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Modes of Sign Production

By Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco approaches semiotics not as a universe composed of signs, but as one composed of semiotic functions (sign-functions). In contrast to Peirce's triads, he has developed a semiotic theory that is non-referential: Expressions may be used to refer to the things or states of the world, but they are derived from culture and the content established by a culture. A sign (or sign-function) is no longer conceived of as corresponding to a specific, frozen referent (which used to be the case for the linguistic sign); it can take on several meanings, or designate various realities within the socio-cultural context. For example, a red octagon does not convey the same meaning in Africa as in America, where, due to a convention that has resulted in a cultural usage, we associate it with "stop". However, even in American culture, the meaning of the red octagon can change, for instance, if it is found in a textbook on geometry.

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette (2006), « Mode of Sign Production », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),



Eco's theory of the sign was developed during the seventies (1972). It concurs with Derrida's conception (1967) (see the chapter on Derrida), which says that there is no transcendental signified (a single signified and a single, absolute content per signifier or sign form); rather, there is an infinite chain from one signifier to another, a concept related to Peirce's unlimited semiosis: "as soon as a sign […] reaches the level of the interpretant, it is ready […] to become the ground of a new sign" (Fisette, 1990, 16). Following in the wake of these two theorists, Eco's theory emphasizes the non-univocal nature of the sign's meaning, and for this reason, he speaks of sign-functions. This theory, which includes the "modes of sign production", has led subsequently to his theories on the role of the reader, in which the meaning of a text may be discerned by a model reader (see the chapter on textual cooperation).


Eco's theory of codes has been widely critiqued, and he challenges it himself in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984 [French version, 1988]). Instead of the notion of codes, he favours the encyclopaedia as the model that enables the play of signification (see the chapter on textual cooperation). From his theory of codes, we should retain at least two basic definitions that will be important in his theories of the reader's role (1988, 69-70):

Denotation: an expression/word taken literally. Example: The cat is grey.

Connotation: A second-level code based on the first, as in metaphors, tropes, and double meanings (the second-level code presupposes a polyvocal sign), for example: to be down in the dumps.


Eco has replaced the concept of the sign based on equivalence (where expression = content), because for him, the "sign" is broader than the simple linguistic sign (for instance, a stop sign is not a linguistic sign, and neither are clouds). Eco instead proposes a representation of the sign based on inference and a system of contextual instructions; in other words, "the sign is an instruction for interpretation" (1984, 26). "Nevertheless, sensory data, even those mediated by an imprint, a track or a lesser number of dimensions, are still signs to be interpreted" (translation of Eco, 1992, 6).

Since too many things can be signs (natural inferences, arbitrary equivalences such as p≡q, diagrams, drawings, emblems, targets), Eco has dropped the notion of the sign entirely to focus exclusively on the activity of signification and to see how processes of signification function. A review of the possibilities of sign production shows that there is a semiosic continuum, which goes from the strongest coding (ratio difficilis) to the most open and indeterminate (ratio facilis) (see table below, taken from Eco, 1979, 218). Substitution alone does not establish the condition for a sign; the existence of a possible interpretation is also required. The interpreted content takes us beyond the originating sign, and is always what opens up to something new.

A typology of modes of sign production
Typology of modes of sign production


The classification of modes of sign production (and interpretation) was established using four parameters:

  1. The physical labour required to produce the expression, that is, recognition, ostension, replica or intention.
  2. At one end of the type-token ratio (abstraction versus concrete manifestation), we have ratio facilis (where the expression's concrete manifestation matches its own expression type, following institutionalized conventions that are understandable if one knows the code), as in symptoms that may be recognized by "their conformity to a type" (translation of Eco, 1988 [1972]: 144). At the other end of the range we have ratio difficilis (where "the expression type matches the content type" (1988 [1972]: 145)), as in an arrow using a motivated link to signify "go straight" in various situations. Even out of context, however, the arrow is still toposensitive (1988 [1972], 144).
  3. The type of continuum to be shaped (motivated heteromaterial, homomaterial, arbitrary heteromaterial).
  4. The mode and complexity of articulation, which ranges from systems with strongly coded units to those in which the units are difficult to identify (translation of Eco, 1988, 141).

