Saussure and iconicity: The ghost in the machine?

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Although he is often characterised as the man who set modern linguistics on a course that excluded iconicity, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) engaged with three aspects of language which involve iconicity in one form or another. The most significant of these are his lectures concerning relative motivation, which are included in his posthumous Course in General Linguistics (1916), but fairly late, well after the section on the arbitrariness of linguistic signs which is probably the book’s most famous part. In the later section Saussure will contend that the whole point of the language system is to limit arbitrariness, and that the same holds for analysis of the system. How exactly he conceived this is explored through comments he wrote concerning his synaesthesia, a phenomenon often linked to iconicity; and the final paper which he published during his lifetime, which proposes a form-meaning parallel in a particular set of words in the ancient Indo-European languages. Examining these sources helps us to pin down how Saussure understood the nature and operation of iconicity and its limitations on arbitrariness in parole and in langue; and how subsequent linguistics has struggled with a heritage in which iconicity forms a ‘ghost in the machine’, to cite Ryle’s iconic example of what he termed a category mistake.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook on Iconicity in Language
EditorsOlga Fischer, Kimi Akita, Pamela Perniss
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 20 Jan 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • iconicity
  • Ferdinand de Saussure
  • structural linguistics
  • synaesthesia
  • arbitrariness of the sign
  • relative motivation


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