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Re: Iconicity

From:Chris Bates <chris.maths_student@...>
Date:Thursday, October 13, 2005, 20:40
> Anyway, the basic idea is that spoken language is iconic, in a > very particular sense. Specifically, Haiman brings up the idea > of conceptual distance--a concept which he believes is so intuitive > that it doesn't need a formal definition (yes, he says this in the > article). What it comes down to is that two concepts are more > distant from each other if their linguistically distant from one > another. Thus, take the English word "feed", and the expression > "to make eat/to force to eat". Both of these contain the concepts > of person X causing person Y to eat. In the word "feed", though, > the concepts are conceptually closer, because they're contained > in a monomorphemic word, and are more distant in "to make > eat". Due to this, Haiman says the multiword expression implies > that the causer has a less direct role in causing the causee to eat. >
This isn't a proposal unique to Haiman. I've read similar arguments in many linguistics books and broadly agree with them: clearly, "I killed him" implies much more direct causation than "I caused him to die" and so on. ;) I would argue that this is a general tendency rather than an absolute though... sometimes changes in structure that add more words can be motivated by other considerations rather than directness of causation. For instance, in Lisu, according to a book I just read, the verb "burn" (ie the transitive verb meaning set something alight) can only be used directly with inanimate patients. If the patient is animate (eg "I burned the dog"), the language forces the speaker to adopt a more indirect causation form like "cause to burn" rather than the single verb. And of course, they may only be one option for some meanings... there isn't a lexicalized causative for every verb like there is in kill vs die for instance.
> Among the interesting things he points out (all of which were later > explained by other theories), is the idea that more formal expressions > require more verbiage, because they distance the hearer from the > message. Thus, if a language has 4 registers, the least formal one > will require the fewest words, the next one up slightly more, the > next one up slightly more than that, and the most formal register > will require the most words. >
This is one tendency, but it's not always true. Take Spanish for instance, where you refer to formal 2nd persons using the 3rd person forms and "usted(es)" (the formal pronouns) are not required. So in general I don't think speaking formally to someone requires many more words in Spanish if there is an increase at all.