Bodo Winter (Birmingham): "Iconicity, and why arbitrariness is not a design feature of language"

6. detsembril peab TÜlingu ettekande kognitiivse lingvistika kaasprofessor Bodo Winter Birminghami ülikoolist. Ettekande pealkiri on "Iconicity, and why arbitrariness is not a design feature of language". Kõik huvilised on oodatud ettekannet kuulama kell 16.00-17.15 aadressil Jakobi 2-427. Loe ettekande teese alt poolt. Kogu semestri TÜlingu kava leiad siit.


Language is traditionally thought to be arbitrary. In describing his foundational “Principle I: The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign,” Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) discussed how the same concept can be expressed with completely different word forms, such as English tree versus Latin arbor. This seems to clearly evidence that form most often does not directly correspond to meaning. Iconicity, the resemblance between form and meaning, was argued to be marginal, confined to a small number of onomatopoeias, such as English bang and beep. Following Saussure, Hockett (1960) characterized arbitrariness as a “design feature” of language, something that distinguishes human language from animal communication systems. The importance of arbitrariness has been “the received view” for decades (Perniss et al., 2010), with iconicity held to be of secondary status.

In this talk, I will argue that iconicity may be a better candidate for a “design feature” than arbitrariness. The first part of my talk will be empirical, focused on evidence showing that iconicity is widespread in spoken and signed languages, where iconicity has also been evidenced to perform important functions in acquisition and evolution. The second part is more theoretical, where I will outline how discussions often confuse ‘arbitrariness’ with ‘conventionality’ (cf. Keller, 1998), or conflate the idea of alternative structures (tree versus arbor) with the separable idea of non-iconicity (Planer & Kalkman, 2021; Watson et al., 2022). Following Flaksman’s (2017, 2020) notion of “de-iconicization”, I will make a case for arbitrariness being epiphenomenal, the result of moving away from originally iconic forms via regular processes of language change. From this perspective, arbitrariness is not itself an evolutionary target. Moreover, whereas the empirical evidence shows that speakers and signers often use iconicity at various levels of linguistic analysis, it seems hard to conceive that language users would actively strive to be arbitrary in most everyday conversations. Taken together, all of this argues for reconsidering the status of arbitrariness vis-à-vis iconicity.

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