AUTHOR: Ludovic De Cuypere
TITLE: Limiting the Iconic
SERIES: Iconicity in Language and Literature 6
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Rong Chen, California State University, San Bernardino
The nature of the relationship between language and reality - whether it is
arbitrary or iconic - lies in the very center of any linguistic theory. The
arbitrary view originated in Saussure (1911) and dominated linguistics for the
next half century. The iconic view made its first appearance in Jakobson's (1971
) ''Quest for the Essence of Language'' and has been gaining momentum ever
since, due in large part to works by Haiman (1980, 1985) and Givon (1985). The
recent debate between Haspelmath (2008) on the one hand and Haiman (2008) and
Croft (2008) on the other serves as a testimony to the unwaning interest in the
topic among students of language. The monograph under review - De Cuypere's
_Limiting the Iconic_ - makes a significant contribution to this all important
issue by its thorough research, balanced assessment of the scholarship on the
subject, and - ultimately - its well-reasoned and well-supported theory of
iconicity (although, as I will discuss at the end of the review, more
fleshing-out of the theory seems needed).
The book is divided into seven chapters besides an introduction and conclusion.
Chapter 1, ''Language and reality in early Greek thought,'' traces the debate all
the way back to the pre-Socratics. The most important figure in Greek antiquity
on the subject, the author informs us, is Plato, who sets up to investigate the
similarity between language and reality, and Aristotle, who contends that ''the
sign comprises two different relations: a conventional relation between sounds
and meaning, and a similarity relation between meaning and object'' (30).
Chapter 2 fast forwards to Saussure, to whom the arbitrary nature of language
and reality is attributed. De Cuypere, however, convincingly argues that, for
Saussure, the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is not a dogma, but a maxim.
In other words, on Saussure's view, the language system is primarily and
fundamentally arbitrary; but it allows for secondary iconicity. This, we are to
realize, is essentially the position the author of the monograph will defend in
later chapters, with more detailed analysis and argumentation.
Chapter 3 begins by discussing the semiotic approach to iconicity and ends up
offering the bulk of the author's theory of iconicity. Finding Charles Peirce's
(1958) semiotic approach wanting, De Cuypere proposes the notion of iconic
ground. Crudely, iconic ground refers to the similarity observed between a sign
and what is signified by it. Such similarity does not necessarily lead to
iconicity but offers a potential for it. ''The fitness American, for instance,
offers a potential ground which relates Reagan to all Americans'' (68). Hence one
can use Reagan's picture as an iconic sign to represent all Americans, which
would then constitute what the author calls the ''iconicity proper'' (68).
Further, De Cuypere follows Sonesson (2001, among others) to posit two levels of
Iconicity proper: primary iconicity and secondary iconicity. Primary iconicity
is involved when the recognition of similarity establishes a sign function. A
picture of a face, for instance, is interpreted as a sign of a face. In
secondary iconicity, on the other hand, the sign function is already presupposed
before the similarity relation is perceived. Such an iconicity relation does not
determine the interpretation of the sign but adds extra meaning to it.
Chapter 4 of the book is devoted to discussions of Jakobson's contributions to
iconicity. On the one hand, De Cuypere outlines how Jakobson expands the
iconicity principle from phonology to other levels of language. On the other
hand, De Cuypere critiques Jakobson's ''sloppy terminology'' and argues instead
that his own distinction between iconic ground and iconic proper would help to
bring order to the issue.
Chapter 5 is a survey of literature on iconicity. The author analyzes previous
studies on iconicity in phonology, morphology, and syntax to demonstrate that
these studies all fall short in their claims: much of what these authors thought
to be iconicity on the different dimensions of language is in actuality not
iconicity. It is mostly similarity between a sign and the signified. Similarity,
the author reminds us repeatedly, is best viewed as iconic ground. As such, it
only offers the potential for iconicity, particularly secondary iconicity. It
does not necessarily constitute iconicity.
In Chapter 6, De Cuypere discusses the cognitive foundations of iconicity.
Following Humboldt (1988 ), the author argues that iconicity in language
is the manifestation of linguistic cognition. He then ties his theory of
iconicity with Coseriu's (1985) theory of linguistic competence. On Coseriu's
view, linguistic competence is categorized into elocutional knowledge (speaking
in general), idiomatic knowledge (concrete particular language), and expressive
knowledge (discourse). De Cuypere argues that iconicity exists most notably in
the last category: expressive knowledge. This is consonant with the author's
overall view of iconicity advanced in Chapter 3, where he makes the distinction
between primary and secondary iconicity. Specifically, when a speaker invokes
iconicity, she is attempting to create extra meaning with her expressive
knowledge. That extra meaning is created based on the conventional relation
between language and reality, hence being secondary iconicity.
