Naturalness and iconicity in language

Naturalness and iconicity in language. Ed. by Klaas Willems and Ludovic De Cuypere. (Iconicity in language and literature 7.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2008. Pp. x, 249. ISBN 9789027243430. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by Heiko Narrog, Tohoku University

The question of iconicity in language recently enjoyed a revival primarily in the functional and cognitive approaches to language popular in the 1980s. Nowadays iconicity commands interest beyond linguistics in a number of neighboring disciplines such as philosophy and semiotics. However, the field is still full of open questions such as whether there is something like iconicity in language at all. Often associated with iconicity is the concept of naturalness, which, in theories like natural morphology, seems to presuppose some concept of iconicity. The present volume focuses on these topics, beginning with rather broad philosophical and semiotic approaches before advancing towards more concrete linguistic studies.

An introduction by the editors (1–23) is followed by four papers in philosophy and semiotics. In ‘Philosophical naturalism and linguistic epistemology’ (25–46) Lia Formigari contrasts two major forms of naturalism in modern linguistics—namely, what she labels as Noam Chomsky’s internalist naturalism and Willard Van Orman Quine’s externalist naturalism. Formigari sees the choice between these two types of naturalism as essentially methodological but suggests that Quinean naturalism may be ultimately more attractive to linguists as it does not ‘isolate language from other cognitive and behavioral competences’ (44).

Based on his work in pictorial semiotics, Göran Sonesson (‘Prolegomena to a general theory of iconicity considerations on language, gesture, and pictures’; 47–72) points out a potential distinction of six different types of iconic relationships and argues against scales or degrees of iconicity.

In ‘Semiotic foundations of natural linguistics and diagrammatic iconicity’ (73–100), Winfried Nöth suggests that iconicity is inherent in all kinds of well-formed linguistic constructions. The phenomena usually discussed under the heading of iconicity merely exhibit an extra degree of it.

Henning Andersen’s ‘Naturalness and markedness’ (101–19) marks a shift to papers on linguistics proper within this volume. In his contribution, Andersen compares naturalness theory and markedness theory and concludes that markedness theory better accounts for variation and change essentially subsuming naturalness theory.

In ‘Natural and unnatural sound patterns: A pocket field guide’ (121–48) Juliette Blevins tries to clarify and exemplify the notions of natural sound patterns as patterns that can be explained in terms of how humans articulate and perceive speech. Adducing evidence from various types of research, she argues for keeping the issue of naturalness in phonetics and phonology strictly separate from the same issue in grammar.

José Carlos Prado-Alonso’s ‘The iconic function of full inversion in English’ (149–65) is a corpus-based study of full inversion involving prepositional phrases, as in the sentence On the back seat was a heap of packages. He concludes that full inversion has different discourse functions, which depend on the type of text genre in which it is used.

In ‘What is iconic about polysemy? A contribution to research on diagrammatic transparency’ (167–87) Daniela Marzo claims that polysemy, in contrast to conventional thinking, is in fact iconic in terms of diagrammatic transparency. A questionnaire study shows that transparency is greater in the case of polysemy motivated by metaphor than in the case of polysemy motivated by contiguity.

In ‘Iconicity in sign languages’ (189–214) Eline Demey, Mieke Van Herreweghe, and Myriam Vermeerbergen promote the view that iconicity is pervasive in sign languages, particularly as a kind of superstructure. They point out that one of the differences between spoken and signed languages is that in sign languages, even low-level form elements are meaningful—that is, the phonemic and the morphemic level coincide.

In the last article, ‘Arbitrary structure, cognitive grammar, and the partes orationis: A study in Polish paradigms’ (215–39), Dylan Glynn offers a cautionary tale. In contrast to cognitive grammar, which claims iconic motivation for parts of speech, Glynn’s study of the Polish vocabulary of precipitation reveals that iconic motivation cannot explain lexeme-class compositionality in this semantic field.

The introduction by the editors offers an excellent overview of issues in the study of naturalness, especially iconicity. A name index and a subject index complete this book. Iconicity is somewhat better served in this volume, especially as one of the three articles on naturalness (e.g. Formigari) discusses naturalness in a quite different sense than the editors and the other contributors (e.g. Andersen, Blevins). Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to the study of iconicity and naturalness, which will also be of interest to nonspecialists.