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Distinctions like this are a favorite activity of semioticians. Sign is
usually the superordinate category and then the classification is
varieties of signs. Sebeok, for example, proposes six varieties:
signal, symptom, icon, index, symbol and name. Peirce himself once
stated that he had identified some 59,000 possible varieties of sign but
left their investigation to "future explorers". Of these he thought 66
might be of immediate interest but is well known for his exposition of
10 of them. I describe these ten briefly in a paper available at:
From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Saturday, November 27, 2004 6:55 PM
To: firstname.lastname@example.org; Xmca
Subject: Re: Vygotsky/tool/sign/symbol
Another relevant source, although after Vygotsky's time, is Susanne
Langer. However, she summarizes Cassirer and Pierce and many others.
In the "Philosophy in a New Key" she distinguishes between sign, signal
Signs stand for something else, but are not "intended" by anyone, and
often are either a part of the larger event for which they stand or in
other ways associated with it by local proximity. For instance,
lightning is a sign of thunder and storm.
Signals are different from signs in that they are developed within a
culture and used by members of a community/culture with an intention to
communicate certain very specific messages. For instance: green light on
a traffic light means: "go!" and red light means "stop!" Signals are not
natural parts of a situation or event, they are accepted arbitrary
What distinguishes signals from symbols is their rigid association with
the referent they denote. There is no room for interpretation: Green
light in traffic means "go!" and only "go!" It never means anything
else, and there is no room for polysemy or interpretation.
On the other hand, symbols are much more complex: they have to be
interpreted depending on their context, on the history of their use and
on a particular situation in which they are being used. Their meaning
can fluctuate from situation to situation, from person to person, even
from an intonation to an intonation within the same utterance. And yet,
there is some consistency and rule-like constraint in the ways symbols
change their meanings.
Vygotsky also struggled with the relationship between "znak"
(sign/symbol??) and what it "stands for" or what function it plays in
thinking and communication. In Thought and Language, Vygotsky tried to
make a distinction between meaning and sense (smisl) of a symbol (znak)
-- as that domain of meaning which is most dependent on the particular
context and its relative locus in the context.