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Review of  Motivating the Symbolic

Reviewer: Conor Matten Snoek
Book Title: Motivating the Symbolic
Book Author: Hubert Kowalewski
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.41

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In Motivating the Symbolic: Towards a Cognitive Theory of the Linguistic Sign (2016), Hubert Kowalewski outlines a theory of motivation in the framework of Cognitive Linguistics and provides a refinement of the theoretical construct of the linguistic sign. To build his theory, Kowalewski reviews foundational concepts of Cognitive Linguistics (henceforth CL) and examines relevant parts of the semiotic theories of Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Kowalewski then puts forth a theory of motivation and applies it in a number of case studies going from the analysis of individual words to poetic verse. The book aims to bring about a ''progressive problemshift'' in the technical discourse on motivation that overcomes difficulties encountered by the older Saussurean theory. Primarily aimed at Cognitive Linguists, the book should also be of interest to semioticians, lexical semanticists, and anthropological linguists.

Chapter 1 offers an overview of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) relying almost exclusively on the foundational work in Cognitive Grammar by Ronald W. Langacker, and its elaboration in the work of John Taylor. For the most part, CL is represented effectively, and this chapter provides a good overview of the framework touching on some of the theory's central concepts. CL is compared to generative grammar in order to exemplify the distinctiveness in the approach of the former. The symbolic relation between phonological form and semantic form posited in CL is of crucial importance to Kowalewski's theory.

Chapter 2 describes the background to a theory of signs in order to lay the semiotic foundations for the theory of motivation proposed in the subsequent chapter. Semiotic ideas of Saussure, Peirce, and Langacker are discussed in turn. The focus is on Saussure's ideas of arbitrariness and motivation. Saussure admits to relative motivation in morphologically and syntactically complex constructions, but fails to give onomatopoeia the theoretical attention it deserves. Kowalewski perceives this failure as a theoretical gap that his theory can fill. As will be shown below, Kowalewski, in fact, takes this lacuna to be serious enough to warrant the rejection of the entire Saussurean theory of linguistic motivation. The next section in the chapter discusses the semiotic theory of Peirce. Peirce's theory of semiotics is complex and the discussion of it is by necessity detailed. Kowalewski does not take into account or refer to previous treatments of Peircean semiotics from a linguistic perspective (e.g. Pharies 1985). Most of the attention is devoted to Peirce's indexes and icons, which are elaborated on further in the following chapter. Finally, Kowalewski describes the model of the linguistic sign that emerges from the work of Langacker: a dyad of phonological and semantic poles both situated in conceptual space. Langacker's model is adopted by Kowalewski for his own theory.

Chapter 3 outlines Kowalewski's theory of motivation. The chapter begins with a brief overview of Peircean and Saussurean thought on motivation, in order to lay the groundwork for Kowalewski to develop his own approach. The theory of motivation is developed in two stages: first, Kowalewski argues that Saussure's arbitrary/motivated distinction is mistaken. Then, the features of a new theory of motivation are elaborated. The latter part takes up most of the sections of this chapter. Saussure's distinction is dealt with, first by attacking the notion of ‘naturalness’, then by arguing for the abandonment of the concept of arbitrariness in favour of motivation. Saussure writes of the lack of a natural connection between signifier and signified (Saussure 2011: 69); there is a very unfortunate typographic error in the relevant section in Kowalewski's text, page 125, where the opposite is claimed, but presumably not intended. Kowalewski argues that Saussure leaves the term ‘natural’ as beset by ''elusiveness'' and vagueness (Kowalewski 2016: 125). Finding this all too subjective, Kowalewski nonetheless goes on to retain it as a ''good starting point'' (ibid.) for a definition of motivation. Elaborating further, the term ‘natural’ in Saussure is found to mean ''existing in nature, not caused, made or controlled by people''. However, Kowalewski then abandons this interpretation in favour of a reading of ‘natural’ to mean ''as you would expect''. In this he appears to follow Taylor (2002), who stipulates that for any native speaker of a language, any form-meaning association found in that language is expected and hence natural. Kowalewski then claims that everything that is ‘natural’ is ‘motivated’. It then follows that, since everything in language is natural or expected from the viewpoint of the native speaker, everything must also be ‘motivated’. This conclusion renders the term ‘arbitrary’ obsolete, and Kowalewski proposes the term ‘purely conventional’ instead. Conventional relationships between signifier and signified are expected by native speakers and therefore natural or motivated. Purely conventional signs are those signs that are motivated by convention and nothing else. In Kowalewski's theory, ‘conventionality’ is a ''factor of motivation'' alongside ‘similarity’ and ‘contiguity’.

