Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies中文及雙語學系 B. A. (Hons) chinese & bilingual studies cbs319: Symbolic Communication across Languages

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Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies中文及雙語學系


CBS319: Symbolic Communication across Languages

LECTURE NOTES (Weeks 1 & 2, Part A)

Lecturer: Prof Daniel So
Tutor: Mr Thomas Pang
January 2014

symbolic communication across languages



  1. Reference Syllabus

  1. Coursework Assessment

  1. Course assessment

  1. Score to grade conversion scheme

  1. Lecture outline

  1. Notes for the first couple of lectures



Subject Code

CBS319 (Reference Syllabus)

Subject Title

Symbolic Communication across Languages

Credit Value




Pre-requisite /Co-requisite/



This subject aims to provide a conceptual grounding for students in body-language and sign-mediated communication (SiMC) with special reference to its within-culture and between-culture variation as well as its application in corporate communication. Specifically the subject aims to (1) give them a general orientation about the human species as homo significans/symbolicus, (2) develop among them a basic understanding of the nature and the workings of major cultural signs such as icons, indices and symbols, as well as body-language from communicative, semiotic perspectives. Wherever appropriate, exemplification will be done with cases taken from the corporate sector in Chinese, and non-Chinese cultures so that students’ cultural outlooks may be broadened and their understanding of the connection between the matter of this subject and corporate communication may be strengthened.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

Category A: Professional/academic knowledge and skills
On successfully completing the subject, students will be able to:

  1. articulate the basic workings of human communication with reference to sign-mediated & body-language communication;

  2. differentiate between different kinds of cultural and body-language signs

  3. discuss in an intelligent manner the definitive qualities of mega cultural signs, writing & major body-language signs from the perspective of SiMC

  4. demonstrate their awareness concerning the within-culture and between-culture variation in the interpretation and use of cultural and body-language signs

Category B: Attributes for all-roundedness

  1. enunciate the implications of ‘humankind as homo significans

  2. show an ability to identify how different strands of the subject matter in the bilingual communication may inform one another

Indicative Syllabus

The subject matter is organised around the following themes:


Subject matter to be covered

Part A

1 – 9

Part B

10 – 14

  1. SiMC among esp. high-intelligence creatures

  2. Humans as Homo significans/symbolicus

  3. The uniqueness & workings of human SiMC

  4. Models & typology of cultural signs

  5. Mega cultural signs

  6. Development of cultural signs & their variation

  7. Hieroglyphs & Hanzi from SiMC perspectives

  1. Non-verbal behaviour languages, particularly body language & movement, as a form of sign-mediated communication:

    1. kinesic behaviour

    2. proxemic norms

    3. haptic perception

    4. chronemic cues

  2. Paralinguistic devices, etc.

Teaching/Learning Methodology

Subject matter is delivered in lectures and consolidated in seminars. Learning in this subject is facilitated via self-formed study groups, small-group meetings with teachers, revision of subject matter via quizzes. Students are provided with an opportunity to consolidate their grip on a Part A &/or Part B topic in the form of respectively a short written assignment OR an oral presentation (OP). Feedback about their coursework performance will be provided with close reference to the ILOs. Their grip on the subject matter in general is assessed in the form of an end-of-semester examination. Students will be given opportunities to request for further feedback about their performance during the review session of their exam-scripts.

Assessment Methods in Alignment with Intended Learning Outcomes

Specific assessment methods/tasks


ILOs to be assessed







1. Two Oral Quizzes on respectively Parts A & B (5 marks each)


A good fraction of the above

2. Two Written Quizzes on Part A (10 marks each)


A good fraction of the above

3. A short Written Assignment on Part A1 OR a Group OP2 on Part B. Both may be done on group or individual basis so long as group size = three or less


Any of the above

4. End of semester Exam (written)


All of the above



At least five bonus, gratuitous marks will be awarded for good seminar participation.

