Understanding the Distinction: What is the Difference Between Referent and Signified?

Have you ever heard of the terms ‘referent’ and ‘signified’? While these two words may sound the same, they actually have completely different meanings. Knowing the difference between these two terms can help you better understand language and how people communicate.

To start off, a referent is the physical object or idea that a word or phrase refers to. For example, the word ‘tree’ would have a referent of an actual tree in the physical world. On the other hand, the signified is the mental concept or idea that a word or phrase represents. So, in this example, the signified for ‘tree’ would be the mental image of a tree that pops into your head when you hear the word.

This may sound like a small distinction, but it’s actually quite significant. Understanding the difference between a referent and a signified can help you improve your writing and communication skills, as well as your ability to interpret and analyze language. So, the next time you hear or read a word, think about whether it refers to a physical object, or if it’s representing an idea or concept in your mind.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s Theory of Linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure is considered as the father of modern linguistics. He was a Swiss linguist whose theory of Semiotics and structural linguistics has been influential in the field of linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy. According to Saussure, language is a system of signs or symbols, where words signify the objects or ideas they represent. He introduced two fundamental concepts in his theory of linguistics, which are ‘Signifier’ and ‘Signified’

The following is an in-depth explanation of the difference between Signifier and Signified:

  • The signifier: It is a physical form of the sign, which includes words, sounds, or marks on a page. For example, the word ‘Tree’ is a signifier that represents the object ‘tree’.
  • The signified: It is the mental concept of the sign, which represents the idea or object that the signifier refers to. In the above example, the concept of a tree in one’s mind is the signified.
  • The relationship between signifier and signified: According to Saussure, the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. There is no natural connection between the signifier and signified. It is only through consensus among a particular community of language users that the connection between signifier and signified is established.

Saussure’s theory of linguistics has had a tremendous impact on modern linguistics, semiotics, and related disciplines. It emphasized the importance of studying the structure of language, as it often reveals the underlying structure of human thought itself.

Structuralism as a Methodology

Structuralism is a methodological approach that focuses on the underlying structures that shape meaning and interpretation. In this sense, structuralists examine the relationships between different elements within a system, rather than simply focusing on the elements themselves. One important concept in structuralism is the difference between referent and signified.

Difference between Referent and Signified

  • The referent is the actual thing or object to which a word or symbol refers. For example, the word “tree” refers to an actual physical tree.
  • The signified, on the other hand, is the mental concept or idea that the word or symbol represents. In the case of the word “tree,” the signified could be the idea of growth, strength, or nature.
  • This distinction is important because it highlights the fact that words and symbols have a complex relationship with the world around us. They do not simply represent the world in a one-to-one way, but rather are shaped by the cultures and systems in which they exist.

Application of Structuralism

Structuralism has been applied to a wide range of fields, including literature, linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. One example is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who used structuralism to study myths and folktales from around the world. He argued that these stories were not simply random collections of events, but rather were shaped by underlying structures or patterns.

Another example is Ferdinand de Saussure, who developed the structuralist approach to linguistics. He argued that the relationships between words in a language were not arbitrary, but rather were governed by a set of underlying rules and structures. This idea has had a profound impact on our understanding of language and communication.


Structuralism offers a valuable methodological approach for understanding meaning and interpretation. By examining the underlying structures that shape our understanding of the world, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the complex ways in which language, culture, and society work together. Understanding the difference between referent and signified is just one example of the rich insights that structuralism has to offer.

Referent Signified
Tree Growth, strength, nature
Rose Love, beauty, passion
Car Speed, power, freedom

As we can see from this table, the relationship between a word and its signified can vary depending on cultural and social factors. Structuralism allows us to examine these relationships in a systematic and rigorous way, offering new insights into the complex world of language and meaning.

Signifier and Signified: A Conceptual Overview

In the world of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure introduced the structuralist theory which is based upon the concept of signs. According to him, a sign consists of two inseparable parts: the signifier and the signified. These two parts, though completely different entities, are closely related to each other. Let’s take a look at the concept of Signifier and Signified in detail:

  • Signifier: The signifier is the physical representation of the sign. In simpler terms, it’s the form of the sign that we can see or hear. For instance, the word “tree” is a signifier; the sound that we make when we say the word “tree” is also a signifier.
  • Signified: The signified is the concept or idea that is evoked in our mind by the signifier. Going back to our previous example, “tree” as a signifier evokes the concept of a tall plant with branches and leaves in our mind. Thus, signified refers to the mental representation or the meaning of the sign.

