The concept of semiotics and semiology is a difficult concept to grasp even without the input of myth as analyzed by Barthes. However, we have attempted a simpler explanation of the signifier, signified, sign concept to better explain what Barthes and other theorists of semiology have postulated.
Barthes opens this section with the concept of the sign, a signifying relationship (or meaning, as we read it) which is essentially the union of the components signifier (a mediator to handle the words, images, and objects in the sign equation) and the signified (its concept or relation.) Ideas of content and expression are inextricable from this process.
At the same time, readers are reminded that the sign is more complex than this basic formula.
So to then examine one of Barthes essays, specifically the essay on Wine and Milk. Nothing is quite the epitome of French culture as is French wine and cheese. In this essay, Barthes uses the example of wine to demonstrate it’s significance to the French culture through his signifier, signified, sign equation.
In this essay, the signifier is the empty wine. We use the term “empty” here in correlation with Barthes: “I cannot confuse the roses as signifier and the roses as sign: the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning” (113). Therefore, the wine as an object, without meaning, is the signifier. As previously stated, the signifier is a mediator to handle the words, images, and objects in the sign equation. It is the initial element that triggers the process of investing meaning and thus making a sign. The union of the signifier and signified is termed signification. This process of making meaning is, according to Barthes’ interpretation of Saussure, arbitrary, a product of social convention.
The signified is the concept of wine within the French culture and nation. “Wine gives thus a foundation for a collective morality, within which everything is redeemed: true, excess, misfortunes and crimes are possible with wine, but never viciousness, treachery or baseness; the evil it can generate is in the nature of fate and therfore escapes penalization, it evokes the theatre rather than a basic temperament” (59). For the French, it is the social act of drinking as a “gesture” rather than the purpose to get drunk that gives it its meaning. Furthermore, wine plays a part in society that gives it definition beyond what other cultures may use it for. “Wine is a part of society because it provides a basis not only for a morality but also for an environment; it is an ornament in the slightest ceremonials of French daily life, from the snack […] to the feast, from the conversation at the local cafe to the speech at a formal dinners. It exalts all climates, of whatever kind: in cold weather, it is associated with all the myths of becoming warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling” (60). Barthes intends wine as a dream, a myth in which derives meaning from the concepts of warmth, refreshment, ceremony, even as far as time and space for the Frenchman. In this essence, the signified concept gives the signifier object of wine meaning to produce the sign.
The sign is the wine, but full with meaning. The meaning and concept that constitutes its nature as a sign is derived from the signified concepts detailed above. Thus the combination of wine, as the signifier, the concept, as the signified, create the sign of wine. The sign, in general, can be interpreted as the value of the expression, and is a product of exchange and comparison among dissimilar words and ideas.