Student Study Effort Required

Class contact:

  • Lectures

28 Hrs.

  • Seminars (including OP)

13 Hrs.

  • Meeting with subject teachers

1 Hr.

Other student study effort:

  • Preparing for the exam

35 Hrs.

  • Meeting coursework requirements

35 Hrs.

Total student study effort

112 Hrs.

Reading List and References


Battistini, Matilde. Simboli e allegorie. [English Title] Symbols and allegories in art; translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Los Angeles : The J. Paul Getty Museum, c2005

Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. The illustrated book of signs & symbols. Westmount, Quebec : Reader's Digest Asso. Ltd., 1996

Dennis-Bryan, Kim. Signs & Symbols: an illustrated guide to their origins and meanings. USA: DK Publishing, 2008

Impelluso, Lucia. Natura e i suoi simboli. [English Title] Nature and its symbols; translated by Stephen Sartarelli. Los Angeles, Calif. : J.P. Getty Museum, c2004.

Sassoon, Rosemary & A. Gaur. Signs, symbols and icons. Exeter, UK: Intellect Books, 1997 (Electronic version available)

Smith, Dinitia. “A Thinking Bird or Just Another Birdbrain?” New York Times October 9, 1999

Wilson, Penelope. Hieroglyphs : a very short introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004

大野信長:《戰國武將家紋軍旗事典》,臺北:流遠, 2011。(譯者:孫玉珍)

唐漢:《圖說漢字密碼》,1-4冊,香港:中華書局, 2004。

Technical (selected chapters)

Adler, Ronald B & George Rodman. Understanding human communication. 10th Edn., NY: Oxford University Press, 2009

Argyle, Michael. Bodily Communication. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1988

Bloom, Jonathan. Minaret, symbol of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Board of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, c1989

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: the basics. 2nd Edn., London & NY: Routledge, 2007

DeFrancis, John.  The Chinese Language: Facts and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984

DePaulo, P. J. (1992). Applications of Nonverbal Behavior Research in Marketing and Management. In R. S. Feldman (Ed.), Applications of Nonverbal Behavioral Theories and Research (pp.63-87). NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Eckman, P., Friesen, W., & Ellsworth, P. (1971). Emotion in the human face: Guidelines for research and in integration of findings. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon.

Fiske, John. Introduction to communication studies. 3rd Edn., London ; New York : Routledge, 2011

Kemp, Martin. Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon. Oxford University Press, 2011

Kendon, Adam. Conducting Interaction Patterns of Behavior in Focused Encounters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotion and attitudes (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Mugglestone, Lynda. Talking Proper: the Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. Clarendon Press, 1995

Pan, Y. Politeness in Chinese Face-to-Face Interaction. Stamford: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 2000

Sassoon, Rosemary & A. Gaur. Signs, symbols and icons: Pre-history to the computer age. UK: Intellect Books, 1997*

Soltes, O.Z. (2005). Our Sacred Signs: how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim art draw from the same source. Cambridge: Westview Press

Wilkinson, Richard H. Symbol & magic in Egyptian art. London : Thames and Hudson, c1994

Wood, Julia. Communication Mosaics. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning, 2006

王銘銘, 潘忠黨主編: 《象徵與社會 : 中國民間文化的探討》,天津 : 天津人民, 1997

李杰群等:《非言語交际概論》,北京: 北京大学出版社,2002


黃亞平:《漢字符號學》,上海:上海古籍出版社, 2001

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. A complete guide to heraldry; illustrated by Graham Johnston. New York, N.Y. : Skyhorse Pub., c2007

Hyland, Angus & Steven Bateman. Symbol. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2011

Tresidder, Jack. (Ed.) The complete dictionary of symbols. San Francisco, Calif. : Chronicle Books, 2005

何九盈 胡雙寶 張猛主編:《中國漢字文化大觀》,北京:北京大學出版社,1995


The purpose of the quizzes is to help consolidate students' understanding of the subject matter.

