Book Reviews -- Von der Sprache Zur Literatur: Motiviertheit Im Sprachlichen Und Im Poetischen Kode (from Language to Literature: Motivation in the Linguistic and Poetic Codes) Edited by Christoph Kuper

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Christoph Kueper, ed. Von der Sprache zur Literature: Motiviertheit im sprachlichen und im poetischen Kode

From Language to Literature: Motivation in the Linguistic and Poetic Codes

, Tuebingen: Stauffenburg, 1993, 162 pp.

If semiotics is located "at the intersection of nature and culture," as Thomas Sebeok has observed (86), the precise point of that intersection is here under debate. The dualism of nature versus culture in language has a long history, beginning with the pre-Socratics and comprising the focus of Plato's Cratylus. From there it worked its way through the philosophical tradition to surface as a central question in the newly emerging disciplines of linguistics and semiotics in the early twentieth century. Ferdinand de Saussure seemed to settle the question once and for all with his important thesis: "le signe linguistique est arbitraire" (100). In the second half of the century, however, under the increasing reception of the work of C. S. Peirce, there began a movement to question the exclusivity of the dogma of arbitrariness.

Arbitrary means conventional, dissimilar, or nonnatural: that is, lacking a logical relation between the linguistic signifier and the extralinguistic signified. The opposite of arbitrary is motivated, similar, or necessary: that is, comprising a natural relation between signifier and signified. Comparisons and judgments of similarity form the basis of iconicity, which has been discussed ever since Aristotle first posited the principle of mimesis. Virtually all participants in the discussion agree that iconicity is a matter of degree and that there are thus no "pure" uses in language. To illustrate the point, however, one can polarize the issue. Iconicity in the theory of arbitrariness would allow for similarity even if only on an abstract level, whereby, to cite W. Ross Ashby's well-known example, the Rock of Gibraltar could serve as a model of the human brain (109). On the other end of the scale, indexicality, strictly speaking, entails identity, whereby the best model of a cat would be another cat.

Despite his doctrine of arbitrariness, Saussure admitted marginal motivation (similarity) on the phonological level (e.g., onomatopoeia and interjections), and he attributed somewhat more importance to motivation in morphology since the structure of compound forms is often derived from that of simple forms. Indeed, it could be argued that all rules of grammar restrict arbitrariness and introduce motivation into the system of language. And if language itself does this, how much more so does the poetic use of language. A concept of motivation was thus inherent in its seemingly ironclad antithesis of arbitrariness; yet an essential prerequisite for the development of that seed was a decisive expansion of the paradigm under which the linguistic sign was considered.

If Saussure was concerned basically only with (to use his terminology) vertical relations between the signifier and the signified, Roman Jakobson and others after him shifted the focus to include horizontal relations among the various signifiers and signifieds. Further, vertical relations among the levels of horizontal relations came into view, and language, from this new perspective, was demonstrated to be much more strongly motivated than could previously have been anticipated. Isomorphism was discovered between structural relations in language and relational patterns of its referents, and it was recognized as constitutive for natural languages. Such isomorphism (structural similarity) is called diagrammatic iconicity and was identified both on levels of the language system and in textual contexts. In language change as well, a constant pressure was detected toward (re)motivating the linguistic sign, which opposes itself to the demotivation that is constantly taking place.

Investigation into the motivation of the linguistic sign has advanced in recent years in a particularly lively fashion, and the book here under review comprises nine essays on state-of-the-art research. …