Saussure’s sound symbolism

John Joseph
University of Edinburgh

“The most celebrated opponent of the sound symbolic hypothesis,” writes Magnus (2013: 201), “was, of course, Ferdinand de Saussure”. Of course. One of Saussure’s key contributions to modern linguistics is the principle of the arbitrariness of the link between sound and meaning, or more precisely between signifier and signified within the linguistic sign, his most detailed discussion of which took place in his third course in general linguistics in 1910-11. It was carried over into the posthumous Cours de linguistique générale (1916), where it has long been the target of attacks by linguists convinced of the explanatory power of sound symbolism.

But how is it then that in the last paper he published during his lifetime, Saussure (1912) argued that a group of Latin adjectives had developed in a particular way because the shape of the diphthong in their stressed syllable is mimetic of the shape of the idea common to the words containing the diphthong?

Few investigators of iconicity have read the 1912 paper (one of the rare later studies to discuss it is Gmür 1990: 47-49). Like Magnus, they generally understand sound symbolism to be the direct opposite of the arbitrariness which Saussure professed. Since he wrote this paper just after, or even while, giving the lectures on arbitrariness, it may look like a deathbed conversion. But given that it was for a Festschrift presented to Vilhelm Thomsen on his 70th birthday, 25 January 1912, chances are that Saussure was writing the paper no later than the semester in which the lectures on arbitrariness took place. If we go back 35 years to his second published paper (Saussure 1877), it too proposed a form-meaning link, more conventional but still of the sort that typically gets classified as iconic (see Joseph 2012: 200-202). In between, we have his testimony from 1892 concerning his own synaesthetic associations of vowels with colours, textures and smells (Joseph 2012: 392-397).

This is starting to look like quite a different man from the one of whose limited vision Magnus & Co. despair. In this post I shall explain why I think their despair is misplaced.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Structuralism

ConSOLE XXIII Call for Papers

Conference of the Student Organization of Linguistics in Europe XXIII

The University Paris Diderot-Paris 7 will host the 23rd Conference of the Student Organization of Linguistics in Europe (ConSOLE XXIII) from 7 to 9 January 2015 in Paris.

Graduate students and advanced undergraduate students not having defended a Ph.D. by September 5th 2014 are invited to submit abstracts for presentations (30 minutes, plus 10 minutes discussion) or posters. Submissions in all areas of linguistics are welcome, such as syntax, semantics, phonology, morphology, phonetics, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, history of linguistic theories, diachronic linguistics and syntax in ancient grammatical traditions etc.

Deadline for submissions: September 5th, 2014

See the ConSOLE XXIII website for further details.

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Posted in Announcements, Europe, Linguistics

Program August-December 2014

[Program updated 25 August 2014.]

Saussure’s sound symbolism
John Joseph
University of Edinburgh
The lost Tesoro de ydioma yloco
Rebeca Fernández Rodríguez
Centro de Estudos em Letras (CEL)
Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD)
‘You don’t see what you don’t know': examining material aspects of manuscripts
Anna Pytlowany
University of Amsterdam
German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910
David Moore
University of Western Australia
Sapir’s form-feeling and its aesthetic background
Jean-Michel Fortis
Laboratoire d’histoire des théories linguistiques, Université Paris-Diderot
‘Some Americans could not by any means count to 1000′: The cognitive effects of the lack of names for numbers in exotic languages from the perspective of linguistic theorists before Humboldt
Gerda Haßler
Universität Potsdam
Ergativity in early Australian grammars
Clara Stockigt
University of Adelaide
In Praise of ‘Exceptionless': Linguistics Among the Human Sciences at Bloomfield and Sapir’s Chicago
Michael Silverstein
University of Chicago
La aportación de Nicolau Peixoto para el estudio del español en Portugal
Sónia Duarte
Centro de Linguística da Universidade do Porto
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Posted in Programs

The Latin-Portuguese grammarian Manuel Álvares (1526-1583) and his De institvtione grammatica libri tres

Rolf Kemmler
University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro

A little more than 440 years ago, in September 1572, the Portuguese typographer João da Barreira printed the first edition of a quite elaborate grammar of the Latin language. Little did the printer as well as the author, the Madeiran Jesuit Manuel Álvares (1526-1583), know that this first print of Emmanvelis Alvari e Societate Iesv de institvtione grammatica libri tres would constitute a momentous event in modern grammar history world-wide. With hundreds of editions throughout the following centuries, this grammar would become the Latin grammar with the greatest overall editorial and grammaticographical impact of all time.