This chapter will be limited to a discussion of points 1and 2; the last two will not be addressed here due to their highly specific nature.


The objects listed in the boxes within the "type-token ratio" heading – imprints, symptoms, indices, examples, vectors, etc. – appear to be "signs" based on the established norms of traditional classifications. In Eco's typology, however, they are not. These names were given for practical simplification. Rather than /imprints/, we should use the expression /to make imprints/; rather than /vector/, the expression /to cause vectorial displacement/, and so on. These are truly sign-functions, not "signs".


Recognition is a process that takes place when an event is interpreted by an addressee (as the expression of a specific content) "either through a pre-existing and coded correlation or through the positing of a possible correlation by its addressee. [...] Thus the act of recognition may re-constitute the object or event as an imprint, a symptom or a clue" (1979, 221).


Eco uses the term "addressee" in the same way Jakobson presents it in his communication model. A sender (not necessarily a person; it may simply be nature, a traffic sign, etc.) sends a message, which is transmitted by means of a code (linguistic or cultural). The addressee is some sort of interpreter who uses his knowledge of the same code to discern the meaning of the message. IMPRINTS AND TRACKS

The interpretation of imprints is necessarily based on previous learning: The hunter must learn to distinguish hare tracks from rabbit tracks (the sign as a cultural unit). Indeed, even natural signs are codified, as shown in the classification of signs. Imprints are not signs, but rather elements to be integrated as part of a semiotic function. The track may be interpreted by its distinctness: Depending on the temperature, an indistinct track may signify that a man walked by not very recently, or it may indicate his direction (a vector); a person walking backwards can thereby mislead others as to his starting point and destination. SYMPTOMS

Symptoms are always used within a specific context. For example, red spots on someone's face can be a symptom of either measles or a high fever. They are not produced intentionally. For example, smoke is a symptom used to identify the presence of a fire. Conversely, smoke produced deliberately to signal the presence of fishermen shipwrecked on a desert island must be considered as an index of human presence, since it is intentionally produced. INDICES

From the presence of indices we can infer the presence of an agent (a human, animal, vehicle, etc.) that left them. Indices are marks that are not imprints or symptoms, and consequently, they function differently. Indices are easily falsifiable. For instance, a burglar with black hair may decide to leave blonde hairs scattered about at the scene of the crime.


Ostension is the first level of active signification. It occurs in the context of the first convention two people resort to when they do not share a common language. It is the creation of a code of some sort, temporary as it may be. For example, in Mexico, a French tourist who does not speak Spanish can simply point to his shoes to indicate to the shoe shiner that he wants to have them polished.

Ostension also occurs in cases of synecdoche, where an object is selected to indicate the class from which it comes (pointing to a specific house to indicate that you are looking for a place to stay), and metonymy, where part of an object is used to indicate the whole (pointing to a cigarette to find out where to get a pack).


We have a replica "when we produce a token of an abstract type" (translation of Eco, 1988, 143). REPLICAS OF COMBINATIONAL UNITS

Words are a good example of replicas of combinational units, as are ideograms, musical notes, flags, etc. REPLICAS OF STYLIZATIONS AND VECTORS

Eco defines stylizations as "certain apparently 'iconic' expressions that are in fact the result of a convention" (1979, 238). Some motifs represent a stylization of a basic idea, such as chess pieces or a deck of cards. In the latter case, crown + beard signifies "king". No matter what general style of card we have (which varies from one deck to another (replicas)), these two units allow us to identify the king.

Vectors, on the other hand, are governed by ratio difficilis, and they convey a whole set of instructions depending on the context into which they are inserted (arrows, pointing fingers). There are also linguistic vectors. Confronted with the vector /celui-ci/ in French, we must identify which masculine noun precedes the occurrence of the vector so as to determine the noun to which /celui-ci/ refers. PROGRAMMED STIMULI AND PSEUDO-COMBINATIONAL UNITS

Programmed stimuli and pseudo-combinational units are sets of "non-semiotic elements intended to elicit an immediate response in the receiver" (1979, 241). The response is expressive and the receiver "does not necessarily perceive [these expressions] as semiotic phenomena" (translation of Eco, 1988 [1972], 143). According to the painter Kandinskij's theory, a certain colour leads to a certain stimulus, and so on. The same applies in synaesthesia (a sensation registered by one sense that spontaneously brings up a sensation registered by another sense; for example, sounds that bring up colours), which we can find in music, drawing, film, dance, etc.