The oral quiz will be held at the first 15 minutes of the seminar. Questions related to contents of the previous lecture and/or related parts of the lecture notes will be put to students according to the alphabetical order of their last names. However other students may join in. The quality of their responses will be recorded and will serve as the basis for dispensing the 5 marks assigned to this coursework component of Part A.
Students may use the occasion of the quiz to make relevant queries and/or put forward their point of view (including offering additional examples, help making clarification, showing disagreement, etc.). Such participation from students will also be recorded with reference to quality of their articulation, understanding of the subject matter and evidence of novel, independent thinking… the records will serve as the basis for dispensing the bonus marks.
Students will be informed of the raw marks given them for the oral quiz and their participation at the last seminar of Part A.
The two written quizzes are held in Week 5 and Week 9 respectively in the seminar. The quizzes comprise mostly multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items that are constructed according to lecture content, lecture notes and strongly recommended readings. Each quiz will also have at least one open-ended item.
As indicated in the syllabus, 10 marks are assigned to a short written essay (Part A) & an oral presentation (Part B). The two may be done on an individual/group basis. Students are required to do only one of the two assignments. For students interested in working on a Part A topic and therefore opt for the essay, please note that the main text should not be more than 800 words. Attribution of sources used in the text must be observed; the cited works must be listed at the end of the essay in proper format. Students are expected to choose a topic for the essay themselves; they may use past exam questions as the topic. In addition to the aforesaid requirements, marks will be given with reference to subject objectives, subject ILOs and quality of the presentation. The deadline for this assignment will be announced in due course. It is anticipated to be around Week 13 or 14.

Score (Moderated)* to Grade Conversion Scheme**


Extent of ILOs in evidence

39 or below



Not visible

40 - 44


Less than satisfactory




Barely satisfactory

50 - 55




56 - 64


Wholly satisfactory

65 - 69




70 - 79


Very Good

80 - 89



Very high

90 or above



*The scores you receive for your assignments and shown on the exam answer book are therefore raw scores.

**For Prof So’s subjects only.

Although the maximum score of the bonus marks for seminar participation is set at only five, they may make a difference in the final grade that you receive as they are added to the moderated-score total, i.e. the final moderated total = the moderated-score + the bonus marks.


  1. The uniqueness of being human: a Sign-mediated Communication (SiMC ) perspective

  1. Humans as homo significans/symbolicus

  1. The Communication (C) in SiMC

  1. A model of signs according to Saussure

  1. A model of signs according to Peirce

  1. Basic types of signs

  1. Cultural Iconic Signs; Cultural Indexical-signs & Cultural Symbolic-signs

  1. Cultural Signs

      1. Simple (design)  Complex

      2. Variation over time & across culture

  1. Mega Cultural Signs & their power

  1. Earliest scripts from a semiotic perspective

      1. The Cuneiform & The Hieroglyphs

      2. The Hanzi

Notes for the first couple of lectures
These notes, including those to be distributed later, are not my lecture scripts. Instead they are meant to be read for your preparation for my lectures. Accordingly the notes are compact and condense; their enunciation and elaboration are to be provided in class. In this subject having a good grip of these notes is a necessary but an insufficient condition for good performance. For students who wish to be awarded with a good grade (i.e., C+ & above), they are expected attend classes regularly, take notes in class, and have a good reading (i.e. not just causally read them once) of some of the works mentioned in the following paragraph and other parts of the Notes, as well as those listed in the reference syllabus.
This subject is introductory and descriptive in nature. Theoretical, conceptual matter is kept to a minimum. However, for those students who are interested in sign-mediated communication (SiMC) and wish to develop a grip of the logic of its workings, then they will have to spend efforts to read some of the works of a relatively technical nature, for example the first 60 pages of Chandler’s Semiotics; 3 Part 1 of Sassoon & Gaur’s Signs, Symbols and Icons; Fiske’s Introduction to Communication Studies (at least chapters 3 & 5), and Adler & Rodman’s Understanding Human Communication (chapters 1 & 3). You are welcome to bring to your teachers attention difficulties and issues encountered in my lectures, and in your reading. For those of common interest, I’ll respond to them in my lectures.

In addition to the objectives spelled out in the syllabus, this subject serves an additional purpose and function. The curricular core of the BACBS programme covers language, culture and communication all of which are immense in scope. It is expected that most if not all of you will have problems coming to grips with the essential details of each of these topics, let alone their connection. However, a study of cultural signs will provide you with a convenient mechanism to have a glimpse at some of the essential details of these major topics as well as some of the basic links between them. In other words, a study of SiMC will enable you to have a better understanding of these topics and their connection. Attempts will be made to see if such benefits, specified as Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) included in the syllabus, are in evidence in respectively your course-work assignments and your outputs in the exam. The Marking Schemes for respectively course-work and the Exam are designed with close reference to these ILOs.

