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Abstract Gawel

‘Nagy’ means big, ‘kicsi’ means small. Iconicity principles in vocabulary research.

The relation between the phonetic and semantic component of language has remained out of the scope of linguistic research since the emergence of synchronic linguistics at the beginning of the 20th century. Even current research on iconicity, which found its access to the field of cognitive linguistics, abstains from making explicit hypotheses about direct relations between sound and meaning. This hostility towards any claims dismissing the arbitrary connection between signifié and signifiant continues, despite the fact that almost no scientific research has ever been conducted in order to prove this assumption. The only evidence in favour of the arbitrarity hypothesis is the existence of about 6800 languages, which significantly differ in which signifié is attributed to a particular signifiant. This is undoubtedly an important argument against naturalist claims, but noticing this obvious fact should not liberate us from the obligation to verify our assumptions. Neither should it restrain potential research on whether we might find an interrelation between phonetic and semantic form on a deeper level, which would be less obvious than providing1-1 form-meaning correlates.

The phonosemantic research is surrounded by several myths, known as classical truths of a stereotypical linguist. The first of these myths has been mentioned above. It concerns the conviction that the natural relation between the phonetic and semantic aspect of the linguistic sign implies an existence of 1-1 form-meaning correlates on the level of lexemes. The second myth refers to the first myth in order to provide evidence against the naturalist hypothesis. As different languages use different lexemes to express the same meaning, the relation between signifié and signifiant is arbitrary. The third myth shows the sad truth how prejudices can determine directions for scientific research. It’s the belief that phonosemantics cannot serve as an object of serious linguistic analysis and no ‚linguist of calling’ would devote his time an energy to this field. This myth can also be falsified. Several well-known linguists have written in favour of the naturalist hypothesis, among whom we find such names like Bloomfield, Sapir and Jacobson.

This article provides evidence in support of the naturalist hypothesis. The article is divided into two sections. Section one is devoted to comparative research of vocabulary, based on examples from 10 historically and geographically unrelated languages. Starting from examples of classical onomatopoeia, this section extends the claim about universal phonosemantic correlations to categories of space and movement and ends up providing examples for sound symbolism in abstract categories, such as emotions and ethical values. Section two is based on statistical research conducted on a group of students of musicology. The results show that correct intuitions, concerning the meaning of previously unfamiliar vocabulary, are fairly more frequent than predicted, though these intuitions do not concern the reference of the lexemes, but more general semantic categories.



Bloomfield, Leonard (1909-1910): A Semasiological Differentiation in Germanic Secondary Ablaut", Modern Philology 7: 245-288, 345-382, partially reprinted in Charles F. Hockett, (ed.), A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology, Bloomington Indiana U. Press.

Jakobson, Roman (1978): Sound and Meaning, MIT Press, London.

Magnus, Margaret (1999): A dictionary of English sound.