Paper Title
Gertrude Nnenna Ezeh
Arts, Language, and Communication

One striking quality of language is that it has medium transferability. This means that language as a system of communication can manifest itself through many and different channels, namely speech, writing and signs/symbols or codes. Most scholarly works have prioritized on the areas of oral and written communication, giving little attention to the role of sign language (signs and symbols) in the overall communication process. This work attempts to investigate the roles of signs, symbols and gestures in human communication. Specifically, it emphasizes on how these modes have been used in literary writing to achieve writer’s intention. A novel, entitled The return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, was selected as the data for this work. It was discovered that gestures, signs, and symbols are intelligible mediums of conveying messages ,both in speech and written communication, and  powerful tools of language, encoded with predetermined meanings.

Gesture, Sign, and Symbol


Communication refers to the possible methods of conveying information, ideas, feelings from one source to another in a systematic way, using channels recognised and accepted by all the participants in the communicative act, by means of patterned signs, symbols within which predetermined meanings have been encoded. All the systems used in communication are collectively called the semiotic system or the sign theory. Examples of simple communication systems include traffic light, road signs, mechanical devices, where iconic signs are used, etc.

Language is another form of communication but different from all these because language is the most developed, most complex and most systematic and creative of all communication systems. Allerton (1979) sees language from an abstract perspective, as an endowment, a faculty which can manifest in different medium; the most efficient medium is sound. Robbins as cited in Wikipedia (2016) asserts that language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group co-operates. Additionally, Falk believes that language is an extremely complex, highly abstract, and infinitely productive system, linking meaning with sounds (Wikipedia, 2016).

A lot of scholarly writings have dwelt extensively on the oral and written forms of language. This work attempts to fill the missing gap in the study of sign language as represented in signs, symbols and gestures. It x-rays the importance of signs, symbols and gestures and the extent to which it can aid inferential comprehension of a text, looking beyond the surface to a deeper and richer interpretation of the text.



Semiotics is the study of how signs and symbols make meaning. Semiotics can be applied in various fields of endeavour ranging from Linguistics, Arts and the Humanities, to Politics and a host of other disciplines. The study of semiotics dates back to the introduction of semiology by a linguist, Ferdinard de Saussure, who was known for his structuralist approach to language in the nineteenth century. He became the first to introduce this area of study. The concept of semiology was further developed into a precise system of describing signs, symbols, icon and index called the semiotic theory, by Charles Pierce, an American philosopher. Subsequently, the semiotic theory as developed by Pierce was applied to areas such as literature, mass media, and certain cultures for the first time. This feat earned him the founder of contemporary semiotics. (Otagburuagu et al., 2012, p.14). Akwanya (2007) further summarizes the application of semiotics to literature, quoting Mulder and Harvey thus: ‘’All features in semiotic sets are functional. The result is that all analysis is in terms of what semiotic function the specific organisation of language is intended to achieve.’’(p. 207).


Signs and Symbols

According to Allerton (1979, p. 5), “a sign is evidence providing an indication based on a natural causal relationship’’. It is a representation of something. For example, an early morning sun is a sign of a bright day whereas flashes of lightning and claps of thunder can be signs of an impending rainfall. A literary text contains series of signs that a reader will have to identify in order to fully appreciate and predict the writer’s intended message.

Signal is coined from sign and more of a man-made or artificial attribute. For example, the change in traffic light from green to red is a signal for the driver to stop and wait. Symbol, on the other hand, is something that stands for something else and does not necessarily need to have a causal or natural link. It, therefore, has no logical connection with what it signifies. The cross, for example, has many connotations ranging from symbols of suffering, Christianity, salvation, to other symbolic meanings. Symbols are more generalised and subjective in nature unlike signs that can be predicted in most cases.

Code is the overall inventory, that is, the totality or summation of signs in a system with the rules for their use. According to Lyons (1981), code is “the connection between the form (structure, shape) of the signal and its meaning, that is the message”. (cited in Allerton,1979, p. 5)


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Akwanya, A. (2007). Semantics and discourse: Theories of meaning and textual Analysis. Enugu: Acena Publishers.


Allerton, D. J. (1979). Essentials of grammatical theory: A consensus view of morphology and syntax. London:  Routledge and K Paul.


Doyle, A. C. (2008). The return of Sherlock Holmes. India: Shree Book Centre.


Otagburuagu, E. J. et al. (2012). Basic grammar and composition course for university students. Enugu: Snaap Press Ltd.


Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Cabondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.


Verderber, R., & Verdeber, K. (2005). Communicate. China: Thomson Wadsworth.