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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 3. Towards a theory of motivation



“What I’m asking is, are they natural? Could they be constructs?”

“Is a termite mound a construct? Beaver dam? Space ship? Of course. Were they built by naturally-evolved organisms, acting naturally? They were. So tell me how anything in the whole deep multiverse can ever be anything but natural?”

I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice. “You know what I mean.” “It’s a meaningless question. Get your head out of the Twentieth Century.”

Peter Watts, Blindsight (2006: 250–251)

In the above excerpt from Peter Watts’s science-fiction novel Blindsight, two protagonists, Siri Keeton and Robert Cunningham, discuss the anatomy of an extraterrestrial organism. Siri wants to know whether the “keratinised plastic cuticle” of the alien’s skin can be considered a product of natural processes. According to Cunningham, the question is pointless not because the cuticle cannot be unequivocally classified as either natural or artificial, but because the distinction between the natural and the artificial is grounded in fallacious assumptions. The distinction is a relic of the 20th century science that has no place in the late 21st century, when the conversation between the two protagonists takes place.

The distinction between the natural and the artificial is the legacy of not only the 20th century biology, but also of the 20th century linguistics. As already discussed in Chapter 2, “naturalness,” or to be more precise the lack of it, is the key assumption...

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