Arbitrary Signs


‘Despite occasional iconic characteristics, human language is essentially arbitrary. Except for the associations established by convention, the form of an expression is generally independent of its meaning. Imagine a parent trying to catch a few minutes of the televised evening news while preparing dinner. Suddenly a strong aroma of, say, burning rice wafts into the TV room. This nonarbitrary sign will send the parent scurrying to salvage dinner. The aroma is caused by the burning rice and would convey its message to speakers of any language. There is nothing conventionalized about the message. Now consider the words of a youngster in the kitchen who shouts, “The rice is burning!” That utterance is just as likely to send the parent hurtling to the kitchen, but the words are arbitrary. It is a set of facts about English (not about burning rice) that enables the utterance to alert the parent. The utterance is thus an arbitrary sign.’

–¬†Finegan. E. 2008. Language, Its Structure And Use Stamford, CT, United States: Cengage Learning (2012) p. 8

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