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RE: Vygotsky/tool/sign/symbol

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:


Don Cunningham
Indiana University
-----Original Message-----
From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane [mailto:ana@zmajcenter.org] 
Sent: Saturday, November 27, 2004 6:55 PM
To: mcole@weber.ucsd.edu; 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 
and symbol.

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.