The chapter then proceeds with a description of the ''Factors of motivation'', which are ‘similarity’, ‘contiguity’, and ‘conventionality’. Kowalewski's discussion of similarity in terms of subjective construal is one of the high points of the book. Here, he successfully integrates Peircean and CL notions to inform his own approach. This approach is then exemplified further in the case studies in Chapter 4. The reader is informed that, according to Peirce, contiguity is an objective relation between the sign and the thing denoted by the sign that does not depend on ''the interpreting mind'' (Kowalewski 2016: 142). However, instead of delving deeper into the nature of subjective contiguity, Kowalewski moves on to a discussion of well-trodden examples from the literature. This analysis would not be a problem in itself if it were not for the fact that the examples do not help in developing contiguity into an analytical category.

Ignoring more recent work, such as the important contribution by Peirsman & Geeraerts (2006), and their published exchange with Croft (2006), Kowalewski is content merely to state that some relations exhibit contiguity without elaborating further. The lack of elaboration is unfortunate since a principled treatment of contiguity, especially if it is of a subjective nature, would have been of great benefit for research into motivation. In a later section, Kowalewski does approach this topic by bringing the CL notion of ‘subjectification’ into the discussion. This discussion is a valuable contribution to the study of motivation, but it is too brief. Kowalewski devotes just two pages to this innovative aspect of his theory and ultimately fails to develop something akin to a useful methodological approach.

The third type of motivation, ‘conventionality’, is then discussed, drawing heavily on Langacker (1987). Since Kowalewski has already theorized that all signs are motivated, even if they are motivated ''purely'' by convention, it comes as no surprise that convention emerges as ''the most important factor in motivation'' in the sense of the most commonly occurring – this type of motivation is, in fact, ubiquitous (Kowalewski 2016: 149).

The next section, ''concerted motivation'', deals with the interactions between the three types of motivation. Along with the discussion of similarity in motivation and some of the case studies, this section presents some of the best work in the book. However, the terminological innovations propagated in the preceding sections reveal themselves to be unhelpful at best. For example, Kowalewski follows Radden & Kövecses' (1999) proposal to consider the relationship between the phonological and semantic poles of a sign as an instance of contiguity. He takes pains to distinguish this type of contiguity from other types. The first, which could be called contiguity-type-1, is whatever holds between the phonological and semantic poles of a sign. Contiguity-type-2 is the one that readers may be more familiar with from studies of metonymy and holds, for instance, between the semantic entities of 'face' and 'person' in the classic example: ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. Given the lack of a definition of contiguity, keeping these two types of contiguity apart, as well as seeing why they should belong together, is understandably difficult.

The chapter ends with a brief illustration of the application of the theory. More detailed analyses are described in the chapter that follows.

Chapter 4 describes seven case studies applying Kowalewski's theory of motivation to analyses of English expressions. The case studies consider examples at different levels of complexity beginning with motivational processes in words (morphologically simplex and complex) and finishing with the analysis of poetic language. The case studies analyze the terms ‘cukoo’, ‘grasshopper’, ‘monokini’, ‘dress out’, ‘PING’, the bound morpheme ‘-punk’, and finally the first few lines of Wilfred Owen's poem ''Dulce et decorum est''. The term ‘-punk’ and the poetic verses receive the most detailed treatment. The recent, and well-established, etymology of the bound morpheme ‘-punk’ allows for some detailed insight into the motivations that led to the creation of this term and its later productivity in forming new terms. Tracing the origin back to the term ‘cyberpunk’, Kowalewski describes the emergence of terms such as ‘steampunk’ and ‘dieselpunk’ as the names of literary genres and styles. Kowalewski then applies the theory of structural iconicity to the first few lines of Owen's poem.


