While signals in evolutionary biology are usually defined as “acts or traits that have evolved because of their effect on others”, work on gestures and vocalizations in various animal taxa have revealed population‐ or even individual‐specific meanings of social signals. These results strongly suggest that communicative acts that are like signals with regard to both form and function (meaning) can also be acquired ontogenetically, and we discuss direct evidence for such plasticity in captive settings with rich opportunities for repeated social interactions with the same individuals. Therefore, in addition to evolved signals, we can recognize invented signals that are acquired during ontogeny (either through ontogenetic ritualization or social transmission). Thus, both gestures and vocalizations can be inventions or innate adaptations. We therefore propose to introduce innate versus invented signals as major distinct categories, with invented signals subdivided into dyad‐specific and cultural signals. We suggest that elements of some signals may have mixed origins, and propose criteria to recognize acquired features of signals. We also suggest that invented signals may be most common in species with intentional communication, consistent with their ubiquity in humans, and that the ability to produce them was a necessary condition for the evolution of language.