Those of you who have taken CBS297 (CBS2401 in the 4YC curriculum) will recall one of the organizing principles underpinning my subjects is the belief that part of the mission of professors like me is to expose students to a few mega ideas/issues of the times. These ideas/issues should be of sufficient width and depth so that for students who get interested, their quest for a clearer and better understanding of these ideas/issues can be sustained for a good part of the rest of their lives. They won’t be bored intellectually; they will always have something to think about.
Lectures 1 & 2
The uniqueness of being human: a SiMC4 perspective

A common question addressed by all academic disciplines in the humanities is What are the qualities that turn beasts like us into a human person? In CBS297 we have dealt with this question from an LMC perspective. Here the same question is addressed from the perspective of SiMC. However, the significance of SiMC is not confined to its relevance to the question What makes us human. Cultural signs, like language, are not just a medium; our abilities to use them are not just a definitive attribute of humanity. Cultural signs, like language, are central to our human experience; together they determine to a great extent the contents and the quality of our life; not only do cultural signs and languages make us human individuals, they are also pillars of our civilization. Humanities/Language-majors are expected to be able to talk about them: what they are, how they work and in what way they enable us to become individuals and members of a community at the same time.

A study of SiMC also serves another purpose: communication, culture (vs. nature), language as well as their inter-connection are major topics in the humanities. Humanities/Language-majors are expected to be able to tackle these topics in the manner described in the subject ILOs. However these topics by themselves are already very big and not easy to come to grips with, let alone their inter-connection. Fortunately for us, a study of SiMC offers us a convenient platform and framework to examine these topics separately, as well as in connection of one another. Specifically SiMC gives us a perspective to address issues such as the uniqueness of Human Communication, the distinction between Nature & Culture, the derivation of Culture from Nature, the connection between cultural signs and civilization …
The search for the defining attributes of humanity. Decades ago, it was believed a good number of traits distinguished humans from other high-intelligence creatures, e.g. problem-solving via tool-use, mourning of the dead… Years of research show that the trait that really makes us a breed apart is: Humans are the only creatures on earth who are capable of LMC and SiMC; homo sapiens5 are also homo linguistica and homo significans)6. Many high-intelligence creatures use tool to solve problems, mourn their dead…. Many (including humans) socialise among themselves and team up with other mates to form groups &/or communities; we are the only creatures that talk to/with one another. We are the only creature that use things external to our body as mediums of communication, and then turn some of these mediums into signs. Not only can creatures that are human interbreed with other humans, they possess LMC & SiMC skills also. All humans share these defining attributes despite our differences in physical size, hair texture, skin colour, etc.…
Homo significans/symbolicus

Many high-intelligence creatures use their body parts/fluid as signs to send out a message. For example gazelles mark the boundaries of their territory with a small secretion from scent glands located beneath their eyes. They deposit the secretion onto a blade of grass around 20 feet apart daily. (Another popular body fluid used for such purposes, in addition to pheromone-containing secretion, is urine). Many mammals especially those in the cat family often leave a trail of scent in such a way for mating purpose.

However only we are called homo significans/symbolicus. On the one hand, similar to the aforementioned creatures, we use things (materials) internal to us to represent meaning(s) other than the things/materials themselves. Blood, feces, skulls, saliva & bones, often carry particular meanings in most cultures.
On the other hand we are the only creatures which use both body parts/fluids and items external to our body (e.g. the sun, poppies and graphs) as signs. Physiognomy (相術) and the horoscopic traditions of astrology are typical examples of such inclinations. Another distinctive feature of SiMC among humans is that it serves purposes that go beyond those of a utilitarian nature (e.g. territory-marking). Signs may be made and used simply for artistic, social and religious purposes (The Altamira Cave refers). Occasionally, some signs are made and used for more serious purposes of education and academic inquiry (e.g. to register and represent our understanding of the workings of the universe) (Side-bar 1 refers).
Indeed all cultures (ancient & modern) invariably leave behind signs usually in the form of artefacts that embody a message. In ancient times, such artefacts often take a relatively crude, iconic form of 2-dimensional graphic images and 3-dimensional solid items. Over the years, humankind has become more and more skilled in this endeavour and gradually more sophisticated forms have been developed. Embodying coded messages via a sign to be passed onto &/or shown to intended receivers, viz. SiMC, has become a popular means of human communication and a significant part of human culture and experience.

