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The 5 differences between meaning and significance

The 5 differences between meaning and significance

June 16, 2024

The ability to communicate is fundamental for the human being. Being able to express information to others so that they can understand it and being able to understand what others may be telling 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. For 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 use signifiers to communicate meanings. What are these two terms? What are the differences between meaning and significance? We are going to talk about it in this article.

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A definition of these concepts of linguistics

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


Regarding the meaning, the concept behind this term is highly known by most people, being a word widely used in our day to day.

We understand as meaning of something the idea that is intended to express through an element. That is, if language is a symbolic element, the meaning would be what you want to symbolize or represent by means of a word or symbol . Said in a single word, it's about the concept.

Thus, if we use the word dog, the word in question is only a symbol through which we arrive at the concept or idea that we have of a canid. The meaning is the idea in question, that to which we refer when we express something. The represented.

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Although the term meaning is usual in the language of most people and the concept to which it refers is generally clear, it is not the same when we speak of the signifier. And, however, it is the only thing that we really perceive through the senses when we communicate .

We denominate 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 perceptible sensory 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 the 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 in which we usually think when talking about signs to communicate, but they are not the only ones. And it is possible to imbue gestures with a differentiated meaning, as happens for example in the sign language.

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

With this we can see that the possibilities to generate signifiers for a concept or meaning is practically unlimited, being able to use any sensory modality as long as it can be used as a communicative element with its own meaning.

Main differences between meaning and significance

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

Without significance we could not make reference to something , while without meaning the words or elements that make up the signifier would be of no use.

1. Fundamental difference: what is it?

And is that while the signifier refers to the way to name or refer to a certain something, the meaning refers to the concept, object or entity to which we intend to refer to the signifier.

2. Different nature

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

3. Significant proportionality-meaning

The relationship between signifier and meaning tends to be unequal: although the same signifier can refer to different concepts depending on the situation, the intentionality or the context in which it occurs, as a general rule we observe that the most frequent thing is that 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. Temporal variability

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

And is that the meaning behind a significant, 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) through time.

But nevertheless, the language evolves and flows at great speed , born and dying different ways of expressing the same. In this way, the signifiers that refer to a meaning tend to vary as the way of expressing themselves evolves, being much more unstable.

5. Transculturality

In addition to the previous ones, we can find another difference in what refers to the existing variations depending on the culture or location. A) Yes, The same concept will have different ways of expressing oneself in different countries and in different languages . Although in this sense we must also take great precaution, because not only the signifier can vary: the same concept can be interpreted in very different ways. For example, love, courage, loyalty, family or work can have very different connotations depending on the culture.

Likewise, there may even be no concrete concept in certain cultures, something that makes it impossible to understand the words related to it. This does not mean, however, that it is not possible to generate an understanding of a concept or meaning through signifiers linked to other nearby meanings.

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