An attempt at a non-linguistic semiology: the case for Accounting Semiology

Almost half a century after its publication, Barthes (1964) looks back at Saussure's Cours with frustration. In a world of mass communication one would have expected the science of sign systems to be in great demand. Semiology's failure to take a significant role in modern world, continues Barthes, derives from the fact that all meaningful sign systems are eventually reduced into language. As the focus is purely linguistic, there is no interest in the broader semiology.

The purpose of this study is to assess the feasibility of a significant non-linguistic semiology, a financial-numeric semiology: accounting semiology. Accounting systems are sets of principles according to which financial information pertaining to publically-traded companies is communicated through distinct utterances: financial statements. The power of financial accounting cannot be overstated: it is one of the cornerstones of capital markets, based on which economic resources are allocated.

Mainstream theory views accounting as a technical instrument for representation of economic phenomena. Recent critical accounting studies, on the other hand, have dealt with its non-economic aspects. However, such studies have focused on external spheres – such as culture, politics, and institutional power - impacting, or impacted by, accounting. This has been a discussion equivalent to Saussure's "external linguistics". A semiological research of accounting would study it as "internal linguistics"; it would focus on accounting's "signifying capacity" (WGL, 158).

Accounting fits well with three of Saussure's definitions for semiology: it is a social sign system (CGL, 16), it is a theory of relational values (WGL, 203, 238), and it is a domain of articulations (CGL, 113). Semiology's principles may offer new perspectives in accounting studies: (i) Accounting's social characteristics, where meaning is derived by use and not only by standard-setters; (ii) The arbitrariness of the accounting sign, where the same economic phenomenon is signified differently in different accounting systems; (iii) The classificatory nature of accounting systems, where rules of form are used to organise, frame and operationalise the otherwise incomprehensible flux of economic activities; (iv) Immutability and mutability in accounting; (v) The linear nature of accounting's statements.

Furthermore, semiology's most innovative proposals may be relevant to accounting's most challenging issues. First, the well-debated insufficiency of accounting representation may be understood as immanent, and the Saussurean concept of reciprocal articulation can provide a complementing perspective: accounting entities are a result of delimitation, not less than of representation (e.g., intangible assets are defined by their delimitation from the general goodwill). Second, the mutually exclusive types of accounting value (cash-flow, difference-based, and entity-specific) can be rethought as different dimensions (intrinsic, associative and syntagmatic) of a whole semiological value matrix.

Like its sibling discipline, linguistics, accounting deals with a complex phenomenon which is human, social, historical, non-material, non-substantial and not purely rational. Assessing accounting as semiology may be beneficial for both: it unpacks conceptual and ethical features of accounting, including the non-natural, non-neutral and non-passive aspects of the overlooked signs; and it manifests certain features – not exclusively linguistic features - of semiology as such.

Barthes, R. (1968). Elements of semiology (translated by A. Lavers and C. Smith). New York: Hill and Wang (first published in 1964 as Éléments de Sémiologie, Communications, 4, pp. 91-135).

Saussure, F. de (2011). Course in general linguistics (translated by W. Baskin, edited by P. Meisel and H. Saussy). New York: Columbia University Press (first published in 1916 as Cours de linguistique générale, edited by C. Bally and A. Sechehaye with the collaboration of A. Riedlinger, Lausanne and Paris: Payot) (CGL).

Saussure, F. de (2006). Writings in general linguistics (translated by C. Sanders and M. Pires). Oxford: Oxford University Press (first publised in 2002 as Écrits de linguistique générale, edited by S. Bouquet and R. Engler with the collaboration of A. Weil, Gallimard: Paris) (WGL).

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