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4.1: Back to the Arbitrary

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    4.1.1 Back to the Arbitrary, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    We're going to talk about how these little puzzle pieces of language, these morphemes, combined together in a given language and how they work in a language. First, we have to take a minute to revisit that one hallmark of language that I brought up earlier that I said was probably the most important piece to understand what, at least with respect to language, and that has to do with arbitrariness. Let's go back to the arbitrary, and let's talk about what this means really.

    When I say arbitrariness, I’m referring to the Principle of the Arbitrary; we'll get more into this when we get to the chapter on Meaning, specifically Semantics. Just to give you a little taste of what is to come, the Principle of the Arbitrary was set up by Ferdinand de Saussure about 120 years ago. He was a Swiss mathematician who focused on logic and philosophy; of course, logic, philosophy, and mathematics all are tied together. He is considered the true founder of what we now call linguistics; Noam Chomsky is the modern renovation, shall we say, but even he said, if it weren't for Saussure and his initial statements and theories about language, we would not have linguistics at all. That is true; his work inspired generations of linguists. Those of us that have read his work understand the importance of it, especially given that he was working just simply with math. He was looking at language as if it were well a math problem. I'll get more into him later, but really quickly, let's focus on the Principle of the Arbitrary. It states that there is no particular reason why a specific sound is associated with a specific meaning; in this case, we're going to focus on morphemes.

    That means a few different things. For example, the fact that we even have synonyms—two terms that mean pretty much the same thing, if not in fact two terms that mean exactly the same thing—that is an example of the Principle of the Arbitrary. For example, in most dialects of North American English woodchuck and groundhog are the exact same animal, there is no difference in some dialects there is a preference for one term versus the other but in most dialects of English certainly North American English, there is no difference between those two terms.

    How about that piece of furniture that is in most North American living rooms or sitting rooms or family rooms, and it's kind of long and pretty comfy; we frequently lay out on it, and probably take a nap. The fact that you have two, or even sometimes three different terms for that same piece of furniture, is arbitrary. Why should there even be two, let alone three? The fact that most dialects of English, you can use two of those interchangeably—certainly out here in California. In fact, most of the Western U.S., sofa and couch are 100% interchangeable; there is no difference. For many in the eastern half of North America, chances are you can use davenport along with either sofa or couch. Two, if not all three of those terms are in your native dialect of English.

    How about the fact that those three most important things to human life—air, water, food—are completely different in every single language. Even in related languages, they get pronounced differently, even if they come from the same root. The fact that, for example, I have here water in English, the fact that in Spanish and Portuguese it is agua, depending on your dialect depends on what flavor of vowel that might have too, and the fact that their sibling language, French, has the same term, but it’s not because it's pronounced differently and is spelled differently. Even though it comes from the same root, you do not say agua the same way that you say eau.

    Why? Why is that the case? That really comes back to this concept of arbitrariness. There is no particular reason why a given term is linked to a given meaning; it just happens. Certainly, this is true with respect to things that we create, technology (remember, ‘technology’ is not only smartphones; it's more than that). The fact that we give a name to a given item that we create, yet that name does not necessarily get used in every single culture or speech community that uses that technology, is an example of arbitrariness. What we might call an English a (computer) mouse, first of all doesn't look much like a mouse anymore. Second, that term is not necessarily used in any other language beyond English. It could be used as-is, or it could be just tweaked a little bit, but that's arbitrary. It could be a totally different term, and it may not have anything to do with that rodent animal that is being used to describe this thing. All of that is arbitrary. Every single language, every single speech community could call it a totally different thing.

    Arbitrariness also connects to this concept whereby we have the same sound, but you referring to multiple entities. For example, in English, that sound combination that gets written in English, as b-a-n-k, bank. That could refer to two totally different things. It could refer to a financial institution or it could refer to the side of a river. Those are unrelated in every way and yet the same sound combination, [bæŋk], is referred to two totally different things that is arbitrary. Why should English have that setup?

    Just to take this one step further, if I give you a sound combination [ni]. In English that refers to a specific part of the body; in Spanish means ‘not’ or ‘neither’; in French, its sibling language, it refers to a 'nest'. How can the same sound combination in three different languages, two of them very closely related? How can that be referring to three completely different concepts? That is arbitrariness.

    Already arbitrariness is one of those concepts that we have to understand. As we analyze a language, the reason is straightforward. When we understand that a given language or even a given dialect has an arbitrary connection between sound and meaning, we then allow ourselves to analyze the language or the phenomenon in an objective way. We are not imposing our own biases; we're not imposing our own language on to that. We don't say that something is weird or odd. We just say that it is arbitrary. “It seems to happen here.” “Why?” “Well, sometimes we have an answer, but frequently, we do not.”

    When we talk about arbitrariness, it's important to bring up that while the vast majority of the aspects of language are in fact arbitrary, there are a couple of exceptions with respect to the principle of the arbitrary. What I refer to as the fact that there are sometimes sound symbolisms. One of them, of course, is onomatopoeia, as we talked about in the introduction chapter. Onomatopoeia, of course, is when we say that a given term represents a sound. It could be a sound in nature or a sound that is caused by some process. Either way, it is called an onomatopoeic sound. It is true that there is some symbolism, some connection between the term and the meaning, but it's not exactly the case. Think back to that chart that I showed you where you have all of these different terms for the same types of sounds, but the representation was not the same across the board. In fact, there were a number of differences, even in sibling languages. Sometimes there was a difference in syllables, in the types of sounds being used to represent that other sound, but it really depended on a number of things. I'll go one step further: the fact that the sound of a dog barking in English has at least three different representations is still arbitrary, we can say 'bow wow', we can say 'wuff wuff', and we can say 'arf arf'. All three of those are onomatopoeics, so why should we have three different ones that don't necessarily share anything in common with respect to their sounds. That is arbitrary, and that is where we see that the Principle of the Arbitrary really does rule everything with respect to language.

    There is also a semi universal where the sound [i], that high front vowel. It tends to show up with respect to more themes that are diminutive. A diminutive is a type of morpheme that make things small and cute; think eenie, -ity, etc. Those kinds of more things in English, if you speak Spanish or French or Portuguese or Italian or any of the other Romance languages tend to be something in the -ito, -ico, -ino variety; there's lots of different versions. It is the case that in a large number of languages, and not just Indo-European languages, but throughout the world, we do see this high vowel get inserted into the morpheme for the diminutive.

    Why is that the case? When you think about how you pronounce that sound, it is a high front bow and in the very top corner front corner of your mouth, so the sound is made in a very small place. There's a really small area where that sound is produced. Is that the reason? Maybe, but maybe not. There are plenty of languages that have a diminutive that do not have [i], as a part of that sound combination, in fact, may not even have front vowels at all. It's not a universal; it's a semi universal and, to be honest it's still arbitrary. Why should that sound [i] represents something small? Either way, onomatopoeics and even this diminutive rule, represent a very small fraction of all the possible combinations of sound and meaning, puzzle pieces putting together different words in any given language. Overall, arbitrariness really does rule the day.

    4.1: Back to the Arbitrary is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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