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What's a Word Worth is a new column by [personal profile] justira about the mechanics of writing. In this column, I examine the actual writing of every single book I read, focusing on how it conveys meaning and whether the writing works for me as an editor, reader, and fellow writer. My analysis will be based on the Peircian semiotic framework, explained in the first few posts of the column.

"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference."
—June Jordan, Technical Difficulties (1994, p. 197)

So! New column! And I thought I'd start things off by digging into how words mean.

What exactly do I mean by that? What does it have to do with evaluating writing? Well, when I write the word "cat", how do you know what I mean? What kind of cat do you imagine? What would an alien imagine? Or, when I say "this is blue, that is red", how do you know what "this" and "that" refer to? (Or what "blue" and "red" are, for that matter!) When a writer writes, "this surgeon is a butcher," how do you get the idea that this surgeon is really bad at their job, rather than actually being someone who cuts up animal meat for food on the side? Metaphor is a powerful writing tool, and I can tell you how it works.

Language can also be used to signify belonging to a group and draw group boundaries — think of the boundaries drawn by use of the word "queer". Who's allowed to use that word? To refer to themselves? To others? Who objects to the term? Are they part of the same groups? Language is a key resource for asserting and realizing group identities to achieve social and political goals(1). Similar mechanics in turn can be used by authors to signify belonging to a certain school of SFF, or by characters in dialogue to show they belong to specific groups or classes.

My degree is in linguistics, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on semiotics(2), which, put plainly, is the study of how words mean; this background informs all of my thinking as a writer, reader, and editor. I plan to use this column to analyze writing, and I wanted to let you into my process and background. Plus, I think this stuff is fascinating. So! The first few posts in this column will rehash the first chapter of my thesis for a general audience, and I will refer back to the concepts and terminology when I finally dig into analyzing authors' writing.

Just to be clear, you don't have to read through all this semiotics stuff to understand my breakdowns of other people's writing. However! I want to share this stuff because (a) it's my passion and I find it fascinating and (b) I find it to be a useful framework for analysis. So if you're curious, read on!

First, some housecleaning: some of you may have heard of semiotics before, or semiology. This was almost certainly the dyadic framework of Saussure. The semiotics I'll be covering here is the — in my ever so humble and biased opinion — much more interesting and accurate triadic framework of Peirce. I'll explain the differences later, but just wanted to be clear up front: this isn't the signifier/signified Saussure stuff you may have seen before.

Now we're ready to go!

Signs and Meaning

Semiotics is the study of how signs mean, how sign processes work, and how signification and communication happens. But what's up with that definition? First of all, what is a "sign"?

Well, that depends on who you ask. For our purposes: A sign is anything that stands for something else to someone, somewhere, in some capacity. If you think that definition is broad, then good! It is! Words are a type of sign. Actual literal signs, like bathroom signs or road signs, are a type of sign. Emoji are signs. A footprint can be a sign, because someone can read it to mean that someone stepped foot there, and perhaps make guesses about the characteristics of that person, like their weight and shoe size. Signs are a very broad category!

So how can we have any idea how signs mean if they're such a broad category? Don't all those different types of signs mean what they do in completely different ways?


There is actually a very sensible system underlying the chaos. In the Peircian semiotic framework, there are basically three ways signs mean what they do. Peircian semiotics provides a powerful, articulate vocabulary and framework for understanding and analyzing how meaning is made and understood(3).

Peirce vs. Saussure on the Sign

Saussure and Peirce had very different conceptions of the sign, and before we go forward I want to make sure we're properly oriented.

Saussure's sign is dyadic, consisting of the signifier — such as the sound of the word "dog" — and the signified — the idea of dog triggered upon exposure to the signifier. But why, when hearing "dog," do I think of dogs, or a particular dog? The link between signifier and signified is arbitrary: that is, it is due to a social convention rather than any "natural" connection. Saussure made much of the arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relationship, because, come on, isn't it kind of weird that we all think of more or less the same sort of thing when we hear a certain collection of sounds or see a certain collection of written shapes? So far, so good, but Saussure dismissed as uninteresting any other modes of signification. So remember how I said road signs, emoji, and footprints are all signs? We can interpret emoji, for example; could an alien? Well, Saussure thinks they're not something linguistics should study; he finds them boring(4).

Peirce doesn't. And seeing as those kinds of meaning are part of how powerful things like metaphors work, I think Peirce is right.

Saussure's approach to signs and signification emphasizes autonomous, arbitrary systems and takes language as the primary and ideal model of such system. Peirce thinks there's more to it.