"Cases of invention are […] those in which the expression is often invented at the very moment where the content is defined for the first time" (translation of Eco, 1988, 58). Clearly, there is a need to make the correlation acceptable and to render it pertinent. A case of invention would be found in a scientific discovery, for example: One must find a term or a symbol (the expression) that correlates with the molecule, the newly discovered gene, etc. (the content).

Invention is the critical point in the classification of modes of sign production, because this is where we "define a mode of production whereby something has been transformed from something else not yet defined" (translation of Eco, 1992, 104). So much of semiological study has delved into the origin of languages, but Eco departs from this, proposing that any new invention in the code is founded on a cultural base which is itself already organized.


* * *

Excerpted from Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe (1962 [1893], 173)

It happened one day about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand; I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me - I could hear nothing, nor see anything […]. I went to it again […] to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot; toes, heel, and every part of a foot: how it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine. […] I came home to my fortification, […] terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man;

* * *

In this short analysis of a passage from Robinson Crusoe, we will focus on various meaning-producing objects that will be identified and interpreted using the typology of modes of sign production. The adventures of Robinson Crusoe take place on a desert island, where Robinson is shipwrecked. A desert island is by definition devoid of any human presence, except for that of Robinson, the story's narrator. When he discovers "the print of a man's naked foot on the shore", which we might call an imprint, Robinson proceeds to reason by abduction (which is the third type of reasoning, along with induction and deduction, according to Peirce): the imprint of a naked foot = the agent that came through whose foot left the print = another human presence on the island besides his own. What's more, this reasoning can take place because Robinson is human himself: first there was recognition of the human print, and from that, Robinson knew that the agent in question was a human.

Convinced that he was alone on the island until that precise moment, Robinson is "thunderstruck". However, since no visual or auditory index is immediately forthcoming to confirm the other person's presence – "I listened, I looked round me - I could hear nothing, nor see anything" –, Crusoe decides to return to the imprint, which he observes in minute detail. And once again, from its various parts ("toes", "heel", etc.) which Robinson recognizes using his previous knowledge of the human body, he arrives at the conclusion "naked foot", and therefore human presence.

Since the typology we used for this analysis is based on "sign production", and therefore the generation of meaning, we have pointed out the sign-functions and the signification to which they lead. In summary, we are witnessing the phenomenon of recognition: that of an imprint made by a naked foot (heteromaterial), which signifies that there is a human presence other than Robinson Crusoe's on the island.

4. list of works CITED

DEFOE, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1962 [1893].
ECO, Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979 [1976].
ECO, Umberto, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
ECO, Umberto, Le signe, Brussels: Labor, 1988 [1971].
ECO, Umberto, La production des signes, Paris: Livre de Poche, 1992 [1975]. (Translation of A Theory of Semiotics, with additions.)
ECO, Umberto, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
ECO, Umberto, Sémiotique et philosophie du langage, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, (1988) [1984]. (Translated from the above, with additions.)
FISETTE, Jean, Introduction à la sémiotique de C.S. Peirce, Montréal: XYZ éditeur, 1990.


A. Identify the various modes of sign production in the following excerpts from Robinson Crusoe (several processes or sign-functions may be appropriate) and, referring to the passage, explain the interpretation that arises from the sign-functions, or meaning-generating elements.
  1. I knocked him down with the stock of my piece - I was loath to fire, because I would not have the rest hear, though at that distance it would not have been easily heard - and being out of sight of the smoke too, they would not have easily known what to make of it. (1962, 230)
  2. [Friday] brought me the sword again, and, with abundance of gestures, which I did not understand, laid it down, with the head of the savage […]. But that which astonished him most was, to know how I had killed the other Indian so far off; so pointing to him, he made signs to me to let him go to him; […] Then he took up his bow and arrows, and came back; so I turned to go away, and beckoned him to follow me, making signs to him that more might come after them. Upon this he signed to me that he should bury them with sand, that they might not be seen by the rest, if they followed; (1962, 232).

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