On October 21, Marcus Perlman gave a talk in our Friday Levinson group meeting titled Iconicity across the lexicons of spoken languages.

Abundant evidence now shows that many words of spoken languages are
iconic to varying degrees. That is – the forms of many words, to a
greater or lesser extent, resemble an aspect of their meaning. These
findings raise new questions about languages and their evolution. What
is the function of iconicity, and why are some words more iconic than
others? And from an evolutionary-historical perspective, how do words
become more or less iconic over time? To answer these questions, it is
critical to understand how iconicity varies across the lexicons of
spoken languages. In this talk, I present a series of studies that
examine iconicity across the vocabularies of English and Spanish by
asking native speakers to rate the iconicity of words (~3000 English
words, ~600 Spanish). The results suggest that iconicity is influenced
by factors relating to age of acquisition, grammatical category, and
semantics.

The talk was interesting in general, but one of the most fascinating bits to come out of it was the claim that “There is no such thing as an arbitrary vocalisation”, which we followed up in a group meeting on October 26th and had a little mini-debate about.

DEBATE: “There is no such thing as an arbitrary vocalisation”

Starting point: Can vocalisations be arbitrary?

Talking points:
What can we gain from using (or not using) labels for arbitrariness,
iconicity and different types of form-meaning mappings (e.g. systematicity,
relative and absolute iconicity, anti-iconicity etc.)?
What labels do we agree on as being useful? Where do we disagree and why?
How is this debate changed when taking a diachronic or synchronic
perspective?

I must say that the debate was really interesting, and got my thoughts going about this topic. Eventually I’ll try to sit down with Marcus and the others who were involved to try to put together a follow-up post outlining what we actually talked about, but it’s a pretty big and important topic.

My initial impression is that I’m perfectly happy to agree that Marcus’ suggestion isn’t a bad one and that he isn’t wrong- I’m just not sure if it is a useful suggestion for either understanding or for framing research. I’ll try to follow up on this soon.