Let’s restitute indexicality! A manifesto

Modern semiotics willingly embraces the tripartite typology of signs proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce. Even though exact formulations differ and other classes of signs may be proposed, most semioticians would agree that sign can be constituted by resemblance between the form and the meaning (Peirce’s iconic signs), physical connection between the two (indexical signs), and conventional or habitual association (symbols; cf. Peirce 1998: 5). It seems, however, that in practice the second type of signs receives relatively little attention compared to iconic signs and symbols, especially when language is involved in a semiotic system.

future warning signs
Image 1: Indices based on part-for-whole relations in “Warning Signs of the Future” (2012)

Recently, cognitive linguistics takes great interest in motivation of rhw linguistic sign, but researchers tend to focus on iconicity alone. In Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics (2004) Dirven and Verspoor propose a detailed typology of linguistic iconicity illustrated with numerous examples (pp. 8-12), but their discussion of indexicality is limited to anthropocentric perspective exemplified in as few as six sentences (pp. 5-8). Similarly, in voluminous Cognitive Grammar John Taylor offers a detailed discussion and classification of iconicity in language (2002: 46-48), but he limits the role of indexicality to accidental properties of linguistic expressions, typically considered extra-linguistic in nature. Taylor explains that

[a] state of drunkenness may cause a person to lose control of the articulators; consequently, slurred and imprecise speech may be an index of the speaker’s inebriated state. Raised pitch could be an index of agitation; hoarseness may be an index of a sore throat; a person’s accent or dialect may be an index of geographical, social, or educational background. Even the fact that you happen to speak language X rather than language Y is indexical – it conveys that you happen to have been raised in a community that speaks language X, rather than in one that speaks language Y. (Taylor 2002: 48-49)

The author observes that “[a] hoarse voice may be indexical sign of a sore throat,” but “it becomes a symbol (…) when it is used with the intention of deceiving a hearer” (both quotations in 2002: 50), which suggests that an index is “truly indexical” if and only if it is not intended to convey meaning, and when it is used purposefully, it morphs into a symbol. This approach does not seem to be compatible with Peirce’s definition, who mentions a plumb bob as an example of an index of verticality (1998: 14). It would be hard to argue that a plumb bob is not designed specifically with the intention of indicating verticality.

The role of indexicality is neglected in semiotics of comics, too. Most sign-oriented definitions of the medium emphasize the dichotomy of linguistic and iconic elements, ignoring the presence of indices altogether. When describing the semiotic repertoire of comics, Duncan and Smith write about “interdependence of pictorial and linguistic elements” (2009: 138), Bernard Touissant proposes “icono-linguistic unity” (unité iconico-linguistique; cf. 1976: 82), Robert C. Harvey mentions the synergetic fusion of “text and image” (cf. 1994: 8-9), while Michał Błażejczyk carefully concludes that “the main components [of comics] are graphic elements that are not words, however words can play a significant role” (Błażejczyk 2001; trans. H.K.). All of these definitions clearly revolve around the distinction between the linguistic (“text,” “words”) and the iconic (“pictorial,” “image”).

Both linguists and comics theorist fail to notice that indexicality has much greater contribution to their respective semiotic systems. In linguistics, indices are closely related to notion of metonymy, i.e. a conceptual device by means of which “one entity is being used to refer to another” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 36). Both indices and metonymies are based on the relationship of contiguity, i.e. a physical, causal, or otherwise “existential relation,” as Peirce would put it (cf. 1998: 276). For example, the sentence She likes to read Marquis de Sade is provided by Lakoff and Johnson as an example of metonymy (1980: 35), where the author stands for the books that he wrote. In Peirce’s terminology, this referential device is nothing less than an index, where the author indicates his literary works by the virtue of cause-and-effect relation holding between them. Since metonymies are ubiquitous in language, and, as some argue, the very nature of language is metonymic (cf. Radden and Kövecses 1999), the role of indexicality should be recognized more widely.

By the same token, indices are fundamental components of the comics medium, even if they are invisible for most scholars. The best example of an index is the element, which is perhaps most readily associated with comics, that is a speech balloon. It would be difficult to classify this type of sign within the framework of iconic-linguistic dichotomy advocated by Duncan and Smith, Harvey, Touissaint, and others. A speech balloon is definitely not linguistic (as opposed to the text inside it), but not iconic either (it does not resemble the utterance which it signifies). However, spatial proximity and the “tail” of the balloon explicitly refer to the speaker in a way that is clearly indexical, just like a pointing gesture is indexical relative to the object pointed at.

speech balloon
Image 2: Speech balloons are indexical signs in comics. A panel from Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (2014)

As already mentioned, indexicality is frequently downplayed when language comes into scene. In linguistics, indices are banished outside the system of language to provide information from extra-linguistic properties of an utterance. In semiotics of comics, the presence of linguistic elements tempts scholars to built descriptive categories around language, which usually results in some kind of opposition between the linguistic and the iconic. Symbolic (conventional) language seems to have a powerful, almost mesmerizing effect on semioticians, who turn the blind eye on non-trivial distinctions in the non-conventional sphere. Why is this so?

