According to Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics, by John Lyons (Chapter 1), a symbol is a sign whose form is arbitrarily or conventionally associated with its meaning. Also, linguistic signs, namely morphemes, are of symbolic nature. Do symbols, which are signs themselves, include only linguistic signs,morphemes? What I mean is, can symbols be only linguistic units?


First, regarding the question as you frame it in the title, not all symbols are morphemes. Some symbols (linguistic ones) are sounds (which can be "phones" or "phonemes", if you believe in the distinction). Others are structural categories, such as "S", "Determiner", "Stem", "Place". Second, a symbol is conventionally associated to its referent, not its meaning. Saying that a sign is associated with its meaning is an example of homunculus-theorizing (Cartesian representationalism), which adds an extra step in relating symbols and the real world. Rather than saying that "dog" is associated with the meaning DOG and the meaning DOG is associated with the mental concept of dogs, you can simply say that "dog" is associated with a particular mental concept (which in English is realized as "dog").

In many languages (for example Ancient Greek), roots are not words – inflectional material is required to form a word. Roots are morphemes; roots are symbols. Therefore, it is not the case that all symbols are words (thus "no" to "can symbols be only words?"). Symbols do not include just morphemes, they also include phonemes such as the three phonemes (symbols) in /dɔg/. Numerous symbols, such as "stem", are composed of multiple morphemes, so if you're asking whether a symbol is coextensive with the morpheme, it is not.

  • I understand what you mean. Maybe I should have asked : Do symbols include only linguistic units? And also, a question on something you have written :Even if dog is associated with a particular mental concept, isn't this association arbitrary? – V.Lydia Jan 19 '16 at 8:12
  • On that interpretation of the question, and assuming that by "include" you mean "represent", ☺ is a symbol which doesn't represent a linguistic unit. I would not say that the relationship between the symbol "dog" and actual dogs is arbitrary, rather it is conventional, but that is a subtle distinction that people usually don't care about. – user6726 Jan 19 '16 at 17:02
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    I would call ☺ an icon. Isn't there a distinction between symbols and icons? – V.Lydia Jan 19 '16 at 20:47
  • I think icons are a special case of symbol. But another example that isn't iconic is ♪, also ∂. – user6726 Jan 19 '16 at 21:38

Nope. A thumbs up is a symbol, but is not a word or a properly linguistic unit.

Consider also Rene Magritte's famous painting "The Treachery of Images". This painting makes salient the fact that a drawing of a pipe is not a pipe itself, but rather symbolic of the pipe.


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    Isn't thumbs up an index? According to the book I mentioned, an index is "a sign whose form has characteristics which are only in nature associated with its meaning." Raising your thumb is a characteristic which relates to expressing confirmation or approval. – V.Lydia Jan 19 '16 at 8:00

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