You are here : Home Page / Theories / Eco / The Semiotic Process and the Classification of Signs

Available Languages

Follow us on

SignoSemio's Facebook SignoSemio's Twitter

The Semiotic Process and the Classification of Signs

By Lucie Guillemette and Josiane Cossette

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Umberto Eco

Because the field of semiotics covers quite a diversity of signs, Umberto Eco has developed a classification in which he distinguishes between artificial and natural signs. This will be the topic of the present chapter. Natural signs are divided into two classes: (1) signs identified with natural events or things (for example, the position of the sun); and (2) signs unintentionally produced by a human agent (for instance, a rash indicating chickenpox). This class includes several subclasses. A similar division is made for artificial signs, which are either (1) intentionally produced in order to signify (the barking of a dog, for example), or (2) intentionally produced as a primary function (for example, a chair for sitting), a secondary function (a diamond necklace for wealth), or a combined function (a police uniform, which serves both to cover and to indicate a social function).

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



The starting point of Eco's theory is the fact that, in both industrialized and nature-based civilizations, human beings are evolving in a "system of systems of signs". Drawing much of his inspiration from the work of Peirce, he developed his theory of the sign in 1973, and went on to revise it in 1988. A distinguishing feature of Eco's theory is that in addition to words and language, it also addresses non-linguistic and even natural signs, which do signify, based on a code, or previous learning.


From the many meanings listed in the dictionaries for "sign", a comprehensive definition has been formulated: "The sign is used to transmit information; to say or to indicate a thing that someone knows and wants others to know as well" (Eco 1988, 27). The sign fits into this simplified canonical model of communication:

source – sender – channel – message – receiver –

This model can be applied to most processes of communication. However, a message can pass through a channel from sender to receiver without ever signifying, if the sender and the receiver do not share a common code. Besides being an element in the process of communication, the sign is also an actor in the process of signification.


The code is found in Jakobson's communication model. It designates all of the conventions that make it possible for the sender's message to be understood by the receiver in an act of communication. The code may thus be a language, a system used in sports (the referee in baseball or the signs used for communication between the catcher and pitcher), kinesics (interpreting unconscious nonverbal language, such as tiny facial movements), etc.


In the process of signification, the code is primordial. For example, if a person says: "Viens ici" to a friend, the friend will only understand if he or she speaks French. The sender and receiver must share a common code, that is, "a series of rules that will allow one to attribute a signification to the sign" (translation of Eco, 1988, 28).

Codes are necessary for any communicative activity. There are as many codes (linguistic and non-linguistic) as there are activities and contexts. For example, the code of medical semiotics (the study of symptoms) is what allows the doctor to conclude that the patient's "stomachache" is in fact a liver problem.


Since the word "sign" designates a multitude of different objects, Eco formulated an initial classification wherein he distinguishes artificial signs and natural signs. Afterwards, he refined this classification, and signs became sign-functions in his typology of the modes of sign production (see the chapter on the modes of sign production).


Artificial signs are divided into two classes: (1) signs intentionally produced in order to signify; (2) signs intentionally produced as functions. SIGNS INTENTIONALLY PRODUCED IN ORDER TO SIGNIFY

These signs always originate from a sender (human or animal). They are produced consciously by someone, based on specific conventions, and with the aim of communicating something to someone. SIGNS INTENTIONALLY PRODUCED AS FUNCTIONS

This class owes its existence to the current trend in semiotics, which Eco expresses as follow: "once society exists, every function is automatically transformed into a sign of that function" (Eco, 1979, 24). Consequently, included in this class of signs are objects such as architectural creations, clothing, furniture, modes of transportation, etc.

These objects refer to a primary function, and a secondary function as well. There are also signs combining both functions. SIGNS THAT HAVE A PRIMARY FUNCTION

The object of the sign refers to a primary function, such as "sitting" in the case of a chair, "movement" in the case of an automobile, "shelter" in the case of a house, etc. SIGNS THAT HAVE A SECONDARY FUNCTION

In this case, signification is more strongly marked by the semiotic characteristics of the object. A marble bathtub from Italy encrusted with gold and mother-of-pearl is so strongly associated with wealth, prestige and luxury that its primary function as a tub in which to bathe is relegated to secondary status. The same is true of a sculpted chair made of solid wood and velvet and adorned with precious stones, known as a "throne", for which the function "royalty" is dominant, rather than the primary function of "sitting". "In certain cases, the secondary function is so dominant that the primary function is minimized or completely eliminated" (translation of Eco, 1988, 46). COMBINED FUNCTION SIGNS

Most of the objects we encounter daily have both of these functions at once. Although the police uniform's primary function is to protect and cover the body, it also signifies "membership in the police force" (the secondary function), and it indicates whether the police force in question is municipal, provincial or federal, to use Québec as a example.