Kowalewski seeks to bring about a progressive problemshift in the theory of motivation by redefining the concepts of naturalness and arbitrariness and thereby paving the way ''for a more fine-grained description of the link between phonological form of an expression and its semantic content'' (2016: 18). While the book makes some progress toward the latter, it fails completely in achieving the former.

Kowalewski attempts to discredit Saussure's famous insight that linguistic signs are predominantly arbitrary. The counter-argument that Kowalewski attempts to construct begins by stating that, to a native speaker, all relationships between sign-form and meaning are natural. The evidence brought in support of this claim comes in two parts: (1) any speaker familiar with English conventions would expect the sound form /tɹiː/ to be associated with the concept 'tree'; (2) the sense 'expected' is a possible reading of the word ‘natural’. The author admits that (2) is likely not in line with Saussure's use of the term (Kowalewski 2016: 127), but nonetheless introduces (2) into his argument as a hypothetical. He further hypothesizes that (3) the term ‘motivated’ may be equated with ‘natural’. On the strength of the hypotheticals (2) and (3), and the premise outlined in (1), Kowalewski concludes that conventions are motivated. This argument is a classic case of a 'begging the question' fallacy, and it comes as no surprise that the further conclusion Kowalewski draws is also fallacious: ''…this approach effectively dismantles the Saussurean opposition between ‘arbitrary’ and ‘non-arbitrary’'' (2016: 126). In fact, Kowalewski's theorizing merely changes the distinction ‘arbitrary/non-arbitrary’ to ''motivated by convention'' and ''motivated by convention and something else (i.e. contiguity, similarity)''. The lacuna that Kowalewski identifies in Saussure's theory is that morphologically simplex forms may be motivated, as in cases of sound symbolism such as ‘hiss’. This theoretical gap may have been more easily accounted for by positing that Saussure was simply wrong about the extent of partial arbitrariness in that it can also be found in simplex forms as in the case of particularly onomatopoeic terms. This assertion hardly warrants the wholesale dismissal of the ‘arbitrary/non-arbitrary’ distinction in favour of claiming that all forms are motivated.

Two further factors affect the overall quality of this volume. Kowalewski's lengthy description of Cognitive Linguistics only has a minimal bearing on the theory he constructs. Instead of a lengthy exposition of general theory, Kowalewski would have been much better served to discuss work in this framework which deals directly with motivation such as Radden & Panther (2004) and Panther & Radden (2011). Finally, the volume is beset by a large number of typographical and editing errors, sometimes severe enough to produce the opposite of the intended meaning (Kowalewski 2016: 125).

Despite these criticisms, Kowalewski's work has merits, not the least of which is the carrying forward of a discussion of motivation and of the relationship between linguistics and semiotics within CL. The insight that motivation (or partial arbitrariness) resides in subjective assessments of similarity and contiguity is worthy of further development. Kowalewski also performs a valuable service to the field by drawing attention to linguistic scholarship produced in Polish, which may otherwise remain unknown to Anglophone audiences. Overall, the book is an indication that the combination of Cognitive Linguistics with semiotics still has important fruit to bear in the discussion of motivation, even if these have not reached maturity yet.


Croft, William. 2006. On explaining metonymy: Comment on Peirsman and Geeraerts, “Metonymy as a prototypical category''. Cognitive Linguistics 17 (3): 317-326

Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. ‘Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Volume 1’. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Panther, Klaus-Uwe & Günter Radden (eds). 2011. ‘Motivation in Grammar and the Lexicon’. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Peirsman, Yves & Dirk Geeraerts. 2006. Metonymy as a prototypical category. Cognitive Linguistics 17(3): 269-316

Pharies, David A. 1985. ‘Charles S. Peirce and the Linguistic Sign’. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Radden, Günter & Klaus-Uwe Panther (eds.) 2004. ‘Studies in Linguistic Motivation’. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

Radden, Günter & Zoltán Kövecses. 1999. ''Towards a Theory of Metonymy''. In Panther, Klaus-Uwe and Günter Radden (eds.), ‘Metonymy in Language and Thought’, 7-59. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 2011. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Taylor, John. 2002. ‘Cognitive Grammar’. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Conor Snoek is an anthropological linguist interested in the semantics and historical linguistics of North American Indigenous languages, especially of the Totonacan and Athapaskan language families. Currently he is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta.

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