Peirce defines a sign in the broadest and most flexible terms as something that stands for something else to somebody in some capacity (CP 2.228)(5)(6). As such, anything can and does function as a sign as soon as someone takes it to mean or refer to something. There is no inherent meaning to a sign: it only functions as a sign once someone is there to interpret it. Moreover, for Peirce, the sign itself is not a self-evident idea or entity but a catalyst for an effect(7), such as the alarm I feel when I hear a police siren or the certain idea that springs up in my mind when I hear the word "cat". Both of those are signs; both are catalysts for effects. A fundamental premise here is that the sign has to create an effect, called the interpretant, within the living being who is the recipient of the sign: nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign by someone. This premise precludes the abstract assigning of meanings as in Saussure; there is no inherent meaning in a sign, only meaning in context.

This immediately raises questions about sentience, sapience, aliens, what have you! (I told you this would be interesting from an SFF perspective.) So who can interpret a sign, giving it its essential sign-ness? Now, if any of you are getting shades of quantum mechanics, well! You are quite right!

For those unfamiliar, there is a famous quantum mechanics experiment called the double-slit experiment or the two-slit experiment. You shoot particles, like photons or electrons, at a screen with two slits in it, and observe what pattern forms on the detector on the other side of the screen. If the electrons act as matter, they should go through one slit or the other and form two bars on the detector, corresponding to the two slits. If the electrons act like waves, they'll go through both slits and form an interference pattern of many light and dark bars. Now, if you only look at the detector on the other side of the screen, you'll see an interference pattern, meaning the electrons are acting like waves. Which is weird! Electrons are matter! However, if you set up some way to observe the electrons and detect which slit they go through, you will get the two-bar pattern. Whether the electron acted like a particle or a wave depended on whether it was being observed. This is known as collapsing the wave function. So who counts as an observer? There is actually a pretty cool book about exactly that question: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka. If the weirdness of quantum mechanics interests you, I recommend that book. I'll probably also cover the writing in it in this very series.

So in quantum mechanics, everything is about potential: an electron has the potential to act as a wave or as a particle, depending on whether it is observed or not. Similarly, according to Peirce, something can have the potential to act as a sign, and only becomes concretely a sign if it is observed and interpreted. We'll return to the question of how exactly this process happens — how the wave function of a sign is collapsed by the act of signification — in a later installment in this series.

Peirce's framework will provide us with a way of classifying signs according to how and why they mean or signify, but it is important to remember that the categorization of any given sign is not inherent, but is instead dependent on the context and the interpreter. Peirce's theory of signs was meant to illuminate how people experience the world, and make concrete the very process of thought. That's right: semiotics describes not just how words mean, but how thought occurs. Such is the process (note that this is an activity, not an idea per Saussure) of semiosis, where one sign effects an idea that in turn becomes a sign for a different idea, and so on. This is semiotic chaining, which models, among other things, the process of thought. It also models writing and reading.

The Main Trichotomies: The Three Modes of Being

First up: everything with Peirce is about threes, triadic relations, trichotomies. So expect lots of groups of three coming up!

Peirce's semiotic framework depends on the central categorization of all phenomena into three modes of being. This basic trichotomy is the organizing principle by which the rest of Peirce's semiotics framework is structured. I'm going to outline it briefly here, then come back to it after the other posts in this Peirce series, once we have a lot more examples to work from.

There are, then, three modes of being: Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. Firstness is the realm of pure quality and possibility. Firstness exists in and of itself, without relation to and independent of any second entity or particular instance of those things — just the idea or quality of them. Firstnesses are simplex and immediate, and we also never meet true Firstness in our mundane world. Examples might be blueness or Americanness or fear independent of any particular instantiation. It is highly significant to note that Firstnesses are not necessarily "natural" or themselves non-semiotic: Americanness, for example, is socially constructed and socially relative. Blueness, for that matter, is socially constructed, too: there is a whole body of work on colour relativity and the idea that how we not only name but perceive colour is culturally influenced. In fact, there's evidence that humans didn't even see the colour blue as a separate colour (that is, have a conceptual category for it) until relatively recently, and even things we're used to thinking of as blue, like the sky, are culturally influenced.

There is a very powerful corollary to this: who is it that determines these categories? Who says something is "the same" enough to be part of the same general idea? We're having debates right at this moment about "Americanness": who can count as an "American" and what "being an American" means. For this, I refer to the quote at the top of this post: "There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." The power to determine membership in a Firstness is great indeed, and it belongs both to everyone and to specific individuals like lawmakers, politicians, tastemakers, and other influential people. This is power.

