Icon, Index, Symbol and Verbal Language

Peirce’s three sign forms are intended to be comprehensive, that is, all phenomena which are signs by Peirce’s broad definition should be able to be understood as one or more of the sign forms. The sign forms have tended to be used as explanatory concepts more for visual signs and iconography of all kinds, than in the particular area of language. Nevertheless, there are various ways in which language has been envisaged as Icon and Index, as well as purely Symbolic.

Distance of sign forms from the object

Fig. 13.1 Distance of sign forms from the object

Language as a Symbolic System

In the terms of Peirce’s definitions of Iconic, Indexical and Symbolic signs, language is considered to be a Symbolic system on the grounds that its relation to its Object is arbitrary and unmotivated, a product of conventional systems or rules that can vary according to culture. (This observation is to be distinguished from the idea of symbolic language, which is language that deviates from the naturalistic, using general and literary symbols [Wales, 1989: 446].) This notion of arbitrariness is most easily illustrated by the fact that different words are used in different languages to denote the same referent. De Saussure, although he did not use the word “symbol”, shows that meaning is made within a language system only by reference to other elements within the same system—so “cat” differs from “rat”, “Katze” from “Ratte”, “chat” from “rat”.

Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences...Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. (de Saussure, 1959: 120)

Peirce wrote less extensively about language as a system than did de Saussure, but he was clear that in terms of his sign forms it was Symbolic: “All words, sentences, books and other conventional signs are symbols” (Peirce, 1931-1958: 2.292). Yet the idea of the complete conventionality of language has been challenged in certain aspects. Writers have argued that there are ways in which language is not a completely arbitrary system, and can be conceived as either Iconic or Indexical.

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