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1. Maths logic
a. any symbol indicating an operation
b. the positivity or negativity of a number, quantity, or expression
2. an indication, such as a scent or spoor, of the presence of an animal
3. Med any objective evidence of the presence of a disease or disorder
4. Astrology See sign of the zodiac


  1. any direct indicator of an occurrence, e.g. the appearance of spots is a sign of measles (natural signs).
  2. any SYMBOL, including the written marks for words, which stands for – or represents – both a meaning and an external thing which ‘corresponds’ to the meaning. Taking an ‘empiricist’ view, there is a sense in which signs ‘picture’ an external reality (see EMPIRICISM).
  3. (modern LINGUISTICS and STRUCTURALISM) any signifier which signifies a concept or ‘meaning’, the signified. In this view, the relation between the SIGNIFIER and SIGNIFIED is internal to a particular language (see also LANGUE AND PAROLE, SAUSSURE).
As emphasized in SEMIOLOGY (OR SEMIOTICS), the general theory of signs, signs may take many forms, including icons (pictures), dress, conspicuous social display, etc. – thus ‘referents’ also signify – and all such signs are amenable to analysis in structural terms, i.e. as a system of ’DIFFERENCES’.

Compared with sense 1 (natural signs), senses 2 and 3 involve ‘arbitrary’ rather than natural signs. Sense 2 in particular, that our ability to refer depends on internal ‘differences’, also emphasizes that linguistic structures (at least the semantic structures) are 'social’ not biological or individual in form (see also WITTGENSTEIN, FORMS OF LIFE, PARADIGM). Sense3 is also central in modern POST-EMPIRICIST and POST-STRUCTURALIST thinking in philosophy, leading to celebrations or accusations of ‘loss of reference’- see RELATIVISM, INCOMMENSURABILITY. But an emphasis on the ‘internal relations’ of sign systems need not imply lack of reference, merely that any system of reference cannot be guaranteed (see also FEYERABEND, KUHN). See also SEMANTICS, BODY LANGUAGE, METAPHOR.



a material object (phenomenon, event) that represents another object, property, or relation and is used to acquire, store, process, and transmit messages (information, knowledge).

Linguistic (belonging to a system of signs) are distinguished from nonlinguistic signs. Nonlinguistic signs are divided into copy signs, indicator signs, and symbol signs. Copy signs are reproductions, more or less similar to that which is being denoted, such as photographs, fingerprints, and, to a certain extent, pictographic writing. Indicator signs are signs associated with denoted objects as effects with causes (sometimes referred to as symptoms or indices). Symbol signs are signs that, as a result of graphic images contained in them, are used to express a particular content, frequently extremely meaningful and abstract (for example, a picture of the ancient Greek theatrical mask as a symbol for modern theater; the term “symbol” is also used as an equivalent for “sign”).

Linguistic signs do not function independently of each other. They form a system, whose rules determine the regularities of their combination (rules of grammar, or syntax in a broad sense), comprehension (rules of meaning, or significance, of a symbol), and use. If a language serves as a means of communication in society, signs entering into its structure are referred to as communicative signs. These are divided into signs of natural languages and signs of artificial sign systems (artificial languages). Signs of natural languages (individual words, expressions with proper grammatical structure, sentences) include both sound signs and the corresponding handwritten and typographic signs. Nonlinguistic signs play an auxiliary role in communication. In natural communicative languages—national languages—only rules of grammar exist in more or less explicit form; rules of meaning and use are not explicitly formulated. The development of science has led to the introduction into natural languages of special graphic signs used to abbreviate scientific concepts and propositions and methods of operating with objects being studied in science (such as systems of mathematical, astronomical, and chemical symbols). Artificial languages, whose rules (at least the rules of syntax and meaning) are explicitly formulated, are fashioned from such signs. Artificial languages are used primarily in science, where they serve not only as a means of communication between scientists and scientific bodies but as a means of obtaining new information about phenomena being studied. Signs of artificial sign systems include the signs of code systems designed for coding ordinary speech or for receding previously coded messages (for example, Morse code and codes used in formulating programs for digital computers); signs for simulating continuous processes (for example, curves representing continuous changes in certain processes); and signs from which formulas used in scientific languages (including signs of formal systems and those of logical information systems) are constructed, the most important variety of signs used in science. A distinction is generally made between signs whose significance (meaning) does not depend on other signs (so-called natural signs proper) and nonproper signs, which do not have their own signifying character but only aid in forming complex signs from simpler ones (for example, brackets).

