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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 19, Issue 1 (Feb 2008)


In defence of iconicity

John Haiman
  • Corresponding author
  • Macalester College, USA.
  • Email:
Published Online: 2008-03-12 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COG.2008.002


A number of iconically motivated grammatical distinctions, among them that between alienable and inalienable possession in Japanese and Korean, are graded. Haspelmath's Zipfian frequency hypothesis may be able to accommodate these facts (lowest bulk is most frequent, middle bulk is less frequent, and maximal bulk is maximally infrequent), but until more data are forthcoming, iconicity alone makes the correct predictions in those cases, and (crucially) in others where bulk is simply not the grammatical variable at issue in signaling markedness (as for example, the distinction between nominative/absolutive and ergative/accusative in Kurdish). The productivity (not just the fortuitous correctness) of an iconically motivated “more form” implies “more meaning” principle is attested in: (a) the (pre)history of the development of nominalizations in Romanian and Khmer, (b) in the frequent operation of “Watkins' Law” whereby 3sg. forms are interpreted as if they were zero-marked, even when they are not, and (c) grammaticality judgments about the differences between anaphoric epithets and structurally identical non-anaphoric noun phrases like the pig in English. Like reduced form, so too elaborated form, may have a number of motivations, not only iconic and economic (both cognitive), but also esthetic. It is probably misconceived to look for only one motivating factor to account for most observed grammatical facts, although the motivating factors are more easily identified when they operate alone.

Keywords: iconicity; frequency; productivity

About the article

*Contact address: Linguistics Search, Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105, USA.

Received: 2007-02-28

Published Online: 2008-03-12

Published in Print: 2008-02-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COG.2008.002. Export Citation

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