Motivating the Symbolic

Towards a Cognitive Theory of the Linguistic Sign

by Hubert Kowalewski (Author)
©2016 Monographs 212 Pages


The book outlines a new approach to the study of motivation in language, which is firmly rooted in the paradigm of cognitive linguistics, but it is developed in critical (and constructive) dialogue with classical theories in semiotics: Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics and Charles S. Peirce’s model of the sign. The author’s proposal hinges upon the Peircean distinction between iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs, but the classical typology is reinterpreted within the framework of cognitive linguistics. The approach does not seek to "categorize" different linguistic expressions into one of the three Peircean types, but attempts to capture the dynamicity of meanings in terms of iconicity, indexicality, and conventionality. The book presents an analysis of selected vocabulary and morphosyntactic structures of English.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Typographic conventions
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Cognitive Linguistics: Language vs. Reality
  • 1.1 Basic assumptions
  • 1.1.1 Cognitive vs. generative grammar
  • 1.1.2 Symbolic units
  • 1.2 Categorization
  • 1.2.1 Aristotelian vs. prototype models of categorization
  • Early research into prototype categorization
  • Family resemblance and encyclopedic knowledge
  • Taxonomies of categories
  • 1.2.2 Alternative models of categorization
  • 1.3 Metaphor and metonymy
  • 1.3.1 Metaphor – linguistic or conceptual?
  • 1.3.2 Systematicity and partiality of metaphorical mappings
  • 1.3.3 Grounding of metaphors and embodiment
  • 1.3.4 Metonymy as a conceptual device
  • 1.3.5 Metonymy: between reference and signification
  • 1.4 Subjectification
  • Chapter 2. Dyads, tryads, and tetrads: the major models of the sign
  • 2.1 Ferdinand Saussure
  • 2.1.1 Langage, langue, parole
  • 2.1.2 The linguistic sign
  • 2.1.3 Language as a system
  • 2.1.4 Arbitrariness and motivation
  • 2.2 Charles Sanders Peirce
  • 2.2.1 Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness
  • 2.2.2 Sign
  • 2.3 The sign in cognitive linguistics
  • 2.3.1 Partial autonomy of phonological and conceptual structures
  • 2.3.2 Plunging into the depth: from semiotic dyad to semiotic tetrad
  • Chapter 3. Towards a theory of motivation
  • 3.1 Another look at Saussure and Peirce
  • 3.2 Towards a definition
  • 3.2.1 What counts as motivation?
  • 3.2.2 Reasons for redefining naturalness
  • 3.2.3 Untying the Gordian knot (of terminology)
  • 3.3 Factors of motivation
  • 3.3.1 Conceptualized similarity
  • 3.3.2 Conceptualized contiguity
  • 3.3.3 Conventionality
  • 3.3.4 Concerted motivation
  • 3.4 Subjectifying the symbolic
  • 3.4.1 Silverfish and frostbite
  • 3.4.2 Skylight
  • 3.4.3 Laser
  • 3.5 Limits of the new approach
  • Chapter 4. Practical applications of the new framework
  • 4.1 Cuckoo
  • 4.2 Grasshopper
  • 4.3 Monokini
  • 4.4 -punk
  • 4.5 Dress out
  • 4.6 Packet Internet Groper
  • 4.7 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…
  • 4.7.1 Sound symbolism and imitative iconicity
  • 4.7.2 Structural iconicity
  • Concluding remarks
  • References

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Typographic conventions

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Linguistic motivation is one of the oldest topics within the study of language. The basic questions concerning the motivated nature of language are older than linguistics itself: one of the earliest (if not the earliest) discussions on what is nowadays understood as motivation dates back to the 5th century BC and Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. In this dialogue Socrates and Hermogenes debate over the relationship between words and phenomena denoted by these words: is the phonological shape of an expression determined by pure convention or essential properties of referent?