But that's Firstness. There is also Secondness. Secondness is the realm of existent objects, the experience of actual fact, of pure reaction. Secondness is a relation between two entities, unmediated by any third entity. Tables, chairs, roses, spoken words, and everyday objects also partake of Secondness, being instantiations of Firstnesses, and necessarily include and embody Firstness, as a red rose embodies the quality of redness. An instinctive reaction of pure startelement is Secondness. If I were to react to something large and dark with pure, thoughtless fear, I would be experiencing Secondness.

However, if I stopped to think about it (thus mediating my response), I might be able to consider why I am afraid and what exactly it is that I'm afraid of. This is touching upon the realm of Thirdness Thirdness involves the mediational capabilities of a thinking entity to form general, law-like relationships between two other things. This is the domain of habit, reflection, and, indeed, representation — as we will see, representation necessarily involves mediation between an object and what the sign stands for. When we habitually associate, by convention, one thing with another, we partake of Thirdness. So for example associating the word "dog" with the idea of dog is Thirdness. I will explain this in further detail in future posts, where I can give more examples. So, coming back to our example: Although earlier I experienced Secondness in the form of unreasoning fear at seeing a strange, large, dark shape approach, when I realized it was my faithful dog, whom I associate with safety and protection, this association and its effect of calming my fear was due to Thirdness.

This foundational trichotomy underlies and informs the rest of Peirce's semiotic. Don't worry if it seems a bit vague right now: future posts will give further examples. Equipped with this basic categorization, we can move on to another central trichotomy: that of the sign-relation itself.

The Main Trichotomies: The Sign-Relation

A sign-relation is composed of three basic semiotic elements(8): the representamen, the object, and the interpretant. (Fig 1.1). The representamen is what we commonly call the sign. If we look at a weathervane and assume it indicates the direction of the wind, then the weathervane itself is the representamen. Likewise, if I were to say the word "dog", referring to a certain type of domesticated mammal, and it brought to mind for you the idea of a dog, then the word "dog", my particular use of it in that instance, is here the representamen. Representamena are a kind of Firstness, as they exist in and of themselves. Though a representamen only functions as a sign in the full context of representamen-object-interpretant, its existence as a thing with the potential to mean something is independent of any other element.
 photo semiotics-fig-1.1-sign-relation_zpsimbgws0k.png
Fig 1.1: The sign-relation (from Turino 1999:223).

The object is the entity stood for by the sign, the thing to which the representamen refers, or the thing that caused the shape of the sign. It can be a concrete object, such as a particular dog, or an abstract idea, such as the idea of dog in general. When I say "dog", do you think of a particular dog, or of dogs in general? This is a question we'll come back to later. For the weathervane we discussed earlier, the object is the wind that caused it to turn in a particular direction. Notice that objects cannot be accessed directly, but must be referred to by a representamen. Even the act of seeing something, which we might think of as a natural and non-relational act, does not directly access the observed object. When I look at a horse, I do not see the horse itself, but rather the light that has bounced off the horse's form and into my eyes. This light-image is my representamen for the object, the horse itself. We will return later to this dyadic relationship between sign and object in great detail, but for now it is only necessary to observe that, because this relation is dyadic, it is Secondness.

The interpretant is the effect of the sign in/on the observer, what we might call the "sense" or meaning made from the sign. This can be a feeling (a Firstness), a physical reaction (a Secondness), or a complex idea articulated in linguistic terms (a Thirdness). If we take "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a whole as a sign, then it might create in us feelings of pride or hatred; cause us to cry or smile or feel anger; or bring to mind complex ideas like "home", "country", nationalism, patriotism, or imperialism(9). The interpretant involves a triadic, mediated relationship with the sign and object; it is a type of Thirdness.

This is the fundamental structure of the sign-relation. There are further categories for types of signs and the kinds of relationships that exists between representamena, objects, and interpretants. We'll get to these in the next posts, and this will allow us to talk about exactly what goes on when something acts as a sign.


For now, here is a review:

Anything that stands for something else to someone in some capacity. Words, bathroom signs, and weathervanes are all signs.

The process by which a sign creates the effect of an idea in the mind of an interpreter.

Something that exists in and of itself; a quality or possibility. Redness and Americanness are Firstnesses.

A relation between two entities, unmediated by any third entity. An existent object, experience of actual fact, or pure reaction are all Secondnesses. Concrete examples would be a table or a reaction of startlement. Secondesses embody and instantiate Firstnesses, as a red rose embodies the quality of redness.

A mediated, law-like relation formed by a thinking entity between two other objects. Associating the idea of dog with the word "dog" is a Thirdness. Most linguistic relations are a type of Thirdness.

What we commonly call the sign. It has the potential to refer to something, but does not actually act as a sign until it is interpreted.

