other. Moreover, one word of the binary is always culturally superior to another. Furthermore, one word is inevitably the negation of another. Thus, it can be exemplified that Male/female is an example of the binary opposite. If it is analyzed, the following observations are found out:

  • a male is taken as culturally superior to a female.
  • A male is he who is not a female
  • To understand a male, it is important to know who a female is.


Saussure, thus, analyses the characteristics of a sign or meaning highlighting that a sign can be arbitrary. Moreover, it gets its meaning through signification. In addition, it depends on linear structure for its meaning. Finally, meaning is possible through the inseparable connectivity between a signifier and its signified, signification, relationality, and binary opposition.


  • Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Viva Books, 2010
  • Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2014
Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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