Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Signifier and the Signified: Language as a System of Signs

In Hans Bertens's Language as a System of Signs,  he describes Ferdinand de Saussure's (1857-1913) ideas about structuralism and its relationship to language: Language should be seen as a system of signs. Those signs are inherently arbitrary but form meaning by becoming conventions as we begin to associate or assign meaning to them. The form of the sign and the meaning cannot be separated because if you change the sign, as from "day" to "ray," it completely changes the meaning. Saussure calls the form,or sign, the signifier and the meaning the signified. Berten goes on to explain how Levi-Strauss shows that these signs do not naturally signify an object or an idea because we are the ones that create the signified by culturally differentiating what it is not.

This relationship between the signifier and the signified reminds me of a certain chapter in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues called Reclaiming Cunt, where the speaker tries to change the signified of the signifier "cunt" from something insulting to something sexually empowering. Click here to listen to a reading of Reclaiming Cunt. Last year I was in a reading group that focused on The Vagina Monologues and, at the time, this was probably the one chapter that I did fully not understand, feel comfortable with, or agree with. But after learning more about language and its system of signs, I see that Eve Ensler herself understood this theory and was right in calling out the arbitrariness between the word "cunt" and its typical connotations. I also now appreciate this chapter because, as it is signified today, "cunt" is typically derogatory and extremely insulting towards women.

But how people use "cunt" today is quite different than in the 13th Century and this illustrates how the signified is determined by convention. So theoretically, yes, Eve Ensler could completely reclaim "cunt" because if popular culture began using the word in a more positive manner, then the signifier "cunt" would take on a whole new signified because, as I said before, their relationship is absolutely arbitrary. Below is a video that really drives this point home and gives you two different perspectives to look at (Caution: "Severe" language).

Notice how the man in this video does not address the concept of language itself as a system of signs, as does the woman (and by the way I think she is really funny in this clip and her attitude reminds me of Hawthorne's sarcasm in The Custom House). Think of her as a theorist, and him as American culture. However, he does bring me back to a previous blog of mine about authorship and whether or not history and culture play an important role in meaning. And of course they do, you wouldn't want to call someone a cunt if it was offensive to them, just because, for you personally, the signified is empowering. Language does change over time, but I think it is a much more difficult process for curses or insults. At least, it is a difficult process to completely reverse the meaning, as Eve is attempting with the sign "cunt." For example the signifier "suck" used to be used as a derogatory sign insinuating oral sex (an act that deemed one lowly or vulgar). But now, children and adults alike use the word to signify when something is bad or goes wrong. So should we use the word "suck" this way? It seems to me that the time, convention, and culture do such an efficient job of changing language that a signifier can shed an old signified and create a new one. Unless you asked a scholar who has heard about the old signified of "suck," it is probably perfectly acceptable to use in popular culture.


  1. I completely agree with what you said here in this about changing the signified of a signifier, but I just have one question: can one really change the signified of a word such as "cunt" on their own? Because it seems like a whole entire culture would have to change its views on the meaning and connotation behind a word in order to do so, and reclaim a word.

    1. No I don't think one can, which is why I said Eve could only theoretically change the signified. Before that could happen the majority of people would need to accept the new signified and use it as such.

  2. I think you did a great job with this blog. I was in the same reading group, and I liked how you tied it into literary theory. Although I agree it would be hard to change the signified, isn't there a more than theoretical chance that the word "reclaimed"? If a word that once did not have a negative connotation changes to have one, isn't it also possible for it to change back? I'm reminded of how rappers use the "N word" as positive word among eachother.

  3. Great blog! I liked your discussion about whether it is possible for the meaning of a signifier (or the "signified") to change. I agree with you that this is possible, and has in fact happened before, but it would take a long time and a large group of people to actually get the 'movement' started. I also thought it was interesting when the woman in this video brought up the point that there did not seem to be a certain starting point or history for the vulgar/bad connotations of the word. How, then, did people originally decided that this word would be used in such ways? Could we tie this in to the idea that we tend to use language to define things by what they are not?

  4. Very well written and great job expressing the ideas of the signifier and the signified. I agree with Keblogging, could the word possibly change in meaning in the next few years because it has happened quite frequently in history?