From the point of view of the 21st century semiotics, Cratylus remains an outstanding text for several reasons. First of all, it documents one of the earliest debates on “linguistics” in Western civilization. Obviously, the approach to language in the Platonic dialogue differs significantly from modern linguistics, exemplified by meticulous analysis of morphological and syntactic patterns, psychophysiological details of speech production, comprehensive description of lexicons of various languages, cross-cultural comparative studies, and many more. The questions asked by Plato and his contemporaries are questions about the very nature of language, and from today’s perspective can be viewed as more “philosophical” than “scientific.” They appear to be less complex, but also more fundamental. It is hardly surprising that when linguistics was defined as a fully-fledged discipline in early 20th century, the questions of motivation surfaced immediately in the theory of Ferdinand Saussure, and the answer became the cornerstone of the new branch of science.

For several decades the problem discussed by Socrates and Hermogenes seemed to be settled by Ferdinand de Saussure, who postulated that the linguistic sign is arbitrary. However, the post-structuralist revolution after the Second World War called for a deep revision, and often downright rejection of the structuralist legacy of the Swiss linguist. The new intellectual spirit sipped slowly, but ceaselessly into the study of language. Even though most linguists recognize Saussurean roots of their discipline, few of them accept strict Saussureanism unquestioningly. Thus, questions about motivation and arbitrariness boomeranged, especially in cognitive linguistics. This book seeks to provide an answer, rather than the answer to these questions. It is intended to be a voice (not the first one, and most certainly not the last) in the debate that has lasted (with long periods of silence) for more than two millennia.

Chapter 1 of this book presents the paradigm of cognitive linguistics. As opposed to more formalist approaches, most notably Chomskyan linguistics, which ← 13 | 14 → views language as an inborn mental mechanism for grammatically correct sentences, the cognitive paradigm sees language as a direct reflection (or more technically, symbolization) of semantic content of the human mind. Since cognitive linguists believe that language reflects human understanding of the world, questions about motivation, that is factors shaping linguistic forms of concepts, come naturally in this tradition and lie at the very heart of the theory of language. Before we delve any further into the state-of-the-art of the research in motivation, it is necessary to clarify one potential source of confusion. Motivation as defined in this book is an omnipresent force inside language or human mind that determines every single aspect of language. Perhaps, to make the terminology crystal clear, the term semantic motivation should be used, because motivation is understood here as various ways in which the structure of meaning influences the structure of form used to express this meaning. This, however, is not to claim that all aspects of linguistic form are shaped by meaning alone. Some linguistic changes are indeed guided by semantic processes like metaphorization or metonymization. Nonetheless, some linguistic changes have little to do with meaning: some of them may result from internal dynamics of linguistic system or social dynamics in community of speakers. One example of such a “meaning-independent” change is the Great Vowel Shift in English, when a change of one vowel led to a number of changes in the whole vocalic system. While semantics might have made some contribution to the Great Vowel Shift (perhaps changes arose because speakers wanted to avoid undesired homonymy between words the vowel shift), the phonological forms did not change due to semantic factors, but because of other sound changes. Thus, the Great Vowel Shift will not be treated as an instance of a (semantically) motivated linguistic change.

Chapter 2 sketches the state-of-the-art of the study in motivation, focusing on three main areas of linguistics and semiotics that contribute to the study of motivation: the linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure, the semiotics of Charles S. Peirce, and recent developments in cognitive linguistics, especially Ronald W. Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar with contributions from John R. Taylor. The share of Ferdinand Saussure in the study of motivation is somewhat forgotten: the scholar is remembered primarily as the one who formulated the principle of arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, which effectively banished the notion of “naturalness” from linguistics. However, the belief that Saussure downplayed the role of motivation is a result of rather selective reading of Course in General Linguistics, which, for better or for worse, has become the dominant interpretation of the Saussurean theory of language. A more careful reading reveals that the Swiss scholar offers valuable insights into the subject of linguistic motivation, even though he focuses on one particular type of this phenomena, i.e. the syntagmatic motivation. Despite the fact that Saussure’s treatment of phenomena like iconic motivation is highly unsatisfactory ← 14 | 15 → from the modern perspective, I do not wish to discard the entirety of Saussurean approach; instead, critical evaluation and a progressive problem-shift (in Lakatos’s understanding, cf. Lakatos 1980) will be offered in the third chapter.

Charles Sanders Peirce main interests lied in the field of semiotics of mathematics and logic, but it is he, rather than Saussure, who is the most frequently quoted by modern motivation researchers. The key contribution of the American philosopher into the discipline of semiotics is the tripartite model of sign and a “typology” of signs. The distinction between the index, the icon, and the symbol have been zealously (and usually over-zealously) taken over by linguists, who tend to see them as the most important tools for analyzing motivation in language. Even though Peirce’s theory suffers from a number of serious limitations when applied in linguistics (that will be become apparent after a closer inspection in the third chapter), his methodological framework will serve as an invaluable source of inspiration for formulating a more detailed and comprehensive theory of motivation. In particular, the concepts of the index, the icon and the symbol, which seem to successfully recognize many aspects of motivation, will be modified and adapted to the overall theoretical framework of cognitive linguistics in order to increase its practical explanatory potential in the analysis of actual linguistic data.

The third area of motivation studies outlined in Chapter 2 is the contemporary cognitive theory of language and the linguistic sign. While cognitive linguistics is a conglomerate of different, and not always mutually compatible, theories and approaches, all of them are founded on a number of basic assumptions about the nature of language. Two authors will be discussed in this section: Ronald W. Langacker and John R. Taylor. For both scholars the linguistic sign is essentially Saussurean in nature, i.e. it is constituted by the semantic and the phonological poles connected by an associative link. However, the authors modify and expand the original model proposed by the Swiss linguist and pave the way to a more comprehensive cognitive study of iconicity and other types of motivation in language.

Chapter 3 offers a new comprehensive approach to motivation. The new model incorporates the syntagmatic motivation discussed by Saussure, the iconic motivation studied by modern cognitive linguists, and phenomena which constitute an important aspect of linguistic motivation but receive less attention from researchers. This chapter begins, however, with critical evaluations of Saussure’s and Peirce’s theories of motivation,1 in order to demonstrate that neither of them, ← 15 | 16 → despite invaluable insights, is satisfactory from the point of view of the questions asked by modern linguists. Hence a need for a more complete model capturing all the complexities of motivation in language proposed in the following part of the chapter. The evaluation is followed by a brief overview of the phenomena that linguists classify as motivation, and on this basis a comprehensive definition of motivation is proposed. This definition revisits the traditional concept of the “naturalness” of the linguistic sign (originally proposed and rejected by Saussure), and uses the revised version of this notion as the foundation of the new theory of motivation and linguistic sign in general. In the reinterpreted understanding of the term “natural” the word becomes synonymous with “normal,” “expected,” and “cognitively appealing,” rather than “coming from nature” and “not made by humans.” In order to parametrize the new understanding of motivation, three factors contributing to “naturalness” will be discussed in more detail: conceptualized contiguity, conceptualized similarity, and conventionality.

Furthermore, this chapter includes a section on the terminology used in reference to various aspects of motivation. Qualifying and disambiguating the terms symbolic, motivated, arbitrary, and natural is more than just a methodological neatness. The lack of precise, clear, or at least mutually non-conflicting definitions of the above terms leads to many misunderstandings in the field of semiotics in general and linguistics in particular. For example, I will argue that problems with categorizing a sign as either conventional or iconic, reflect not classificatory difficulties, but terminological vagueness of the terms “conventional” and “iconic.” Once a coherent set of definitions is proposed, many such problems evaporate (although new problems may take their place). For this reason, establishing unambiguous terminological conventions is as important a part of the the new framework for analyzing motivation as formulating a definition of the phenomenon and identifying related factors. In addition, this part of the book provides an opportunity to explore nuances of the new approach proposed in this book.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 210 pp., 36 b/w ill., 1 b/w table

Biographical notes

Hubert Kowalewski (Author)

Hubert Kowalewski is an assistant professor at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His main professional interests include cognitive linguistics, non-linguistic semiotics, methodology of linguistics, and philosophy of science. He has published papers on motivation in language and visual signs, Conceptual Blending Theory, and speculative fiction.


Title: Motivating the Symbolic