Sign Theory of Language

Sign Theory of Language


the view generally accepted in structural linguistics that regards language as a special kind of semiotic (sign) system and that limits itself to the study of language’s semiotic (code) properties.

The sign theory of language strives to reveal properties that are common to language and other sign systems and to define the distinguishing features of language within the sum total of semiotic facts. The presence of more than one type of sign is the most important defining feature of the structural organization of language. Thus, in all languages, in addition to “sentences”—the complete signs that exist in every semiotic system—there is yet another type, partial signs—for example, “words.” The signifiers and signifieds of “words” are in turn divided into unilateral, nonsign elements, or so-called “figures” of expression and content (for example, phonemes). This many-leveled structure may be considered the most important typological characteristic of language in general semiologic classification. It is the most direct consequence of language’s unique capacity to relate its signs to any aspect of any type of human experience and the associated capacity for infinite development and modifications; these capacities distinguish language from those sign systems in which analogous structural characteristics pertain only to an optional mechanism of economy.

Ferdinand de Saussure is considered the founder of the sign theory of language; he was the first linguist to advocate the establishment of semiotics as a general science of signs that would include linguistics as its most important part. The sign theory of language outlined by Saussure was developed and modified by L. Hjelmslev. In the USSR the sign theory has been developing since the mid-1950’s and is shared by most contemporary linguists.


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Obshchee iazykoznanie. Moscow, 1970. Chapter 2.
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