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For example:

  1. A piece of meat with hair on it was a symbol of important events such as declaring war, a victorious army's return, or sad news.

  2. A piece of meat with hair on it was a sign of important events such as declaring war, a victorious army's return, or sad news.

For example:

  1. In some places, the bridegroom plants some banana trees and sugar canes in front of his house, the banana trees a wish for the prosperity of later generations, and the sugar canes a sweet sign of a happy life.

  2. In some places, the bridegroom plants some banana trees and sugar canes in front of his house, the banana trees a wish for the prosperity of later generations, and the sugar canes a sweet symbol of a happy life.

example 1 and 3 are what I read in an article (a Chinese-English translation).

I looked up in a dictionary and found that sometimes "sign" means "indication" but I am still confused.

Are example 2 and 4 correct?

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  • The main difference is that a sign may presage an event, while a symbol never does. In general, sign has a broader range of meanings.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 29, 2015 at 11:26

2 Answers 2

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There is a broad overlap between sign and symbol; it's a nuanced distinction.

In your examples, sign should be read as a synonym for evidence. More broadly, there is an intrinsic link between the sign and what it signifies. On the other hand, a symbol is merely a declaration that has an imposed relationship with what it declares.

For example, one might say that a smile is a sign of contentment if it is accepted that contented people tend to smile. One could also say that a smile is a symbol of contentment, but that would be a relationship between a smile and the concept of contentment (an imposed relationship - concepts don't smile), not between a smile and a contented person (an intrinsic relationship).

If, in a hypothetical culture, bananas were placed in front of contented people, one might say that a banana is a symbol of contentment, but it would be weird to say that a banana is a sign of contentment because there is no intrinsic link between contentment and bananas (contentment doesn't produce bananas).

So in your first example, I'd call meat with hair a symbol unless you read a mystical component into the context. The bananas in your second example are definitely symbols - they represent a wish and are not a by-product (or herald) of happiness.

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  • 1
    Yes, +1 for using the word 'evidence' here. That is exactly right in these cases. Oct 29, 2015 at 10:49
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Personally I'd start from Peircian Semiotics to pick apart the nuances and make sure that I meant what I meant to mean.

Anyway, I'd stand sign in for Peirce's index. A sign points to some specific instance of something [or some thing]. A symbol stands in for the idea [and perhaps idea could be taken in the Platonic sense to some extent]. The world of symbols is complex: characters on screen stand in for sounds -> sounds stand in for words -> words stand in for things in the world -> things in the world may be symbols. Normally signs don't point around in circles.

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