Following the establishment of the Society of Jesus in September 1540, young Manuel Álvares was one of the first generation Portuguese Jesuits, acquiring his vast knowledge of Humanist studies in the classes of the Jesuit College of Arts (Colégio das Artes) in Coimbra that had been founded in 1548. As soon as 1552, he began teaching Latin grammar in the Portuguese Jesuit Colleges in Coimbra, Lisbon and Évora, occupying several positions of importance during the following decades. As a result of the fame for his mastery of Classical Latin that he achieved during the course of his teaching activities, the Jesuit Superior Generals Diego Laínez (1512-1565) and St. Francis Borgia (1510-1572) commissioned in 1564 the elaboration of a Latin Grammar by Álvares, to be used by the Society of Jesus:
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Posted in 16th century, Europe, Grammars, History, Portugal

Exclamatives: a grammatical category?

Els Elffers
University of Amsterdam

1. Introduction

In most Western European grammars, sentences such as Hurrah!, How very curious!, or Vienna is so dull! are categorized as exclamatory sentences or exclamatives. Next to declaratives, interrogatives and imperatives, exclamatives are usually regarded as a separate sentence type.

However, as a grammatical category, exclamatives are more problematic than other sentence types. More often than other sentence types, exclamatives are omitted from grammars, or they are dealt with very succinctly, and/or in a rather ambiguous way.

During the last decades, there has been a cry for more research into exclamatives. This is mainly due to a growth of interest in themes such as “language and emotion” and “the expressive function of language” (cf. e.g. Foolen 1997). Below, I will briefly discuss the history of thought about exclamatives. Special attention will be paid to some early insights into the problematic character of the category. I will argue that, despite some theoretical improvements, the category has remained problematic up until the present day. Solutions are within reach only if two long-standing ideas are given up: (i) the idea that exclamatives constitute an independent category, (ii) the idea that research of exclamatives exclusively belongs to the “language and emotion” area. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, History, Linguistics, Syntax, Uncategorized

Dr José Rizal and the making of a modern linguistic Messiah

Piers Kelly
Australian National University

Describing the preeminent Filipino national hero Dr. Jose Rizal as a linguist is a little like referring to Thomas Jefferson as a horticulturalist. The statement may be true, but the many other talents that Rizal developed in his short life have tended to overshadow his extraordinary flair for language. After all, it was not for his linguistic achievements that his statue stands in every town plaza of the Philippines, nor was it the motive for his execution at the hands of Spanish authorities in 1896. Rizal is renowned as a legendary defender of civil and democratic rights, and parenthetically as a political scientist, historian, novelist, poet, sculptor, journalist, linguist and eye surgeon. It is for this last accomplishment that he is always conventionally known as Doctor Jose Rizal (a distinction he shares with another great civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King).

Dr José Rizal

Dr José Rizal. Source: Pinoy Etchetera

Born in 1861 to wealthy Tagalog-speaking parents in Calamba, a town situated 50 kilometres south of Manila, Rizal was to be educated in Spanish—a language that less than ten percent of native Filipinos would have access to in his lifetime.[1] In fact, it was only as late as 1863 that a royal decree mandated the establishment of a universal primary school system with Spanish as the sole medium of instruction.[2] In the linguistically diverse Philippines it was the policy of Spanish missionaries to communicate in the language of the region in which they were stationed. Educational reforms issuing from the motherland were ignored, resisted or poorly implemented since universal literacy and linguistic competence in Spanish threatened the mediating role of the friar orders.[3] For this reason, among others, the Spanish language was never to diffuse widely across the Filipino population in the same way that it did in Latin America.[4]

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Posted in 19th century, History, Linguistics, Philippines, Phonology

SHLP4 Call for Papers

Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific SHLP4

The fourth biennial conference of the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific will take place in Alice Springs, Australia, 22-23 September 2014.

Papers on any aspect of the history of linguistics are welcome, especially those relating to the history of linguistics in Australia and the Pacific. Please send abstracts of no more than 300 words to David Moore ( by 31 July.

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Posted in Announcements

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