Side-bar 1: Signs indicating the germination of mathematical concepts

among our ancient ancestors

[Probably] prehistoric peoples first expressed quantity by scratching lines on ground, rock or wood… there are drawings that indicate some knowledge of elementary mathematics and of time measurement based on the stars. For example, palaeontologists have discovered ochre rocks in a South African cave that were about 70,000 years old, adorned with scratched geometric patterns. Also prehistoric artefacts discovered in Africa and France, dated between 35,000 and 20,000 years old, suggest early attempts to quantify time. There is evidence that women devised counting to keep track of their menstrual cycles; 28 to 30 scratches on bone or stone, followed by a distinctive marker. The Ishango bone, found near the headwaters of the Nile river (north-eastern Congo), may be as much as 20,000 years old. One common interpretation is that the bone is the earliest known demonstration of sequences of prime numbers and of Ancient Egyptian multiplication. Pre-dynastic Egyptians of the 5th millennium BC pictorially represented geometric spatial designs. It has been claimed that megalithic monuments in England (e.g. The Stonehenge) and Scotland (e.g. The Orkneys complex), dating from the 3rd millennium BC, incorporate geometric ideas such as circles, ellipses, and Pythagorean triples in their design.
Adapted from

The C in SiMC

Communication in its broadest sense – information (including signals) exchange between living organisms – is a function found in both plants (flora) and animals (fauna). However, other than humans and a few species of fauna of high intelligence, the nature of the exchange is mostly just chemical &/or physical, intrinsic (within-body), passive and responsive (i.e. void of conscious intention). For those few species of fauna of high intelligence, information exchange may involve active, conscious behaviour with intentions. However, the mediums used are invariably within-body agents in the form of either body parts, fluid &/or hormones. Only humans are able of creating new meanings, encoding them and embodying them via artefacts both intrinsic and extrinsic to their body. Only humans use selected sound segments &/or artefacts to embody highly complex messages in such a way that they can be passed onto intended receivers and be understood by them. Only humans are skilled in the mediation between the tangible and the intangible (such as ideas like truth, goodness, beauty…), and the use of the tangible to represent the unimaginable, the unreachable, and the unmentionable. Only humans can make signs that can be understood by people around them and of their time, as well as by other people from a different time and/or a different place. SiMC is an essential part of a form of communication unique to humans (HC).

HC may be conceptualized, summarised via a 5-factor model: (1) an idea with meaning that originates from and situates in a source in the form of electrical signals, (2) to make the signals intelligible, they are encoded in a linguistic &/or semiotic form, (3) the encoded data are then passed onto the intended destination via a medium (voice… things/material), (4) at the receiving end efforts are made to decode the message vis-à-vis the medium according to shared norms, and then (5) [if things go well] the intended message is registered &/or understood at the destination. Feedback (the loop) may or may not take place. If it does, it may start another round of information exchange. In this subject, we will focus on only one of the five factors, viz. the medium. In HC, the medium is usually a tangible item (lest we forget, speech is tangible).
A major goal of communication studies is to unravel (1a) How things or materials become a medium. (1b) How certain mediums become a sign. And (2) How a medium relate to the referent (concept, object) that it represents. (1b) is about symbolization (hereafter referred as signification), i.e. an act of meaning-conferment. (2) is about mediation. In this subject, C is to be understood by way of S & M!
Also, in this subject, when the word SIGN is spelled as such, it refers to the concept. Whereas when signs are spelled like this, the term refers to all the tangibles used to represent other tangibles and/or intangibles. In other words the term sign is of an umbrella nature and covers tangibles like chemical signals to cultural symbols used in HC. Therefore, in the hierarchy of HC mediums (HCMs), signs sit at the top (that’s why signification is used instead of symbolization). Among HCMs, there are linguistic and non-linguistic (NL) signs; the latter includes physical and chemical signals. In this subject our focus is on NL signs, excluding physical and chemical signals. With this narrow definition, NL signs may be further divided into cultural signs and body-language signs. Mr. Ng covers the latter in Part B; I cover the former in Part A.
Although a discourse about SiMC will inevitably involve conceptual resources from semiotics, Part A is mostly about cultural signs (Side-bar 2 refers). A cultural sign, as indicated above, is usually a tangible item and may take the form of a natural element. However, unlike natural signs, cultural signs are artefacts: they may embody natural elements but the raw form of such elements in a cultural sign has invariably undergone a treatment/modification process; cultural signs normally have a measure of design. The design, however, are usually done according to the norms of the culture concerned; the meanings of cultural signs are normally culture-bound, i.e. ‘local’. Whereas the mechanisms of signification, i.e. the mediation between signs and the referent (concept, object) that they represent, such as resemblance, associations and convention, are “universal”, or culture-independent. In other words cultural signs have both local and global qualities. In addition, the meanings embodied in cultural signs may vary from being explicit, implicit to hidden, depending on their design &/or the intentions of the ‘source’. Before we delve into these attributes/qualities of signs, let’s first address the question “What is SIGN?”

