Sign, Myths, and Story of Your Life – Jieshu Wang

As an international student with English as a second language, I found this week’s reading materials a little difficult to comprehend. The fancy GRE vocabulary I struggled to memorize last year is not helpful because the terminology of semiotics is actually not uncommon, but with different or more abstract meanings from daily usage. In other words, my problem with semiotics is exactly semiotical.

Take the simple term “sign” as an example. In the past, I interpreted a sign as a physical entity with a specific meaning, such as a neon light of a restaurant indicating what food it offers, or a plus sign in an algebra textbook telling students to add numbers at both sides of the sign. But when I was reading this week’s literature, I found that the meaning of sign and the meaning-making mechanism behind it is so abstract that it could shed light on the entire human culture and cognitive evolution. In The Grammar of Meaning Making, Professor Irvine says,

“in his (C.S. Peirce) model, the sign isn’t a thing, but a process that elicits a meaning-bearing unit in a cognitive event: a sign is the conceptual-relational process or activity, which is cognitive and interpersonal”.[i]

In Key Writings on Signs, Symbols Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology, it is said that, for Peirce, a sign is a three-part correlation of Representamen, Object, and Interpretant. [ii] The representamen can be seen as the signifier, which corresponds with my former definition of the physical sign, while the object as the signified, such as the food offered by the restaurant [iii]. The most interesting part of the triadic correlation is interpretant, which is “the conceptual response” “produced by the cognitive agents(s) making the correlation of the first two components”[ii]. I think this is where cognitive capacity comes in, which makes us human.

In Peirce’s opinion, there are three kinds of signs: likenesses or icons, indications or indices, and symbols or general signs [ii]. As he put it,

“A symbol, as we have seen, cannot indicate any particular thing; it denotes a kind of thing”; “The word lives in the minds of those who use it. Even if they are all asleep, it exists in their memory.”

This reminds me of a book I recently read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, the author, Yuval Harari thinks that the reason homo sapiens defeated other species in the genus Homo such as the Neanderthals is that we can gather more than 150 people together to form a purpose-sharing group to implement large-scale cooperation, which “is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination”, such as religion beliefs, law, justice, nationalism, and human rights [iv]. I think those collective myths are also a kind of abstract symbols. Although the specific meaning of a particular symbol varies among people, as long as there’s consensus to some degree, the interpretant of the symbol can spread in the community, ultimately becoming a cultural component.

For Peirce, meaning-making is a generative process[ii]. I don’t know whether my understanding is correct. To me, “generative” means the capacity to create new things. In other words, the process of meaning-making will produce more new meanings. The collective cultural framework and personal experience serve as the context of meaning-making of signs, especially the interpretant of language, while the latter is also incessantly altering the former. This reminds me of a Nebula Award winner novel named Story of Your Life written by Ted Chiang, in which the heroine gradually obtained the ability to see through time in the course of deciphering a strangely arranged alien language, because the structure of the language reflected a totally different world view, which was planted into the human decipherers’ cognition unconsciously [v]. It is a vivid fictional depiction of the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis”[vi] which emphasized the significant influence of language on thought and perception.  The story is filmed as Arrival and will be released in November. I am eager to see how the film producers express the cognitive impact of language. After all, language is one of the most abstract things that have ever happened to us.

A Gif from the trailer of the Arrival movie, depicting the alien language. credit: Paramount Pictures

Some questions

  1. What are the neurobiological basis and evolutionary advantage of the function of signs and symbolic cognition, which Peirce considered as the underlying structure for all human social life and culture[ii]?
  2. I read some instances that some animals-mostly primates-are capable of making meaningful alarm calls. Vervet monkeys even have different alarm calls for different predators[vi]. What is the cognitive difference between human-level meaning-making of signs and animal behavior of understanding certain vocal and visual cues?
  3. There are great gaps among different languages. However, I think human languages must have something in common, even if they originated from separated areas. In other words, they must be comprehensible through learning. Is it possible to design a program capable of understanding and translating a new language in the first contact?
  4. Computer language is also a kind of sign system. Why is it so difficult for computers to understand natural language or use natural language to communicate with people?


[i]Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign System, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics,”

[ii] Irvine, Martin. “Key Writings on Signs, Symbols Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology,”

[iii] Atkin, Albert. “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2013., 2013.

[iv] Harari, Yuval N. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Toronto, Ontario: Signal ; McClelland & Stewart.

[v] Chiang, Ted. 2016. Stories of Your Life and Others. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage.

[vi] Manser, Marta B. 2013. “Semantic Communication in Vervet Monkeys and Other Animals.” Animal Behaviour 86 (3): 491–96. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.07.006.