Cognitive Semiotics Seminar: "There’s nothing arbitrary about the linguistic sign" (Bodo Winter, University of Birmingham)
Bodo Winter has been one of researchers at the forefront of the recent "iconicity turn" in the language sciences, with special focus on sound symbolism, and has persuasively argued that the notion of "arbitrariness" should NOT be considered a "design feature" (sensu Hockett) of language. In this guest seminar on zoom, he will present both empirical and conceptual arguments on this topic. Note that he mentions the monograph of Rudi Keller (1998) A Theory of Linguistic Signs. OUP, which is a modern classic that cognitive semiotics will need to delve into! All are welcome, with cameras on from 3pm. The talk will start at 3:15, CET.
Iconicity is the perceived resemblance between aspects of a sign’s meaning and aspects of a sign’s form. Iconicity comes up in all sorts of linguistic phenomena in both spoken and signed languages, including iconic prosody (e.g., speaking faster when talking about fast events), co-speech gestures (e.g., pinching the fingers together to signal a small quantity), and onomatopoeia (e.g., words such as bang and peep). There currently is an iconicity revolution sweeping through linguistics and cognitive science, with dozens of experimental, corpus, and typological studies finding that many more aspects of language are iconic than was previously believed, including basic vocabulary words. In my talk, I will review some of the recent empirical work from our lab on this topic.
However, the bulk of my talk will be devoted to trying to make sense of the morass of partially overlapping and partially conflicting definitions in this field, which suffers from much confusion about what is ‘iconic’ and what is ‘arbitrary’. Recent research in philosophy (Planer & Kalkman, 2021; Gasparri et al., in press) problematizes the fact that the literature features several logically distinct notions of arbitrariness, including “arbitrariness as non-iconicity”, “arbitrariness as non-systematicity”, “arbitrariness as conventionality”, and more. I will argue that we should abandon the notion of arbitrariness once and for all, if only to avoid this terminological confusion. More importantly, we can derive all the properties that linguists call “arbitrary” from conventionality. Once a convention is established, the form-meaning link can be anything, thereby emancipating the sign from its reliance on iconicity or other motivated principles. We then get that what researchers call “arbitrary” ‘for free’ via regular processes of language change. Based on Keller’s (1998) sign theory and Flaksman’s (2017, 2020) notion of de-iconicization, I will argue that it is possible to speak about all those aspects that traditionally fall under the banner of ‘arbitrariness’ via the lens of conventionalization, and we get a much clearer picture of language as a result.