Chapter 7 is essentially an application of the author's theory to the
development of double negation in languages, followed with Conclusions, in which
the author succinctly summarizes the entire book and points out possibilities
for further research.
Growing out of the author's dissertation, this book reads every bit like a
monograph by a seasoned linguist. The survey of the literature on the topic is
thorough and the author's critiques of previous scholars' theories and
constructs are detailed, careful, and balanced. Of all the chapters, Chapter 5
strikes this reviewer as the most substantive and impressive: De Cuypere
analyzes major works on iconicity to argue that most of these authors are off
the mark. You think hard and eventually agree that he makes sense. At the end of
the book, you think hard again and decide that he is largely right. Then you
realize that you have read a very good book, a very important book, a book that
you would come back to for information and inspiration later in your work.
I do have a couple of quibbles with De Cuypere, though.
First, I felt, after finishing the book, that the reader would appreciate more
elucidation of the author's theory and/or more application of the theory. The
author's distinction between iconic ground and iconic proper, for instance,
seems a valid distinction. However, if iconic ground is equated to similarity,
in what way is it different from the sort of thing that underlies other things
such as metaphor? If it is not different, which could very well be the case, the
reader would appreciate being told of it. In addition, a more detailed analysis
of examples to show how one gets from iconic ground to iconicity itself would
put a suspicious mind more at ease. Moving to the distinction between primary
iconicity and secondary iconicity, I felt that De Cuypere is vague on whether
the former exists. He repeatedly says that the linguistic sign is fundamentally
arbitrary (which I take to mean the level of primary iconicity); but what does
''fundamentally'' mean? In sum, then, readers would get a better idea of De
Cuypere's theory if they were provided with a taxonomy, even very skeletal, of
the two types of iconicity.
Second, De Cuypere appears to have mischaracterized the theoretical framework of
cognitive linguistics. He writes that the cognitive approach to linguistics
championed by scholars like Langacker treat language as merely a reflection of
pre-linguistic thought. A more accurate characterization would be that language
is part of cognition, a belief that underlies the entire cognitive enterprise
(Langacker 1987, 1991; Talmy 2000a, 2000b; Lakoff 1987, among others). As such,
language is viewed as a means to instantiate, manifest, and - according to at
least some cognitive linguists - even influence cognition. This is almost
precisely the position De Cuypere defends. Unfortunately, judging by the paucity
of citation in the book of works by cognitive linguists, De Cuypere seems not to
have realized that he has company galore among cognitive linguists.
While the book is extremely well written - c1ear, smooth, and concise - a few
typos and occasional oddities of grammar have eluded editing. The one particular
grammatical feature, the use of 'because', caught my attention because it
appears at least three times:
(1) Iconic language structures are claimed to be better adapted because
reflective of the conceptual framework of thought. (173)
(2) (i) is irrelevant because generally acknowledged as a linguistic truism. (177)
(3) …the only evidence for the conceptualist view is unreliable because based on
These qualms are all local and minor, which should not compromise De Cuypere's
contribution to linguistics, particularly to the all important debate about the
nature of the linguistic sign, the concept of markedness, and a host of other
things that every serious linguist has to wrestle with whatever his or her
persuasion. This book is hence a must read. It also makes a joyful read, a read
that offers much fodder for thought.
Coseriu, E. 1985. Linguistic competence: What is it really? _The Modern Language
Review_ 80: xxv-xxxv.
Croft, W. 2008. On iconicity of distance. _Cognitive Linguistics_ 19: 49-58.
Givon, T. 1985. Iconicity, isomorphism, and non-arbitrary coding in syntax. In
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Haiman, J. 1980. The iconicity of grammar: Isomorphism and motivation.
_Language_ 56(3): 515-540.
Haiman, J. (ed.) 1985. _Iconicity in Syntax_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Haspelmath, M. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical
asymmetries. _Cognitive Linguistics_ 19:1-34.
Humboldt, W. 1988 . _On Language: The Diversity of Human Language
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Sonesson, G. 2001. From semiosis to ecology: On the theory of iconicity and its
consequences for the ontology of the Iifeworld. _VISIO: thematic issue: Cultural
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Rong Chen is Professor of Linguistics at California State University, San
Bernardino. He has published dozens of articles in various areas of linguistics
such as pragmatics, discourse analysis, politeness, stylistics, semantics,
conceptual metaphor, and cognitive linguistics. He is the author of _English
Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction_ (Cognitive Linguistics Research
25, Mouton de Gruyter, 2003) and a co-editor of _Cognitive Linguistics