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Symbols are characters, letters, numbers, icons, objects, people, actions, or places that stand for or represent something other than themselves. In the most general sense, a symbolic language (or system) is a set of symbols combined with the rules for their use in relation to one another. Human language is the most familiar and important symbol system. Beginning in childhood, individuals are taught how to use oral and written symbols (e.g., letters, numbers, words) and how to use these symbols to create messages that make human communication possible.

Systems of Symbols

Typically, a speaker or writer selects and uses specific symbols to create a message that will bring about a particular response among listeners or readers. Consider a simple communicative situation, such as when one person says, "Pass the sugar." Here, the letters "p," "a," "s," and "s," as well as the other letters in the phrase, are selected and combined with the goal of conveying a particular meaning and accomplishing a specific task. The letters—which are symbols—have been grouped together to form words, which are also symbols. Effective communication depends on the extent to which the listener and the speaker attach more or less the same meaning to the symbols. If the listener does not speak English, for example, or if the listener is unfamiliar with the symbols "pass" or "sugar," effective communication is unlikely.

While spoken and written languages are the most familiar examples of a symbol system, computer languages, Morse code, Braille, and the genetic code are also symbol systems. Money is another fundamental symbol system. Little conscious attention is given to how this symbol system operates, but as Brent Ruben and Lea Stewart (1998, pp. 93-94) describe, the process is very much a communication event that involves symbolic language:

We think little about the communication process that occurs when we go into a store, pick out an item priced at $15, go to the cashier, hand over a ten-and a five-dollar bill, and leave the store with a "thank you" and the item in a bag.… When we give the clerk a ten-and a five-dollar bill, in effect, we are only handing over two pieces of high-quality paper. They have no inherent value, other than the expense of the paper and ink. They are symbols.

Besides alphanumeric language and money, there are many, many other symbols that play an essential role in human communication. The green-yellow-red light at a street intersection is a symbol, as are the White House, a Mercedes automobile, an "A" on an exam, a handshake, and a wedding ring.

People live, quite literally, in an environment that is filled with symbols, thus requiring the use of symbolic language. Symbolic language allows individuals to code and transmit messages from one point—in space or time—to another point using one or more communication modes. Oral and other acoustically coded languages make use of the auditory mode. Written or light-based languages use the visual channel.

Most human symbols have the potential for portability and permanence. Communication technology and mass media allow symbols to be copied, stored, duplicated, amplified, and transmitted. For example, spoken words can be stored in recorded form before being broadcast across space and preserved across time. Similarly, something that originates as personal correspondence can be captured on paper, stored on a computer, printed in a book, posted online, archived in a library, and transmitted across time and space.


Humans create symbols, and they also create the meanings of those symbols. There is no necessary or natural connection between a symbol and the idea or object to which it refers. For example, there is no particular reason why the color red must mean "stop," or why the symbol "5" should be equivalent to "1" + "1" + "1" + "1" + "1." Each of these symbols has a meaning that is arbitrary and invented by humans. As another example, consider a word such as "encyclopedia." "Encyclopedia" has no inherent, intrinsic meaning or significance. When spoken, the word is nothing more than a particular pattern of auditory vibrations that an individual creates through the manipulation of the vocal cords, lips, tongue, and mouth. In its written form, "encyclopedia" is nothing more than a particular configuration of ink on paper.

While humans invent the meanings of symbols, this invention process is not a solitary activity. Rather, it is a collective and ongoing activity of humanity, and it is the essence of social communication. In order for symbols to function as communication, all parties involved must associate more or less the same meaning with the symbols. For example, if most drivers and pedestrians (and police officers) did not attach more or less the same meaning to "red" lights at street intersections, the variations in interpretation would have dire consequences. Perhaps less dire, but no less frustrating, are the consequences of communication efforts where there are language, cultural, or interpretive differences between the interactants. It is important to remember that even among those people who have similar cultural backgrounds and linguistic competencies, variations in meaning are frequent. For example, the symbol "love" means many things to many different people, and this variation on such a "simple" symbol can cause a great deal of complication within relationships.

Humans do not inherit their knowledge of what particular symbols mean. They learn these meanings through interaction—through communication—with others. Beyond certain basic message-responding tendencies (i.e., reflexive responses) with which humans are born, most of the meanings that people need in order to function as humans have to be learned through social interaction. Reflexive responses, such as the reaction to the sensation of being burned by a flame, can be thought of as first-order information processing events. They consist of natural and automatic responses to nonsymbolic signals. The majority of human responses are connected to symbols, and these responses represent what may be thought of as second-order information processing events (Ruben and Stewart, 1998). Second-order information processing involves symbolic communication. From family, friends, and peers, individuals become literate and able to use written and spoken language, monetary symbols, and the other symbols systems that will be necessary in order to function as adults.

The learning process and the social shaping of symbols and their meanings are imperfect, as has been noted above. Individuals do not all learn the same things in the same ways, which helps to explain the variation and complexity of human communication. This imperfection is a major factor in explaining the complexity and challenges of human communication. On the one hand, interpretative variation of symbols is the source of frustration, misunderstanding, and anxiety in human communication. On the other hand, it is the basis for creativity, personal change, and social change.

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of symbols and people's proficiency in their use are quite remarkable. Whether one thinks of verbal exchanges, the Internet, intimate interactions with loved ones, a casual walk through a street intersection, or shopping at the store, communication works. None of this social interaction or predictability would be possible were it not for the existence of symbols and the human capacity for teaching and learning how to use them.

See also:Animal Communication; Culture and Communication; Intercultural Communication, Adaptation and; Interpersonal Communication; Language Acquisition; Language and Communication; Language Structure; Nonverbal Communication.


Bates, Elizabeth; Bretherton, Inge; and Snyder, Lynn S. (1988). From First Words to Grammar. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Blumer, Herbert. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Duncan, Hugh D. (1968). Symbols in Society. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press.

Ruben, Brent D., and Stewart, Lea P. (1998). Communication and Human Behavior, 4th edition. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Brent D. Ruben