The ability to communicate is fundamental for the human being. Being able to express information to others in such a way that they can understand it and being able to understand what others may be saying to us allows us to maintain contact and coexistence with others. In fact, not only humans, but also many other animals need to be able to establish relationships in which mutual understanding prevails. To do this we use a series of symbolic elements that serve as a representation of what we want to communicate.

In a technical way, we can say that we employ signifiers to communicate meanings. What are these two terms? What are the differences between meaning and signifier? We will talk about it in this article.

A definition of these concepts of linguistics

In order to establish the existence of differences between meaning and signifier we first have to determine what each of these concepts is.


As far as meaning is concerned, the concept behind this term is highly familiar to most people, being a word widely used in our day-to-day life.

We understand the meaning of something to be the idea that is intended to be expressed through an element. In other words, if language is a symbolic element, the meaning would be that which wants to be symbolised or represented by a word or symbol . Said in one word, it is the concept.

Thus, if we use the word dog the word in question is nothing more than a symbol through which we arrive at the concept or idea we have of a canine. The meaning is the idea in question, that to which we refer when we express something. The represented.


While the term meaning is common in most people’s language and the concept to which it refers is generally clear, the same is not true when we talk about the signifier. And yet, is the only thing we really perceive through the senses when we communicate .

We call as significant that stimulus or element that we use in order to refer to a certain concept. We would be talking about the physical and sensorially perceptible part: the sign.

It is important to bear in mind that the signifier can appear in very different ways: it is possible to use language at an oral level to produce signifiers that the listener can perceive through hearing, but we can also generate written words. These two are the main means we usually think of when talking about signs to communicate, but they are not the only ones. The fact is that it is possible to imbue gestures with a differentiated meaning, as is the case in sign language, for example.

You can also use drawings or even abstract symbols as long as they convey an idea that can be understood. Even drawing symbols on the skin could be used to convey meaning through touch.

With this we can see that the possibilities for generating signifiers for a concept or meaning are practically unlimited, and any sensory modality can be used as long as it can be used as a communicative element with its own meaning.

Main differences between meaning and signifier

Having seen a brief definition of each of the two concepts, it may be easy to see the main difference between signifier and signified. However, we must bear in mind that we are actually between two concepts that, although they refer to different aspects, need each other to exist.

Without a signifier we could not refer to something , while without a signifier the words or elements that form the signifier would be useless.

1. Fundamental difference: what is it?

And the fact is that while the signifier refers to the way of naming or referring to a certain something, the meaning refers to the concept, object or entity to which we intend to refer with the signifier.

2. Different nature

Another difference that can be commented on regarding meaning and signifier is its nature: meaning is a construct, an idea that represents a reality but that in itself has no physical component even though the concept does refer to it. On the other hand, the signifier is purely physical, being the expressed representation of such concept through a symbolic element such as the word .

3. Significant-significant proportionality

The relationship between signifier and meaning tends to be unequal: while the same signifier may refer to different concepts depending on the situation, the intention or the context in which it occurs, as a general rule we observe that more often than not the same meaning has multiple signifiers that refer to it. We would be talking about polysemy in the first case and synonymy in the second .

4. Time variability

Another possible difference, which we have mentioned in the previous explanation, has to do with its relative invariance in time.

This is because the meaning behind a signifier, as a rule and due to the fact that it is an idea, tends to remain relatively stable (although there may be changes depending on the understanding of the concept itself) over time.

However, language evolves and flows at great speed , being born and dying different ways of expressing the same thing. Thus, the signifiers that refer to a meaning tend to vary as the way of expressing it evolves, being rather more unstable.

5. Transculturality

In addition to the above, we can find another difference in terms of the variations that exist depending on the culture or location. Thus, the same concept will have in different countries and in different languages very different ways of expression . However, great caution should be exercised in this regard, because not only the signifier may vary: the same concept may be interpreted in very different ways. For example, love, courage, loyalty, family or work can have very different connotations depending on the culture.

Likewise, it is even possible that a specific concept does not exist in certain cultures, something that makes it impossible to understand the words linked to it. This does not mean, however, that it is not possible to generate the understanding of a concept or meaning through signifiers linked to other nearby meanings.