Theory of Sign

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To understand how signs function, semiosis, Morris proposes four elements: Sign vehicle (S), Designatum (D), and Interpretant and interpreter (I). "The mediators are sign vehicles; the taking-account-of are interpretants; the agents of the process are interpreters; what is taken account of are designata" (Morris, 1972: 19). Those elements of semiosis become the foundation of branches of linguistics and basic elements of language. The branches of linguistics are semantics is the study of sign in its relation to designatum, pragmatics the study of sign in relation to interpreter, and syntactics the study of sign in relation to other signs. Based on those semiotic elements, Morris proposes a definition of language: “a language is . . . any inter-subjective set of sign vehicles whose usage is determined by syntactical, semantical, and pragmatical rules” (Morris:48). An objection for this definition of language might be that by extending the four semiotic elements into linguistics and language, Morris’s definition of sign will be problematic since all objects that are symbolically and linguistically associated with other objects are defined as signs. Therefore one might observe the discrepancy of his definition of sign with his examples (See C. J. Ducasse, 1942). Since this paper is aimed at demonstrating my understanding on Morris’ theory of sign, I will describe the problematic aspects of Morris’s arguments if they become obstacles for me to understand his arguments.

Morris argues that the object of semiotic does not deal with particular object, but association of four of them, therefore sign is characterized as: “S is a sign of D for I to the degree that I takes account of D in virtue of the presence of S” (Morris: 19). Designatu...

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...age, and pseudo thing-sentence meta-language (see Hanks: 63-64). For Hanks meta-language might also operate in a quasi-semantical level such as specific technical terms (signs) used in sciences. As we are aware those terms (signs) relate to other signs syntactically, or (if we read Morris in reverse) those terms or signs contain designata that also function as signs. I find Morris’s semiotics is remarkably rich and valid to unfold how signs operate and constitute meanings in our interactions.


Ducasse, C. J. “Some Comments on C. W. Morris's "Foundations of the Theory of Signs".” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3, no. 1 (1942): 43-52.

Hanks, William F. Language & communicative practices. Westview Press, 1996.

Morris, Charles William. “Foundations of the Theory of Signs.” In Writings on the general theory of signs, 17-54. Mouton, 1972.
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