Side-bar 2: Semiotics

The study of signs is often conducted in the language of semiotics. According to Umberto Eco, an Italian philosopher, semiotics, as a discipline, is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. However, students interested in this discipline soon find that their studies have been hampered by two methodological problems. First, it is about how signs are understood by semiotic specialists. Many of them believe the scope of semiotics should cover not only linguistic signs but of anything which stands for something else, including images, sounds, material and immaterial objects… e.g. Charles Peirce, an American philosopher, asserts that ‘every thought is a sign’. The scope of phenomena covered by semiotics therefore ranges from the mental to the material; its units of study ranges from the micro (a phoneme) to the macro (a movie); from gestures to parades, musical sound to human speech, book-marks to books of various kinds, paintings to museums, TV series… As a result, its scope of study lacks definitive boundaries.

The second methodological problem is about the style in which the semiotic specialists explore the matter of their subject. Many of them appear to be obsessed with definitions, nomenclatures and typologies, topics that are not directly related to signs as such. For example, Charles Peirce believes, in theory, there could be 59,049 types of signs! In addition, the writing of semiotic specialists is often dense with jargon, and presented in a style that ranges from the obscure to the incomprehensible (Justine Lewis); another critic wittily remarked that 'semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand' (Paddy Whannel).

Fortunately, just as an examination of one’s religious faith does not necessarily involve a study of theology; neither does a study of cultural signs necessarily involve a study of semiotics. In this subject, while the theoretical resources of semiotics will be used, they will be kept to the minimum so that there will be sufficient mental space and time for us all to explore the fascinating universe of cultural signs.

A theory of signs according to Saussure

According to Ferdinand Saussure, a structural linguist and a theoretician in semiotics, the SIGN is made up of two constituents: the referent (concept/object) that a sign represents and the form that a sign takes. In other words the SIGN has a symbolic value (the referent) and a form. He terms the referent Signifié (Signified) and the form Signifiant (Signifier) and offers a dyadic (2-factor) model of the SIGN. One essential feature of his model is that there may not be any necessary correspondence between the Signifié (Signified) and the Signifiant (Signifier), i.e. the mediation between the Signified and the Signifier is arbitrary, a matter of convention. This idea is especially relevant to an understanding of the symbolic system of modern languages. However, for a study of cultural signs, Saussure’s dyadic model may not be as helpful as Peirce’s triadic model.

A theory of signs according to Peirce7

According to Charles S. Peirce, a philosopher and a theoretician of semiotics, the SIGN (as a concept) is made up of three constituents:

  • the physical form of a sign (technically termed representamen (sign-vehicle), an entity in a particular form or loosely speaking, Saussure’s Signifiant/Signifier),

  • the object (used as a technical term here, also termed referent8) that it represents (loosely speaking Saussure’s Signifié/Signified) and

  • the interpretant.