As far as linguistics is concerned, the person to blame is perhaps Ferdinand de Saussure. The author of Course in General Linguistics is associated with several claims that defined the thinking about language for most of the 20th century. One of the best remembered assertion from his theory is the one about the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, defined explicitly as the lack of natural connection between the form and the meaning (cf. Saussure 1966 [1916]: 69). Saussure’s views on motivation are far less remembered and some linguists are genuinely surprised on learning that the Swiss scholar wrote: “the whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction” (1966 [1916]: 133), and

[there] is no language in which nothing is motivated, and our definition makes it impossible to conceive of a language in which everything is motivated. Between the two extremes – a minimum of organization and a minimum of arbitrariness – we find all possible varieties. Diverse languages always include elements of both types – radically arbitrary and relatively motivated – but in proportions that vary greatly, and this is an important characteristic that may help in classifying them. (1966 [1916]: 133)

To be fair, it should be added that Saussurean motivation pertains to the non-arbitrary nature of connections between signs, rather then the connection between the form and the meaning (or as Saussure would put it, between the signifier and the signified), which leaves out Peircean iconicity and indexicality from Saussurean linguistic system. Nonetheless, as the above quotations demonstrate, the principle of arbitrariness is as fundamental in Saussure’s theory, as the principle of (syntagmatic) motivation.

Saussures sign
Image 3: Bipolar model of sign by Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure believed that motivation is as important in language as arbitrariness.

For many linguists Saussurean arbitrariness implied that they can divest themselves from the obligation of investigating motivation. Since Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, claimed that the link between the form and the meaning is arbitrary and “unnatural,” why should anyone waste time on searching iconic and indexical traces in the linguistic system? The influence of the Swiss scholar was hard to overcome. Many decades had passed before Saussurean arbitrariness came to be systematically challenged in mainstream linguistics, and “the principle of iconicity” (Dirven and Verspoor’s term; 2004) was built into the very heart of language.

Despite renewed interest in motivation, indexicality went by the wayside. It is difficult to speculate about the reasons, but one of them may be quite trivial: in Course, Saussure tried to prove the arbitrariness of onomatopoeias, and therefore revisionist linguists focused on defending the motivated nature of iconic words against all-engulfing arbitrariness. Since indexicality was not mentioned in Course (did Saussure know about Peirce’s typology during his seminal lectures in Geneva?), it received much less attention from the new generation of linguists.

What about semiotics of comics? It might seem that for the semioticians who do not work in the field of language it should be easier to ignore Saussurean heritage; they should be more sensitive to other types of signs found in abundance in visual media. Yet, by the time semiotics of comics got off the ground, Saussure had become a prominent figure not only in non-linguistic semiotics, but in other areas of humanities, and therefore his influence was more prominent than it may seem. It is also possible that comics theorists are held hostage by an even more fundamental prejudice: logocentrism, i.e. the belief in superiority of language over other semiotic system. Jacques Derrida argues that logocentrism permeates all of Western culture and is implicit in Saussure’s theories (cf. e.g. Derrida 1998 [1967]). From a logocentric perspective, the only tenable way of describing the semiotic repertoire of comics is to propose a typology which takes language as the reference point. This leads to classifications featuring two broad categories: one embracing linguistic signs (“text,” in Harvey’s definition and “words” in Błażejczyk’s), and the other non-linguistic signs (“pictorial elements,” “images,” “graphic elements that are not words,” etc.). One notable exception of a definition of the medium that escapes logocentrism is a somewhat clumsy claim by Scott McCloud that comics consists of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud 1994): 9) (how exactly are “pictorial images” elements different from “other images”?).

Hubert Kowalewski
Hubert Kowalewski

Is it time to claim a rightful place of indexicality in linguistics and other fields of semiotics? Is it time to extend the recognition of indices beyond accidental, peripheral, extra-linguistic properties if utterances? Is it time to return indices to the very heart of language, comics, and other semiotic systems? I believe so. The rigid arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is being dismantled by modern linguists, and it does not seem that strict Saussureanism will ever return. Logocentrism has been recognized, named, and deconstructed by post-structuralist philosophers. Even if one does not subscribe to their vision of Western culture, we are now aware that logocentrism is just one of many possible ways to think about signs, and perhaps not the best one. This opens up the way to new approaches, hypothesis, framework, and classifications, which can harden or evaporate in the fire of criticism and practical applications. Even though an indexical sign is not a new idea, it is time to find a new place for in in modern semiotics.


Błażejczyk, M. 2001. “Koń jaki jest każdy widzi, czyli o definicji komiksu” Zeszyty komiksowe. Available here. Accessed 10 September 2014.

Derrida, Jacques. 1998 [1967]. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Corrected edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Dirven, René, and Marjolijn Verspoor. 2004. Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Duncan, R., and M. J. Smith. 2009. The Power of Comics. History, Form and Culture. New York: Continuum Books.

Harvey, Robert C. 1994. The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Horrocks, Dylan. 2014. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. [Internet]. Available here . Accessed 10 September 2014.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Reprint edition. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1998. The Essential Peirce. Selected Philosophical Writings. Vol. 2. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Radden, Günter, and Zoltán Kövecses. 1999. “Towards a Theory of Metonymy.” Edited by Klaus-Uwe Panther and Günter Radden. Metonymy in Language and Thought.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1966 [1916]. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York, Toronto and London: McGraw-Hill.

Taylor, John R. 2002. Cognitive Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Toussaint, Bernard. 1976. “Idéographie et bande desinée.” Communications 24: 81–93.

“Warning Signs of the Future.” 2012. [Internet]. Available here.  Accessed 10 September 2014.

Hubert Kowalewski is an assistant professor of linguistics at the English Department of Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His interests include: cognitive linguistics (especially the topic of motivation in language), semiotics of comics, philosophy of science and linguistic motifs in speculative fiction.

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