Category Archives: Week 2

Thoughts on Developing an Artificial Semiotic System

How could we develop machines that can meaningfully interact with its surroundings?

Could we develop distinct speaking languages with different narrow AI machines that each require a rich repository of specified vocabulary? Its not difficult to imagine a plausible future contemporary culture in where people will be communicating with proprietary machines in their own “code”, upon mutually (and rather, instantaneously) agreeing upon constitutional signs to depend on. Or could we rather build an artificial “interpretant” that is intelligent enough to abstract meaning from any sign vehicle? Although it is often referred to as a classification of distinct ‘types of signs’, it is more usefully interpreted in terms of differing ‘modes of relationship’ between sign vehicles and what is signified (Hawkes 1977, 129).

How do we collect data on all possible human signs if, “[The term] “sign” [includes] every picture, diagram, natural cry, pointing finger, wink, knot in one’s handkerchief, memory, dream, fancy, concept, indication, token, symptom, letter, numeral, word, sentence, chapter, book, library, and in short whatever, be it in the physical universe, be it in the world of thought, that, whether embodying an idea of any kind (and permit us throughout to use this term to cover purposes and feelings), or being connected with some existing object, or referring to future events through a general rule, causes something else, its interpreting sign, to be determined to a corresponding relation to the same idea, existing thing, or law. (MS 774, 1904, EP 2.326).

We believe in the same story and that’s why humans are so good at cooperating. If machines believe in different stories, such as narrow AI machines, what would cooperation between them look like? (in reference to Saussure’s immaterial conception of the sign)

“Peirce noted that ‘a sign. . . addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.” In a speculative sense, what if machines start doing this? Will we regret it? In terms of policy, should we mandate the programming of symbolic signs, because they are the most conventional mode (or type of sign)? For Peirce, a symbol is ‘a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the symbol to be interpreted as referring to that object’ (Peirce 1931–58, 2.249).



  1. “Semiotics: the basics”, Daniel Chandler
  2. “Semiotics: Meaning Systems, Culture, Technology Key Texts”

A Sensitive Sign

As I was going through the reading material for this week yesterday afternoon, I received a e-mail from two vice presidents of georgetown university, saying that a swastika was found carved onto the interior of an elevator in one of the residence halls on campus.

At first, I did not know what a swastika is, so I googled it. And then I understand why the title of this e-mail is “Bias-Related Incident on Campus” and why university paid such attention to this incident.

(source of picture: wikipedia)

As we all know, unpleasantly, this sign (swastika) generally represent Nazism, thus have a implicit meaning of bias or racism. In a university emphasize diversity and equality, it can be tolerated by no means.

Back to our theme on semiotics, if we use the terminology developed by C. S. Peirce, this sign can be identified as the “representamen”, for it is presented in a tangible and perceptible form. The meaning of this sign in our minds, i.e. Nazism, bias or racism and our disgust toward the sign is what Peirce would call the “interpretant”.

However, the other element of the triangle, the “object” of this sign, is something I am not so sure about, because according to Wikipedia, swastika is widely used along the human history. Up to now, it is still a sacred symbol in religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Moreover, in western history, it used to represent luck and auspiciousness. So we are not 100 percent certain what the sign found on our campus stands for.

My question is whether the “meaning” (or can we say object?) of a sign determined by the interpreter, or the person who put out the sign?

Let’s just assume it stands for Nazism for the purpose of further scrutiny. According to Peirce’s typology, it is apparently a symbolic sign, for it bears no resemblance in any way to Nazism, and it is not intrinsically connected to Nazi.

This sign became notorious only after the rise and fall of Nazism. This fact reminds us that the meaning of a sign (both the interpretant and the object) might change over time.



[1] “Chandler-Semiotics-TheBasics-2nd-Ed-Excerpts.Pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 6, 2017.
[2] “Irvine-Signs-Symbolic-Cognition-and-Semiosis-Intro.Pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 7, 2017.
[3] “Swastika.” Wikipedia, September 4, 2017.

Are signs making communication harder?

One interesting fact: As a native Chinese speaker, the steps I took to process unfamiliar word in the required readings are: 1) see the English word (signifier), 2) refer to its dictionary meaning (signified), 3) link to its Chinese translation (signifier). I can’t help completing this three steps before consider myself fully understood of the readings and it really took me lots of time.

That’s when I start to indulge myself in the wild fantasy:

What if we do can communicate with ideas?

Are signs really making communication easier?

  • l “…ideas cannot be communicated at all except through their physical effects.”[1]
  • l “…it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean.”[2]

In fact, the very idea of ‘mind reading’ might be the product of people complaining about the inconvenience, which might have come from its dyadic or triadic feature. When we communicate with symbols that directly mean conceptions rather than things, the meaning shall vary according to different individuals and make communication difficult.

Hitherto, I came up with three aspects that make me think of the downsides of symbols:

Symbols from another culture

Relationships between signifier and signified are a tricky question. The same sign can mean different meanings, like dragon in China is definitely auspicious while not so in western culture. Vice versa. For example, African Zulu language has 39 kinds of “green”, Eskimo has 42 kinds of “snow” while in most of other cultures, one is enough[3][4]. So it is so easy to get lost in translation.

