What Are Conventional Symbols?

Conventional symbols are widely recognized signs or sign systems that signify a concept or idea that all members of a group understand based on a common cultural understanding. Conventional symbols are different than contextual symbols, which are defined by a situation or the signs surrounding it.

Theories of signs and sign systems are part of a branch of linguistics known as semiotics. According to Daniel Chandler of Aberystwyth University, semiotics holds that all signs have a signifier attached to them that helps individuals determine the meaning of the signs. Signs are important indicators of information in all societies.

Conventional symbols appear on signs that are understood widely. For example, if a person wants to mime choking, he places his hands around his throat. This is a worldwide conventional symbol for choking. The cartoon heart is a conventional symbol for love. Conventional symbols are applicable to communities that are less wide, as well. In surveying and map making, conventional symbols help people who may speak different languages understand topography and other information about the terrain. Certain types of lines on a map indicate water, while other types of lines indicate rough terrain or mountains. In education, letter grades act as conventional symbols of a person’s achievement or success level.