Natural signs are divided into two classes: (1) signs identified with natural things or events; (2) signs unintentionally produced by a human agent. SIGNS IDENTIFIED WITH NATURAL THINGS OR EVENTS

These signs originate from a natural source; they do not have a human sender. In order for these signs to signify despite being naturally produced, they must be decodable through the previous learning of the individual who encounters them. Nature is also "a universe of signs" (Eco, 1988, 16). The position of the sun indicates what time it is; for example; an accumulation of grey clouds signifies an approaching storm, and so on. SIGNS PRODUCED UNINTENTIONALLY BY A HUMAN AGENT

These signs do not have an intentional sender. They are produced by a human, but not consciously or deliberately. For example, the doctor can decode the spots on his patient's skin and thereby conclude that the patient has a liver disease. The reverse is impossible: The patient cannot deliberately produce these signs (symptoms in this case) on his skin in order to signify the disease.

This class also includes psychological symptoms, behaviour, disposition, indices of race, class, and regional origin, etc.


* * *

Excerpt from The Influence of a Book
Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Jr. (1993 [1837], p. 29-30)

"It was the 15th of August, 182—. Charles Amand was standing in the middle of the only room in the small, dilapidated structure. Against one wall was a shabby, curtainless bed; across from it stood a carpenter's bench strewn with tools among which were two crucibles, one of them broken. There were also various minerals laid out on the hearth, which Charles was eyeing with a pensive air. Here and there on the right side of the room, lumps of charcoal burned. On a table near the hearth were a battered inkpot, several sheets of paper and an open book which held at least part of this latter-day alchemist's attention. The book was entitled The Works of Albert le Petit."

* * *

In this short analysis, we will focus on signs that have combined functions, which reveal much information on the situation and occupations of Charles Amand. First, let us consider the arrangement of the digits in the year 182–. The last sign, which is far more than a simple hyphen, is placed there intentionally in order to signify. This arrangement of signs tells us that the action of the novel takes place during the second decade of the 19th century, but the omission of the last digit has a different function, one of concealment. The hyphen opens up two possibilities, each of which accentuates the genuineness of the narrative, or the referential illusion: The author cannot divulge the exact year, either because he does not remember, or because divulging it would allow one to identify the real characters and events too easily.

For the rest of the analysis, we will now focus on the elements of architecture and furniture, whose secondary function is almost always social. First of all, "the only room in the small, dilapidated structure" goes beyond the primary function of a dwelling. Charles Amand does indeed have a place of residence, but the description of his dwelling tells us about his social status; the small size and the condition of his lodgings reveal his poverty. The same applies to the "shabby, curtainless bed". In order to grasp its full signification, we must reconstruct the context: In the 19th century – and before – a bed with curtains, or canopy bed, signified membership in the wealthy or noble class. Conversely, a bed with no curtains puts the emphasis once again on Charles Amand's poverty, as opposed to simply indicating that he sleeps in a bed, like everyone.

The "carpenter's bench" is subject to several possible meanings. Considered as a piece of furniture, its secondary function, once again, is to reveal the social status of the character: He is so poor that his only piece of furniture is a carpenter's bench. Taken in isolation, it could also indicate Charles Amand's trade. Such is not the case, since the immediate context shows him with "two crucibles, one of them broken". Although the two crucibles have a primary function of "recipient", the odd juxtaposition with the workbench has a secondary function of reporting Charles Amand's occupations: He engages in alchemy experiments, as we see subsequently from his interest in minerals. This arrangement of signs (workbench + crucible + minerals) that are not intentionally produced in order to signify, gives us a glimpse of Charles Amand's occupation even before the man is described – explicitly this time – as a "latter-day alchemist".

4. list of works CITED

AUBERT DE GASPÉ JR., Philippe, trans. Claire Rothman, The Influence of a Book, Montreal: Robert Davies Publishing, 1993 [1837].
ECO, Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979 [1976].
ECO, Umberto, Le signe, Brussels: Labor, 1988 [1971].


A. For each of the following utterances, determine whether the phenomenon is (1) dertermine whether the phenomenon is artificial or natural and (2) identify whether it is (a) intentionally produced in order to signify, (b) intentionally produced as a function, (c) identified with natural events or things, or (d) unintentionally produced by a human agent.
  1. Paul's dog is limping.
  2. A sailor sends an S.O.S.
  3. The grass has turned yellow.
  4. The paint is peeling on the Jone's house.
  5. A dog is barking.
  6. A woman dons a fur coat.
B. Identify the functions (primary and secondary) of the following signs.
  1. A wool poncho
  2. A MontBlanc brand pen
  3. A kilt
  4. A Ferrari
  5. A McDonald's restaurant in India
C. Analyze the following passage using Eco's classification of signs. Identify the signs as accurately as possible. For example, if the sign has a combined function, identify the primary and secondary functions. If the sign was unintentionally produced by a human agent, identify the sub-class (symptom or whatever) and so on.

"The night was black and the wind shook the frail cottage. Rain seeped through cracks in the roof and thunder echoed in the distance, portending a dreadful night ahead. Amand was cold."

Philippe Aubert de Gaspé Jr., The Influence of a Book, 1993, p. 34.

Share this page