The entity or idea to which the representamen refers.

The effect created by the representamen in the interpreter (the thinking individual observing the sign).

Thanks for reading!


  1. See, for example:
    (back to text)

  2. Specifically, my thesis was a semiotic analysis of rape in the legal system. It looked at how language related to law and gender, and how rape was spoken about in the law and in the courtroom. It was called In Her Image: Iconic Modalities Driving Law, Gender, and Cultural Perceptions of Rape, and it's available here if you want to read it. (back to text)

  3. Unfortunately, it has also yielded a terminological complexity that has limited the degree to which distinctly Peircian semiotics have penetrated into linguistics at large and the general audience. Some of Peirce's terms and ideas have leaked into the general vocabulary of anthropology and linguistics. But of these few, most are used with gross imprecision and lack of understanding ("icon", "index", "symbol"), or, when they are used correctly, without the benefit of the framework in which they are rightly embedded ("type"/"token"). The type/token distinction, for example, leaves out the third term ("tone") that forms the trichotomy. This is a significant error because Peircian semiotics is grounded in triadic, rather than dyadic, relations. (back to text)

  4. Saussure, F. d. ([1916] 1983). Course in General Linguistics. London, Duckworth (back to text)

  5. By scholarly convention, references to Peirce's Collected Writings (1931-58) are formatted as: CP volume.paragraph. (back to text)

  6. Peirce, C. S. (1931-58). Collected Papers (8 vols). Cambridge, Harvard University Press. (back to text)

  7. Turino, T. (1999). "Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory of Music." Ethnomusicology 42(2): 221-255.

    Take note that Peircian semiotics can be applied to music! How cool! (back to text)

  8. Sign-relations are, of course, not the only examples of triadic relations. Peirce uses acceleration as another example of a genuine, irreducibly triadic relationship: "Now an acceleration, instead of being like a velocity a relation between two successive positions, is a relation between three." (CP 1.359). (back to text)

  9. Or, if you know the rest of the verses, racism. (back to text)

Date: 2016-09-28 04:48 pm (UTC)
hrj: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hrj
I could read blogs about semantics and linguistics all day! Thanks for starting this series. I hadn't seriously encountered the Peircian framework for discussing semiotics before. (My own background comes from Berkeley cognitive linguistics and metaphor theory, which tended to cover other schools of thought somewhat cursorily.)

I confess I always wince when I see that "people couldn't see blue" thing. The rather click-baity way it's worded implies to the average person that pre-modern people had a physiological inability to perceive the wavelengths categorized as blue, rather than that many historic cultures did not have a separate conceptual category for blue that was distinct from a super-category that also included green. (Much in the way that many people today don't have a separate conceptual category for teal, but see it as either part of blue or part of green.) The more nuanced history of the interaction between color terminology and color categorization is so much more fascinating!

Date: 2016-10-02 05:06 pm (UTC)
hrj: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hrj
The frameworks I studied at Berkeley are sort of a cluster of overlapping approaches. The general notion is to study the interaction of language and mind in both directions: how does our use of language shed light on the ways we perceive, store, and process information, and how do the ways we process information affect language. So it can include anything from looking at linguistic reaction-time studies that map out the structure of our conceptual categories (e.g., recognizing a word as referring to a category member more quickly for "central" members), to socio-political studies of how language use shapes reasoning (like the ones George Lakoff does), to tracing meaning change over time and using it to analyze the conceptual structures that motivated those changes (such as where the language we use to talk about time or about causation come from, and how that language shifts from being innovative and poetic to being "just the regular word for that")

Looking forward to the rest of your series!

Date: 2016-09-30 05:59 am (UTC)
sarasa_cat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sarasa_cat
An interesting reading! Thanks for writing this!

I'm only vaguely familiar with the Peircian framework but very fascinated. I'm also coming at this mostly from a Berkeley-influenced Cognitive Science/Cognitive Linguistics/Metaphor Theory approach which is big on semantics (George Lakoff's work is the probably most well known by the general public although there are far more players, obviously ;)

Looking forward to your future posts!
Edited Date: 2016-09-30 05:59 am (UTC)

Date: 2016-10-02 05:33 am (UTC)
sarasa_cat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] sarasa_cat
Yeah, that Wikipedia article leaves much to be desired but it lists a number of key references.

Looking forward to the next post!!!

Date: 2016-10-02 05:10 pm (UTC)
hrj: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hrj
One of the problems is that there isn't a really good basic, general-public presentation of Cognitive Linguistics to point people to. (Another problem is that Lakoff tends to write books about how great George Lakoff's brain is, rather than ones that look at the theories in a thoughtful and critical way.)


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