In my past few posts, I have been using the words “signal”, “sign”, and “signifier”, and rather haphazardly at that. But these are real linguistic concepts, and that have concrete meanings. And, perhaps more relevant to this post, these concepts can be useful tools in constructing not only your speculative world, but the character arcs and themes underlying your narrative.
So, first some definitions:
Language is made up of a set of signs and the rules that govern their interactions. You can, for most purposes, consider a sign to be a word in context.
Every sign has three(1) parts:
The signifier is the group of sounds (or letters, for written words) that make up the word.
The signified is what we think of when we hear or see the word.
The referent is what the word refers to in the context in which we encounter it.
For example: we have a sign with the signifier “president”. It’s signified is the head of the executive branch of the US government. (Strictly speaking, that’s just its denotation. You can include the connotation, as well.) And the referent currently would be Barack Obama. In 1992, the signifier and signified would have been the same, but the word would have a different referent when used in the US in the absence of any modifiers.
Now, when working in speculative fiction, you can use these aspects of a word (or sign) to decide what English word to use, or if you might like to use a foreign word.
For example, what do you want to call your political units? We have many choices for this, many possible signs. We have empires. An empire is a political unit consisting of many smaller states brought together by forces–most commonly conquest. An empire can have connotations of bureaucracy, soaring capitals and primitive backwaters. There are many real-world referents, such as sophisticated Rome, far-flung Alexandria, brutal Azteca, and powerful Britain.
And you can capitalize on aspects of those various referents, much as you could capitalize on the various connotations. Or, you could pick a kingdom, and capitalize on the myriad kingdoms throughout history. The same is true for anything, from religion, to clothing, to character.
In the next post, I’ll look at how you can make use of the written form of a sign in your world-building, and I’ll give some examples of foreign signs and how these concepts can influence their use.