Communication. 1. From Latin signum ("identifying mark"), something that "suggests the presence or existence of a fact, condition, or quality" (Soukanov 1992:1678). 2.In philosophy, as defined by Charles S. Peirce, "a sign stands for something else" (Flew 1979:327; e.g., the hand is a sign of humanity). 3. The general term for anything that communicates, transmits, or carries information.
Usage I: Sign is the most generic label for a nonverbal unit of expression, such as a gesture. While in a technical sense their meanings differ, sign, signal, and cue often may be used interchangeably.
Usage II: "It is useful to distinguish at the outset between a sign vehicle: the material carrier or physical substratum of a sign, the tangible 'sign stuff' (i.e., its actual stone, clay, metal, glass, paper, or concrete substance), and a sign form: the pattern or arrangement of lines, scratches, punctures, meanders, shapes, etc., which can appear on varied vehicles. The sign form of ancient Scandinavian runes, for instance, comprises the runic characters themselves. Runic sign vehicles, on the other hand, can consist variously of stone, wood, and paper materials" (Givens 1982:161).
Symbol. Some signs are symbolic. A symbol (e.g., the American flag) is, "Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible" (Soukhanov 1992:1817). Symbolic signs may have an arbitrary (i.e., a non-iconic or unobvious) connection to that which they represent, and thus must be learned. According to Charles Peirce, "Man is a symbol" (quoted in Young 1978:9).
RESEARCH NOTES: 1. A sign is "something that directs behavior with respect to something that is not at the moment a stimulus" (Morris 1946:354). 2. A sign carriesinformation, which, as Norbert Wiener has pointed out, "is information, not matter or energy" (1948:155).
See also MESSAGE.
Top: photo of Raphael Palmeiro testifying before a U.S. Congressional hearing on March 17, 2005. Note the pointing index finger, aimed at committee members, as Palmiero says, "I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never" (Givens 2008:10). (Picture credit: unknown.) Bottom: photo of U.S. flag flying above Manito Park's Rose Garden (Spokane, Washington, USA; picture credit: David B. Givens, copyright 2005)