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Saussure claimed that language is "a system of signs that express ideas."

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  • Handbook of Semiotics, By Winfried Nöth, p57.

Do these signs, in language or any of the sign systems just mentioned, refer to each other (as well as the signified) in order to make the system?

What does e.g. Saussure say on this?


I think maybe.

When I say the phrase "the tree is green", the terms don't obviously refer to each other. But a language, langue, is governed by rules, e.g. definitions, which can be expressed in terms of reference. As when a dictionary defines a word: it refers to it.

Assuming that the whole of a language can be so defined, then a system of signs can be exhaustively expressed by terms referring to other terms: it is those references.

  • Can any "system of signs" be completely defined?

Regardless of whether it is made by that exhaustive definition.

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    Signs belong to a system because they are related to each other. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 5 '16 at 17:10
  • sure, i'm asking about reference tho – user6917 Jun 5 '16 at 17:12
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    Signifier for S stands for sign; the signified, or concept, can be the "reference". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 5 '16 at 17:24
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    I can't say for sure, because I haven't read Sassure, but I believe "my apple" is considered two signs, for no other reason than that native speakers consider them to be two signs/words. If memory serves, signs can stand alone, and be identified as having meaning, thought the particulars of that meaning often require the context from the system of signs. One can contrast this with the radicals of Chinese writing. Multiple radicals are put together to form one character. A character has meaning, but the individual radicals are not considered to have a meaning. – Cort Ammon Jun 5 '16 at 17:38
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    signs are always circular. Systems are closed and all signs within a system refer to signs within the same system. Referring to 'military signals' within the system of 'language' is a sign within 'language'. 'Military signals' does not need to exist within 'language'; all that exists within 'language' is the sign. A system of signs can only be defined within itself. – Swami Vishwananda Jun 6 '16 at 14:40
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Strictly, a formal language has a fully defined vocabulary and syntax.

  • International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Volume 4, p2

Not sure if a formal language can be completely defined in its own terms. Why not though, assuming that its definition is in a language which can be translated into it?

  • sorry if that's nonsense, just thinking out loud really – user6917 Jun 5 '16 at 20:11
  • For some (many? all?) computer languages, even the formal specifications include conditions where the output/result is undefined so that different compilers (or different architectures) result in different program behavior if one of these undefined operations are used. blog.regehr.org/archives/213. – Dave Jun 5 '16 at 20:33
  • ok, not sure what you are getting at tho :) you're saying that "it has a precise and finite definition" (wikipedia) but it isn't fully defined ? @Dave – user6917 Jun 5 '16 at 20:35
  • In the semiotic sense signification bears meaning, signs talk about stuff. Formal languages do not have semantics, they have only syntax, and their semantics are by analogy with some real domain they were constructed to model. So I am pretty sure a formal language 'signifies' only in the broader context of itself and the systems it models, and then it signifies primarily those external things. – jobermark Nov 2 '16 at 22:46

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