What distinguish Peirce’s triadic (3-factor) model, vis-à-vis Saussure’s dyadic model, are that (1) signification is not a simple mediation between the representamen (e.g. tear) and Object/referent (e.g. grief): a sign signifies only in being interpreted, being made sense of (as a sign of grief). This makes the interpretant central to the content of the sign, in that, the meaning of a sign (tear) is manifest in the interpretation that it generates in intended parties which he calls Interpretant (OR the effect of the sign on an intended party OR the understanding that the intended parties have of the representamen / object = tear/grief).
(2) Charles S. Peirce further points out that the mediation between a representamen and its referent (concept, object) is dynamic. The representamen, after its creation, will have a life of its own and may come to produce different effects on other, third parties. In other words, the same representamen (e.g. tear), to a different party, may produce a different interpretant and the referent (concept, object) may switch from grief to joy. In other words, the interpretant refers to a particular version of translation of the representamen (e.g. tear); each particular version might, or might not match the object’s original version (e.g. grief).
(3) Unlike Saussure who tries to highlight the arbitrary nature of the connection between the sign and its meaning, Peirce stresses that objects may act on their signs as well. That is to say, the nature of the object constrains the nature of the representamen in terms of what certain mechanisms of signification require. In other words, the representamen / object connection may not be entirely arbitrary: a nose may not be used as a sign of joy, for example; a stick may not be used as a sign of wealth. The correspondence among the Representamen, Interpretant and Object/Referent in Peirce’s triadic model of HC is therefore much more complex than that between the Signifiant and Signifié in Saussure’s dyadic model. It is also more relevant to this subject.
In spite of their differences, Saussure’s dyadic model and Peirce’s triadic model share a common observation: the SIGN is not a singular entity; it is an ensemble (of respectively two and three constituents).
Basic types of signs
The above two sections are about What makes the SIGN. The following sections are about a typology of signs. Signs may be divided into three general categories, viz. icons 相符, indices 示符 and symbols 約符. To avoid the confusion caused by the common interchangeable use of the terms symbols and signs, the ‘long version’ of these three kinds of signs – Iconic-signs, Indexical-signs and Symbolic-signs – will be used whenever appropriate.
According to Peirce, signs are to be differentiated on the basis of medium-object relation (mediation): that iconic-signs bear resemblance to its object (concept, referent). Whereas indexical-signs have a direct, intrinsic/organic association with the object, albeit not by way of resemblance, that includes but go beyond functional and/or formal correspondence; they provide an often interactive indication of their object that is not usually found among icon-signs. As for symbolic-signs, their connection with their object is a matter of convention, and/or arbitrary association. Accordingly vis-à-vis their object these different categories of signs have different degrees of abstraction and arbitrariness. In this subject, the treatment of this topic will follow closely, albeit not entirely, Peirce’s ideas.
Although the focus of this subject is about cultural signs, we will first start with natural signs as SiMC has its origin in using raw matters from nature to represent something other than these matters themselves. In addition, the following will also show how, via a process of signification and mediation, natural items become natural signs, and how natural signs, via a process of design (e.g. abstraction and stylization), become cultural signs.
Natural Signs (Nature in Culture)
What’s nature? What’s culture? How culture comes about? These questions, especially the last two, are deceptively simple because most students do not have a clue when asked. In the following, a response to these questions is given from a SiMC perspective.
Natural signs provide a very good demonstration of how nature becomes a part of culture. Lest we forget: humankind is a part of nature; we come from nature, we live off nature and run our lives with things from nature. Accordingly in ancient times our signs are invariably raw materials from nature; many of them acquire symbolic meaning for a person &/or a group of people. For example, through an association between the whole and its parts, poet Sushi (蘇軾) turns pebbles on the beaches of East Sea into mementos, i.e. for him natural icons of the East Sea (我持此石歸 ﹐袖中有東海).
Natural entities may acquire symbolic meaning for a group of people too. For example, via a form of functional analogy, the sun comes to be a natural iconic-sign of a life-giving deity. Indeed many ancient religions at the early stage of their development incorporate a form of sun-worship. And when a natural item acquires meaning for a group of people, it becomes a part of their culture. In other words, it has become an example of ‘Nature in Culture’. Another example of this is that via a form of temporal association, the arrival of the red-crowned cranes (丹頂鶴) in Hokkaido has become a natural indexical-sign that indicates the arrival of the fall season. Similarly, the colour of the evening sky has become a natural index of weather in North America/UK. viz.