It’s important to understand that the signifier and signified are not fixed or universal; they are subject to different interpretations depending on the cultural and social background of the individual. For instance, the signifier “cow” may evoke the concept of a domestic animal that provides dairy products to someone from a rural background, but for someone from an urban area, “cow” may be a mere signifier for a juicy burger.

One important aspect of the relationship between signifier and signified is that they are arbitrary and not naturally connected. In other words, there’s no inherent reason for the signifier “tree” to be associated with the concept of a tall plant with branches and leaves; it’s just a convention that has been established over time.


Understanding the concept of signifier and signified is crucial in order to comprehend the language and symbols that we use to communicate. These two parts work together to create the meaning that underlies the sign, and they are constantly changing and evolving depending on the context and culture. By studying this relationship, we can gain deeper insights into the way we communicate and the constructs that shape our perception of the world.

Signifier Signified
The word “tree” The concept of a tall plant with branches and leaves
The sound of “meow” The concept of a cat’s vocalization
A red traffic light The concept of stopping

As shown in the above table, the relationship between signifier and signified is present in almost all forms of communication, making it a fundamental concept for any student of language and communication.

The Role of Language and its Meaning in Communication

Language plays a crucial role in communication, allowing individuals to convey their thoughts, feelings, and ideas to others. It serves as a medium through which people can connect and understand each other. The way we use language is influenced by various factors, such as cultural norms, social context, and personal experience.

However, understanding language goes beyond the simple act of decoding words. It involves grasping the meaning behind those words and the context in which they are used. This is where the concepts of referent and signified come into play.

Referent and Signified: What’s the Difference?

  • The Referent
  • The referent is the actual object, person, or concept that a word represents. For example, the word “chair” refers to a physical piece of furniture that is used for sitting. The referent is the tangible or intangible thing that the word points to.

  • The Signified
  • The signified, on the other hand, is the mental concept or idea that is associated with the word. It is the meaning that we attribute to the word in our minds. In the case of the word “chair,” the signified may be the idea of a comfortable place to sit and relax. The signified is the mental representation of the referent.

Implications for Communication

The difference between referent and signified is important in communication because it underscores the fact that language is not a one-to-one representation of the world around us. Words do not have inherent meaning; rather, they gain meaning through the way in which they are used and understood within a particular cultural context.

This has implications for effective communication, as miscommunication can occur when two people interpret the same word in different ways. For example, the word “freedom” may mean something different to someone living in a democracy versus someone living in a totalitarian state. Thus, it is important to be aware of the context in which words are being used and to be clear in one’s own communication.

A Visual Example

To illustrate the difference between referent and signified, consider the following table:

Referent Signified
Dog The mental image or concept of a canine animal
Tree The mental image or concept of a large plant with a trunk, branches, and leaves
Love The abstract concept of affection or strong emotional attachment between individuals

As you can see, the referent and signified are not always the same thing. By being conscious of this difference, we can communicate more effectively and avoid misunderstandings.

The Semiotic Model of Language Analysis

The Semiotic Model of Language Analysis is a theoretical framework developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, that studies language as a system of signs. Saussure believed that language is a social construct that enables communication and thought, and that its meaning is determined through a series of interrelated signifiers and signifieds.

  • Sign: A sign is the linguistic unit consisting of a signifier and a signified. Saussure defines a sign as “a combination of a concept and a sound-image” where the sound-image acts as the signifier and the concept as the signified.
  • Signifier: The sound-image or the physical form that represents a particular concept or meaning. It is the material component of the sign, such as the word or symbol used to indicate a signified.
  • Signified: The mental concept or the meaning associated with the signifier. It is the non-material component of the sign, such as the idea, feeling, or object that the signifier represents.

In the Semiotic Model of Language Analysis, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, meaning that there is no inherent connection or natural relationship between the two. Instead, it is our social agreement as a community to assign meanings to signs that forms their significance. For example, the color red can signify love, passion, or danger, depending on context and society.

Furthermore, Saussure argued that language is not just a mere representation of reality, but that it shapes our perception of it. This means that language creates our world by providing the framework through which we understand it. As Tim Ferriss said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

This theoretical framework has been influential in various fields of study, such as discourse analysis, literary criticism, and cultural studies, as it provides a way to analyze how meaning is constructed and communicated through language.

A Sign Example Signifier Signified
The word “B-A-L-L” The letters and their sound A spherical object used for sports or play

Understanding the fundamental principles of the Semiotic Model of Language Analysis can help us comprehend the intricate ways in which language operates and influences our worldviews.