Here’s a question involves the opinion “language shapes thought”. For example, articles about how languages influence the concept of time indicates that Chinese vocabularies for months and weekdays are numerical, which makes Chinese’s conception of time to be vertical rather than horizontal . Do theories like that indicate symbols actually widen the distance between cultures and increase difficulties to communicate?

Symbols from old times

  • “We use language, written signs, images, and artefacts for daily, ‘real-time’ functions, and register them in material mediations as externalized memory for recall and symbolic reactivation.”(Martin Irvine, “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics”)

Normally, signifier(representamen) may exit forever while there is a sporting chance that signified(interpretant) end up lost in time. Hence the ‘real-time’ feature of symbols. We now still have trouble translating ancient signs, like inscriptions on tortoise shells of the Shang dynasty in ancient China.

Symbols for computing

  • “Computer design… is about translating a portion of the world into terms a computer can ‘undersatnd’.”(Michel S. Mahoney, “The History of Computing(s)”)[5]

The way Mahoney puts it reminds me of a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind . In it Yuval Harari said, language are supposed to be a servant to human consciousness. However, since computer cannot understand how homo sapient talks and feels and dreams, so we create a language for computers to understand. In that way, one should say, computers are teaching homo sapient to talk and feels and dreams. Sound a little creepy though…

In some scholars’ mind, symbols for computing become a whole new stage of sign usage (inanimate matter, the vegetable kingdom, animals, signs truly belong to human, and signs for machines[6]).

Douglas and others are working on how to augment human intelligence with the help of computing, yet the focus is on human language. Will it be more useful that computer “speaks” the same language as we do?

[1]“Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiosis: Intro – Google 文档,” accessed September 5, 2017, “Irvine-Signs-Symbolic-Cognition-and-Semiosis-Intro.Pdf,” n.d.

[2] Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics, 2nd ed, Basics (Routledge (Firm) (London ; New York: Routledge, 2007).

[3] Sun Yingchun “Introduction of Intercultural Communication”

[4] Richard Lewis, When Cultures Collide, Third Edition: Leading Across Cultures (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010). P9

[5] “Semiotics-Cognition-Technology-Reader.Pdf – Google 云端硬盘,” accessed September 5, 2017,

[6]Abraham Solomonick, A Theory of General Semiotics : The Science of Signs, Sign-Systems, and Semiotic Reality

From the Film Arrival to Semiotics


Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve… It follows linguist Louise Banks, who is enlisted by the U.S. Army to help translate communications from one of several extraterrestrial craft that have appeared across the world. She must find out why they have arrived on Earth before tensions lead into war. (Wikipedia ‘Arrival (film)’)

The process in the film that aliens, called ‘heptapots’ by Greek etymologic sources, and human beings try to understand each other and then trade ideas shows some basics of the semiotics, or more precisely, the linguistic signs.

The core presumption of Saussure’s dyadic model is that a linguistic sign is a link between a concept [signified] and a sound pattern [signifier] (Chandler P9). The film presents a clear explanation. At the beginning of learning each other’s languages, Louise points at herself and her colleague Inn, repeats to utter the sound of ‘human’, and holds a board written characters of this word.

What Louise does here illustrates how a sign works to convey meanings. She uses two examples at present– her and Inn– by pointing at him and herself, to externalize the concept ‘human’ (signified). Then using a specified sound, she connected the concept with a psychological result (signifier) when aliens hear the sound, which also matches with a visible, touchable form — written characters.

A core foundation of semiotics is that there is no logical, or reasonable, or presumable correlation between the concept and the vehicle we use to express it. Just as depicted in the film, after Louise presents her intention to figure out each heptapot’s name, Inn, faced with two puzzling circle symbols, says ‘I would like to say Abbott and Costello’. Any name here works! The left heptapot isn’t called as ‘Abbott’ for any Abbott-y features, neither is the right one, but simply a random link.

One thing in Saussure’s model should be emphasized. In Saussure’s theory,

his ‘signified’ is not to be identified directly with such a referent but is a concept in the mind – not a thing but the notion of a thing (Chandler PP16).

To my understanding, the ‘notion’ here echoes with Plato’s ‘theory of Forms’, the only real and certain which everything — like words and objects — we can express and touch in the world we live in is imitating. Although Saussure may not render his ‘notion’ exclusively supreme as Plato does (or he also does since I only read the simplified, second-hand summary of his works), he still clearly puts both objects and sounds we adopt to refer to a concept in a secondary position. Only concepts and sound patterns are fundamental, not in reality but in mental construction. This mental construction happens twice in the whole process. First, the sender externalizes the concept in his mind with a sound. The sound travels as a wave, hits on the receiver’s mind as a pattern, then — here’s the second mental construction — arouses all his conscious related, and finally represents the concept.

