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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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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...

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