A Grammar of Iconism

A Grammar of Iconism

A Grammar of Iconism

A Grammar of Iconism

Synopsis

Literary criticism often includes ad hoc comments about onomatopoeia, synaesthesia, or other forms of iconism as these appear in poetic texts. A Grammar of Iconism discusses these Phenomena systematically, in relation to competing theories of iconism. The book concludes with a speculative chapter on the poet's role in creating iconism in a text.

Excerpt

Not long ago, three distinguished linguists, in a paper on the “componential analysis” of meaning, proposed a rather mechanical process to distinguish minimal units of meaning among words in a semantic field. They illustrate this process citing mumble, shout, scream, whisper, and babble, said to be distinguished from each other semantically by their inclusion or exclusion of such component concepts as “verbal,” “voicing,” “loudness,” or “high pitch” (Nida, Louw, and Smith 1977:145–46; cf. Nida 1975:56–61). The authors concede certain “supplementary” components of meaning “that are connotatively relevant. Mumble, for example, shares certain connotative features with grumble, mutter, and murmur, while scream suggests fear and/or anger. Whisper connotes secrecy, and babble suggests the action of children or psychotics.”

Omitted from their account was a discussion of the onomatopoeic or expressive or iconic character of most of these words. The onomatopoeia of mumble, mutter, murmur, and whisper must have seemed as obvious to the authors as it does to any native English speaker, but their paper was written at a time when the concept of iconism was in ideological disfavor, as it still is among many linguists. It is unfashionable to write about the affective domain in language. Consequently, we are asked to note semantic distinctions relating to high versus low pitch, loudness versus softness in babble and mumble, while ignoring the obvious status of these words as onomatopes. In a structuralist analysis of these words, onomatopoeia was not available as a possible component of meaning.

This situation reflects the predominance, since the days of classical structuralism, of Ferdinand de Saussure's postulate concerning l'arbitraire du signe, an idea that prevailed in semiotics long before the posthumous publication of his Cours de linguistique générale (1916). William Dwight Whitney, an Indo-Europeanist whose work Saussure admired, insisted, in an American Philological Associa-

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