Undoubtedly, Saussure makes his theory clarified and delicate by reducing all definition to the very intrinsic and abstract. In reality, however, Saussure’s model leaves a critical gap between the sender and receiver of the concept. What happens in those two mental construction? Can the concept remain exactly the same through this process? If not, what decides the result?

On this point, the Peircean Model is more practical. In Peirce’s theory, he raises the ‘interpretant’ as a third part of the sign (Chandler pp29) between the ‘represented’ and ‘representamen’, two concepts that roughly correspond with Saussure’s.

Peirce noted that ‘a sign……addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. The sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign’ (Chandler PP20).

Umberto Eco uses the phrase ‘unlimited semiosis’ to refer to the way in which this could lead (as Peirce was well aware) to a series of successive interpretants(Chandler PP20).

Under the summary of Peirce’s by Daniel Chandler, I assume the ‘interpretant’ here refers to ‘the second mental construction’ I mentioned before. This concept can easily explain some phenomenon we are encountering in everyday communication.

The plot of the film can also inspire us on this point. After establishing some basic vocabulary of alien’s language, Louise raises the essential question to heptapots: their purpose coming to the earth.

The answer is presented with a written sign, translated as ‘offer weapon’.

The ‘weapon’ word stirs up enormous trouble in confirming the meaning. For the heptapots, all their unique characteristics from biologic structure, to social forms, cultures, histories — if they also have — and any other effects, resulting from what we human cannot even imagine because we’ve never experienced, construct heptapots’ concept of their ‘weapon’. Some parts of this concept seems similar with human’s concept of ‘weapon’, when Louise uses the methods showed before in the film to establish vocabulary with them, so a translation relationship shapes between two written symbols presented by two sides. This rough process of matching symbols is the whole context human and heptapots share about the concept ‘weapon’. They never communicate further to clarify contents and borders of this concept, or experience the same events to add common memories to this concept. That’s what Louise means when she says ‘We don’t know if they understand the difference between the weapon and the tool.

Louise’s also saying, ‘our language like the culture, is messy, and sometimes, one can be both‘, shows the ubiquitous misunderstandings that the sign we use may lead to in the communication. They happen in the process of those two mental constructions.

Any individual expression of meaning is always already embedded in a larger network system of relations which makes it possible (Irvine PP11).

Meanings and values learned and discovered in our sign systems are not “located” “in” anyone’s head or any-where, but are cognitive-social events that we activate and instantiate by using our “cognitive- symbolic resources (Irvine PP10).

Individual is the unit that composes the whole society. Hence, every person is putting bricks to the building of meanings through social events everyone participates in and the history passes on. When we mention the word ‘Chernobyl’, for almost everyone in this world will immediately recall images like nuclear power and radiation and death, even though very few of us was at the present of that event. That is a collective construction of meaning.  For people died before the year 1986, that place was just a place, while for people experienced the disaster and luckily survived, the word ‘Chernobyl’ may be related to more personal and detailed psychological reflection like the colorless cloudy sky and the special smelly air of that day. Most parts of individual’s construction shape the concept shared by the whole group, but there must be some little parts remain private or recognized within a limited circle. Just to say the plot of naming two heptapots mentioned before, ‘Abbott’ and ‘Costello’ is only meaningful between Louise and Inn, who have once shared the same experience under common context. In fact, those two heptapots may be acknowledged as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beta’ on official records by other scientists or officers.

Besides, an interesting, or maybe the only ‘science fictional’ part of this film is the idea that ‘there is no correlation between what a heptapot says and what a heptapot writes; unlike all written human languages, their writing is semasiographic; it conveys meaning; it doesn’t represent sound‘. Saussure’s theory claims that:

writing as a separate, secondary, dependent but comparable sign-system…… thus a written word would also signify a sound rather than a concept…… for Saussure writing is ‘a sign of a sign’ (Derrida 1967a, 43) (Chandler PP16).

The film here depicts an option completely contradicts Saussure’s theory. It is so inviting that makes me wonder if it’s possible. What will happen if a written word directly signifies a concept rather than a sound? How does Saussure support his theory? Can this idea survive under current theories?

To my imagination, there’s no reason to be impossible. To convey a concept, the sender presents it as a written symbol, seen by the receiver as a ‘muted pattern’, arouse all his consciousness related, then represents the original concept. When studying the language, kids skip the process to match the concept with a certain word’s sound, directly with a written symbol (maybe as kind of similar as a deaf-mute child learning gesture language?). Nevertheless, even though all these can make sense, we will still mock the whole assumption because the process is way too much uneconomical. It’s true if we stand at the side of human beings, but it can be the most economical way for an intellectual creature who can only utter sounds in very limited frequency but has twenty hands.

Biological features lay the foundation of what we never ask why and take for granted. Saussure’s assumption about written word and sound should be right at this level.

Another intriguing point in the film, also mentioned in many linguistic articles is that ‘the language you speak determines how you thinks’. But how does it realize literally?



The Grammar of Meaning Systems:Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, Martin Irvine

Semiotics: the basics, Daniel Chandler