The denotational, semantic, and expressive meanings of a sign are distinguished. A sign is said to represent a given object (or objects)—the object represented by a sign is referred to as its denotational meaning—and to express its semantic and expressive meanings. The semantic meaning (sense) of a sign serves to identify its denotational meaning— that is, to single out the object represented by a sign (although there may be signs having only a semantic meaning but not representing any object, such as the expression “mermaid”). On the other hand, there may be signs in which the semantic meaning has been reduced to a minimum. Proper nouns of natural languages are a case in point. The semantic meaning of a sign is its capacity to represent and register aspects, features, and properties of the denoted object that define the sphere of applications of the sign; it is that which man understands when perceiving or reproducing a given sign. In science the semantic meaning of a sign takes the form of a notion. In a number of fields (especially mathematics) objects represented by signs (by expressions of a corresponding scientific language) represent ideal, abstract units. The feelings and desires of man expressed by means of a given sign (in its use in a given context and in a given situation) are understood as the expressive meaning of a sign. Natural spoken language is extremely expressive, but in written scientific language most expressions (and in formal languages, all expressions) are devoid of expressive meaning. On the other hand, there are linguistic signs that strictly speaking have no meaning other than the expressive; such is the case, for example, with interjections.

The formation of mankind itself, as well as fundamental turning points in the development of science (for example, the emergence of mathematical symbolics in the 16th and 17th centuries, which sharply accelerated the progress of mathematics and its application in mechanics, astronomy, and physics; and the development of formal indexing, machine, and similar languages linked with cybernetics), has been linked to the development of the capacity to extract and process information about objects by working directly not with the objects themselves but with signs representing them. The creation of special symbolics and, especially, of systems of formulas generally reveals new potentials in science. Rationally constructed systems of signs make it possible to express in visible form interrelationships between the phenomena being studied, to achieve nonambiguity of terms, and to denote notions for which there are no verbal expressions in ordinary language. Formulas frequently express both the end result and the means of obtaining such a result. The recording of messages with the help of signs makes possible the transmission of information through technical communication channels and its diverse—mathematical, statistical, and logical—processing by means of automated devices (logical information machines and control systems, including digital computers).


Lenin, V. I. “Materializm i empiriokrititsizm.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 18.
Leibniz, G. von. Novye opyty o chelovecheskom razume. Moscow, 1936. (Translated from German.)
lushkevich, A. P. “Leibnits i osnovanie ischisleniia beskonechno malykh.” Uspekhi matematicheskikh nauk, 1948, vol. 3, issue 1.
Russell, B. Chelovecheskoe poznanie. Moscow, 1957. (Translated from English.)
Biriukov, B. V. “Teoriia smysla Gotloba Frege.” In Primenenie logiki v nauke i tekhnike. Moscow, 1960.
Zvegintsev, V. A. Istoriia iazykoznaniia 19 i 20 vv. v ocherkakh i izvlecheniiakh, 2nd ed., parts 1–2. Moscow, 1960.
Church, A. Vvedenie v matematicheskuiu logiku, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from English.)
Schaff, A. Vvedenie v semantiku. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from Polish.)
Reznikov, L. O. Gnoseologicheskie voprosy semiotiki. Leningrad, 1964.
Vleduts, G. E., et al. “Semiotika.” In Kibernetiku—na sluzhbu kommunizmu, vol. 5. Moscow, 1967. (Contains bibliography.)
Pierce, J. Simvoly, signaly, shumy. Moscow, 1967. (Translated from English.)
Problema znaka i znacheniia. Moscow, 1969. (Collection.)
Morris, C. Signs, Language, and Behavior. New York, 1946.
Carnap, R. Introduction to Semantics. Cambridge, 1942.



In semiotics, an entity that signifies some other thing, and may be interpreted.
A symbol which indicates whether a quantity is greater than zero or less than zero; the signs are often the marks + and - respectively, but other arbitrarily selected symbols are used, especially in automatic data processing.
A unit of plane angle, equal to 30° or π/6 radians.

sign, signboard

1. A display board or surface used for directions, identification, instructions, or advertising; usually consists of lettering, pictures, diagrams, decoration, etc., often in combination, on a contrasting background surface.
2. According to OSHA: a warning of hazard, temporarily or permanently affixed or placed, at a location where a hazard exists.


A symbol that identifies a positive or negative number. In digital form, it is either a separate character or part of the byte. In ASCII, the sign is kept in a separate character typically transmitted in front of the number it represents
(+ and - is 2B and 2D in hex).

In EBCDIC, the minus sign can be stored as a separate byte (hex 60), or, more commonly, as half a byte (+ and - is C and D in hex), which is stored in the high-order bits of the least significant byte. For packed decimal, it is in the low-order bits of the least significant byte.