Connotation vs Denotation: Understanding the Difference

When it comes to language, it’s important to understand the difference between connotation and denotation. Simply put, denotation refers to the literal or dictionary definition of a word, while connotation refers to the associated, implied meaning of a word. It’s important to know the difference, as using words with a certain connotation can greatly affect the message you’re trying to convey.

  • Denotation: The word “snake” refers to a long, legless reptile.
  • Connotation: The word “snake” often has negative connotations, such as being deceitful or dangerous.
  • Denotation: The word “home” refers to a place where one lives.
  • Connotation: The word “home” can have positive connotations, such as comfort or belonging.
  • Denotation: The word “cheap” refers to something that is low in price.
  • Connotation: The word “cheap” can have negative connotations, such as being of poor quality or being stingy.

It’s important to remember that different words can have different connotations for different people and cultures. For example, a word that has a positive connotation in one culture may have a negative connotation in another. This is why it’s important to consider the audience that you’re writing for when choosing your words.

Here’s a helpful table to illustrate the difference between connotation and denotation:

Word Denotation Connotation
Home A place where one lives Comfort, belonging
Cheap Low in price Poor quality, stingy
Snake A long, legless reptile Deceitful, dangerous

By understanding the difference between connotation and denotation, you can ensure that your message is being conveyed effectively and accurately to your audience.

Cultural Differences in Language Interpretation

When it comes to language interpretation, cultural differences play a huge role in how referent and signified are understood. Referent refers to the actual object or phenomenon that a sign is pointing to, while signified refers to the mental concept that the sign represents. However, different cultures may have varying interpretations of both referent and signified, leading to potential misinterpretation and misunderstandings.

  • In some cultures, gestures are as important as words in conveying meaning and can even replace some spoken words. This can lead to confusion if the interpreter is not familiar with the cultural significance of certain gestures.
  • In certain languages, gender can influence the interpretation of signs. For example, in Spanish, the word “amigo” (friend) is masculine, which could lead to misunderstanding if a female friend is referred to using that term.
  • Cultural differences in the interpretation of time can also lead to misunderstandings. Some cultures prioritize punctuality and view being on time as a sign of respect, while others may view time as more fluid and prioritize relationships over schedules.

It is important to keep in mind these potential cultural differences in interpretation when communicating with individuals from different backgrounds. Being aware of these nuances can help prevent miscommunication and promote understanding between cultures.

One way to mitigate these challenges is through the use of visual aids and illustrations, which can provide a more universal and concrete understanding of referent and signified. Additionally, utilizing interpreters familiar with the target culture can help bridge any potential communication gaps and provide a more accurate understanding of language interpretation.

Cultural Difference Possible Misinterpretation
Gestures Interpreting a gesture as negative when it is actually a positive gesture in the target culture
Gender Using a masculine term to refer to someone who identifies as female, leading to confusion or offense
Time Not recognizing the importance of punctuality or the fluidity of time depending on the target culture

Cultural differences play a significant role in language interpretation, and being aware of these differences can help promote more effective and accurate communication across cultures.

What is the Difference between Referent and Signified?

Q: What is a referent?
A: A referent is an object, idea or person that a word or phrase denotes or stands for. For example, the word ‘cat’ refers to an animal with four legs, fur, and a tail.

Q: What is a signified?
A: A signified is the conceptual or ‘mental’ representation of meaning that is attached to a given sign or word, regardless of its specific referent. For example, the word ‘cat’ may signify concepts like cuteness, affection, or ferocity.

Q: How do referents and signifieds differ?
A: The key difference is that a referent is a specific physical or abstract object that a word stands for, while a signified is a more abstract, mental concept that is attached to that word. Referents are concrete, while signifieds are more flexible and subjective.

Q: Can a single word have multiple referents or signifieds?
A: Yes, polysemy is the technical term for a word that has multiple meanings or referents, and it is a common phenomenon in natural language. Similarly, a single signified or concept can often be associated with multiple words or signs.

Q: How do referents and signifieds relate to each other in language?
A: Referents and signifieds are both essential components of communicating with language. Referents provide the physical or abstract objects that language describes, while signifieds offer the nuanced shades of meaning and association that give language its richness and depth.

Thanks for Reading!

We hope this article has helped you understand the difference between referent and signified in natural language. Remember, referents are concrete objects that words and phrases denote, while signifieds are more abstract, mental concepts that accompany those words. Thanks for reading, and please visit us again soon for more language tips and insights!

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