The Power of Signs and Symbols
Understanding the Power of Their Effect
Communicating ideas effectively through written text presents interpretative challenges of varying degrees which can stem from the interpreter’s cultural background (to include ethnicity, education, and religion). Such degrees frame one’s interpretive lens that is used, which forms one’s conclusion and, that interpretation may or may not be the author’s original intent. The interpretation depends on the language used such as written text, the spoken word, or symbolic identifier and what it means to the receiver. Therefore, the challenge for the author is to project the idea to be received in a way that leads the receiver to the desired conclusion. Some works have universal interpretation, like Shakespeare, while others are subject to cross-cultural interpretation. Thus, clarity in communicating is a necessity that should not, but sometimes can, be easily overlooked.
In an article ‘Characteristics of Language’ written by David Crystal for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Henry Sweet, an English phonetician and language scholar, is quoted as having said: “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.” But this definition limits ‘language’ to words. Today, language is any type of communication that references an idea. Body language, as an example, speaks volumes without a word being uttered. A sigh, or a huff and puff, speaks loudly of some type of despair without an utterance. Let’s not forget branding. An effective brand connotes messages in the mind of the receiver without any word being spoken or read. As an example, what is read by the receiver when McDonald’s golden arches is seen – good, inexpensive food, fast service, an appeasement for children who learn very early that is the place they want to eat. This expression of ‘language’ is called Semiotics.
Simply put, Semiotics is defined in dictionary.com as the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. Lesley Lanir, who holds a Master’s Degree in Learning Disabilities, Assessment, and Remediation, and a Bachelor of Humanities Degree in English Language and Literature, and writes several articles for decodedscience.com wrote about Swiss linguist and semiotician, Ferdinand de Saussure: The Linguistic Unit – Sign, Signified and Signifier Explained. Saussure perceived a linguistic unit to be a ‘double entity,’ meaning that it is composed of two parts. He viewed the linguistic unit as a combination of a concept or meaning and a sound-image. Saussure used ‘linguistic units,’ ‘sound-images’, and ‘concepts’ to represent the mental process that invoke these in our minds. By these he doesn’t mean words, written or uttered, but the impressions conjured up as representations of things. These images we create mentally, dual mental-linguistic units he calls a ‘sign.’
A striking example is the word Google . This word, sound-image, and logo has been mentally transferred from logo to noun, verb, adverb, and adjective and now we all know the concept or meaning associated with the ‘sound impression’ ‘Google’ as a premier Internet search engine. These two elements, the mental and auditory impressions have conjoined to become a mental linguistic unit. Saussure refers to this two-part ‘unit’ as a ‘sign.’ He calls ‘sound images’ and ‘linguistic signs,’ ‘signifiers,’ and argued that the images invoked mentally are completely arbitrary with no logical connection. See ‘Linguistic Units and Sound – Images are Mental Impressions’ in decodedscience.com.
The word ‘Google,’ originally a randomly selected word with no meaning, has now been transformed in all our minds to mean internet search engine. This ‘linguistic unit’ ‘Google’ (the Sign) now universally represents an internet search engine by mentally connecting it to its ‘sound image’ – the signifier ‘Google’ – a ‘linguistic sign.’
Does seeing the Brand
Make you want to search the Internet
The website, Cooler Insights, provides very basic insightful information of semiotics marketing communication, of which a larger version of Saussure’s image of Sign, Signifier and Signified below, is included. You can also click on the image below for a larger view.
The image below provides an alternate way of understanding Semiotics.