I was an incipient writer, I was doing my Cultural Studies degree. Here we were introduced to key texts and ideas one of which was Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories on structural linguistics. I’ll put this as simply as I can from what I remember of it: as human beings we enter into many sign systems to create meanings, one of these sign systems is language. De Saussure splits language into the signifier (the word) and the signified (the psychological or mental idea we all agree on when we hear the word, as below). Outside the circle of the whole sign there is something called ‘the referent’ – the object itself, in this case a tree.
What does all this mean? In short, it means this: language is a holding system for controlling you: you don’t own it, it owns you – it was here before you arrived and it’ll be here after you’ve gone. This was an idea I found nasty and unsettling because I had never considered it before, and in my previous state of semiotic virginity I believed that it was I who was in charge of the words I used, not vice-versa.
The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified.