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Motivating the Symbolic

Towards a Cognitive Theory of the Linguistic Sign


Hubert Kowalewski

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.

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Chapter 2. Dyads, tryads, and tetrads: the major models of the sign



Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.

Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (1976: 7)

The notion of arbitrariness of the linguistic sign was introduced by the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand Saussure in his seminal book Course in General Linguistics from 1916. Even though the emphasis on the arbitrary nature of language is a result of a fairly selective reading of Course, the claim has become a cornerstone of modern linguistics. Ferdinand Saussure is also the father of semiotics, a field of study where, as it is commonly believed, “it is possible to argue about everything.” The very definition of this discipline is no exception: while most theorists would agree that semiotics is the study of signs, Thomas Sebeok defines a much broader object of studies, claiming that “[semiotics] is not about something, unless you want to say that it is about semiosis”25 (Sebeok 1990: 2; original emphasis; after Kilpinen 2006). Yet even after accepting the “popular” claim that semiotics is the study of signs, problems remain. At this point, the difficulty is as fundamental and even more formidable: it is necessary to answer a still controversial question: “What precisely is a sign?” Although there are several answers to the question given...

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