LINGUIST List 20.1353

Thu Apr 09 2009

Review: Linguistic Theories: De Cuypere (2008)

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        1.    Rong Chen, Limiting the Iconic

Message 1: Limiting the Iconic
Date: 09-Apr-2009
From: Rong Chen <>
Subject: Limiting the Iconic
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AUTHOR: Ludovic De Cuypere TITLE: Limiting the Iconic SERIES: Iconicity in Language and Literature 6 PUBLISHER: John Benjamins YEAR: 2008

Rong Chen, California State University, San Bernardino

INTRODUCTION 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 [1965]) ''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).

SUMMARY 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 [1936]), 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.

EVALUATION 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 introspection. (192)

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.

REFERENCES 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 _Iconicity in Syntax_, J. Haiman (ed.), 187-220. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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.

Haiman, J. 2008. In defense of iconicity. _Cognitive Linguistics_ 19: 59-66.

Haspelmath, M. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries. _Cognitive Linguistics_ 19:1-34.

Humboldt, W. 1988 [1936]. _On Language: The Diversity of Human Language Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind_. Trans. by P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jakobson, R. 1971 [1965]. Quest for the essence of language. In _Selected Writings_, 345-359. The Hague: Mouton.

Langacker, R. W. 1987. _Foundations of Cognitive Grammar_ Vol. 1. _Theoretical Prerequisites_. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, R. W. 1991. _Foundations of Cognitive Grammar_ Vol. 2. _Descriptive Application_. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lakoff, G. 1987. _Woman, fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peirce, C. 1958. _Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol. VI: Science and Philosophy_. A. W. Burks (ed.). Cambridge, MASS: Harvard University Press.

Saussure, F. de. 1968 [1911]. _Cours de linguistigue generale_. Critical edition by R. Engler, vol. 1. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

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 cognition and space cognition_ 6.2:85-110.

Talmy, L. 2000a. _Towards a cognitive Semantics_ vol. 1. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Talmy, L. 2000b. _Towards a cognitive Semantics_ vol. 2. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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 Bibliography_
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