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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Sign / signification / signified / signifier:

Terms used by Ferdinand de Saussure. The linguistic sign, Saussure contends, is composed of the union between a signifier (an acoustic image which differentiates the sign from all others) and a signified (a concept or meaning). Affirming the relationship between signifier and signified to be arbitrary and conventional, Saussure deliberately ignores the referent, the extralinguistic object to which the sign may or may not point. For Saussure, language is a system of differences without any positive terms. Signification, then, is purely an internal linguistic affair; it has nothing to do with a reality outside the signifying system itself.

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997