Red sky at night, sailor's delight.

Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

The mechanisms of the mediation are: (1) In Europe and North America the prevailing wind is the Westerlies, i.e. their weather comes from the West (whereas ours comes from either the NE or the SE). (2) The refraction of sunlight at sun-rise and sun-set is the biggest. (3) When we see a red sky at night, this means that the setting sun is sending its light through a high concentration of dust particles in a relatively dry atmosphere. Therefore the chance is that good weather will follow. (4) Conversely a red sunrise indicates that the high concentration of dust particles may have moved from the west to the east, followed probably by wetter air from the west. So, rain may be on its way. Accordingly, in these instances, colours of the sky have acquired cultural meaning. Much of semiotics is about unravelling the mechanisms that underpin the mediation between a sign and the referent (concept, object) that it represents. In many cases, the mechanisms involved are not as intelligible as the foregoing case. For example, often the mediation is a matter of happenstance that’s not conducive to rational explanation: the wild rosary peas [liquorices (相思豆)] have become a natural symbolic-sign for the intense affection and longing between separated lovers in South China. Actually there is no necessary connection between the peas and separated lovers’ love. The former become a symbolic-sign of the latter simply because the peas are used as a metaphor for such love in a poem written by a famous poet Wang Wei (王維). The connection between the sign and the referent (concept, object) is therefore largely a matter of chance and arbitrary association. Indeed in many cultures, for various reasons and often as a matter of chance, certain fruits, flowers and animals are assigned cultural meanings and become iconic, indexical and/or symbolic signs. And it is through such conferment of meaning and/or use of natural items with cultural values that certain bits of nature become a part of human culture.

Cultural Signs (Nature becomes Culture)
For obvious reasons, there are major impediments in the use of natural signs, especially those the use of which has to be done on site. The Iao Needle on Maui Island (The Hawaiian Islands) and the Yangyuan Stone (陽元石) at the Danxia Hills (丹霞山) are such examples. They have become through physical resemblance a phallic icon and a fertility shrine. However in the old days a pilgrimage to their site would take half a day or more. Another impediment is that the natural signs concerned may not be readily available, e.g. the sun comes out only during the day. Probably as a way of getting around these constraints, many natural signs are being converted into cultural signs. Popular approaches are size-reduction (miniaturization) and replication: phallic icons like the Iao Needle are made more accessible by being converted into a cultural artefact. Phallic icons are found in most if not all human communities. For example in Hinduism, the cosmic-pillar linga (also spelled lingam, = sign) is used for the worship of Shiva (supreme god of destruction). It also represents the balance between male and female creative energies and to abstract principles of creation. Another example is Min; the god of reproduction in Ancient Egyptian is often represented in male human form, shown with an erected penis. In ancient Japan phallus adoration was widespread and fertility shrines could be found in most places. Even today, the ‘Kanamara Matsuri Shinto fertility festival’ is still celebrated every spring in Kawasaki. The phallic icon is also a favourite prop in gay or lesbian parades in The West, especially the one in San Francisco.

1 The main text should not exceed 800 words. There will be penalties if the word limit is exceeded by more than two per cent.

2 15 – 20 minutes.

3 Or its abridged & older version “Semiotics for Beginners” which is available in the subject web-page.

4 LMC is also SiMC because language is a system of verbal signs. However, in this subject, the ‘S’ in SiMC refers to cultural signs only.

5 This is an example of binomial naming of species of living things adopted by students of human sciences. The name composes of two parts, both of which normally use Latin grammatical forms. The first part of the name identifies the genus to which the species belongs; the second part identifies the species within the genus. For example, humans belong to the genus Homo and within this genus to the species (Homo) sapiens.

6 For more details, Dinitia Smith’s article refers.

7 For students who are interested in the question What makes a sign (according to Peirce), pl. refer to “A summary of Peirce’s Sign Theory” available in the subject web-page.

8 Prof So’s preferred term.

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