[2.6.2] St Augustine on Sign and Language

Augustine’s (354-430 AD) semiotics, – as presented in De dialectica, De magistro, De doctrina christiana, De trinitate – axed on the general concept of the sign (be it natural, or conventional linguistic) emphasizes the practical usage of signs: human communication.

Augustine on sign and language
Augustine on sign and language
SignA Sign (signum) is: “something that shows itself to the senses and something other than itself to the mind”.
An essential attribute of Signs is the sense (see [2.6.1]) with which a human can percept them.
Signs can be NaturalSigns and ConventionalSigns. Signs may refer to SignifiedObjects; but to other Signs also.
SignifiedObjectThe Object, Thing signified by the Sign.
NaturalSign Natural signs are those which, apart from any intention or desire of using them as signs, do yet lead to the knowledge of something else – as, for example, smoke when it indicates fire, the footprint of an animal passing by.”NaturalSigns are signifying the Signified Object; percepted by HumanSouls
Conventional signs, …, are those which living beings mutually exchange in order to show, as well as they can, the feelings of their minds, or their perceptions, or their thoughts.”
Augustine sustains, that information transmitted with signs by a trustworthy Teacher (like textual information) is not enough for a true understanding (see also [2.6.1]).
ConventionalSigns are signifying the Signified Object; this relation is mediated by a language-specific Convention
SpokenWordSpoken word: “sign of something, which can be understood by the hearer when pronounced by the speaker.” Is a ConvetionalSign
WrittenWordWriting (litterae), introduced by man in order to impart permanency to spoken language, is just a secondary system of signs, consisting of ‘signs of words’ (signa verborum) rather than of words itself.” Is a ConvetionalSign
Some signs “relate to the sense of sight, some to that of hearing, a very few to the other senses” Is a ConvetionalSign
ConventionConvention – in a given language – makes the relation between the Conventional Sign and the Signified Object. Makes the relation between the Conventional Sign and the Signified Object.
Mental-InteriorWord“It is … the mental (verbum mentis) or interior word (verbum interius), i.e., the mental concept, that is considered as word in its most proper sense, whereas the spoken word appears as a mere sign or voice of the word.” Relates to a Sign
ThoughtThoughts (cogitationes) are performed in mental words” Composed of one or more mental words, residing in the Soul.
SenderSoulThe person who speaks, writes, sends other sign. The term Sender was not used by Augustine, he used the more particular speaker, writer.Is a HumanSoul, relates to Sign
ReceiverSoul The person who listens, reads, receives other sign. The term Receiver was not used by Augustine, he used the more particular listener, reader. Is a HumanSoul; relates to Sign


  • All citations from: Meier-Oeser, Stephan, “Medieval Semiotics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Mendelson, Michael, “Saint Augustine“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

First published: 30/05/2019

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