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Motivated language change: processes involved in the growth and conventionalization of onomatopoeia and sound symbolism

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This paper takes its basis in onomatopoeia and sound symbolism and investigates the processes of language change that create these phenomena. Data have mainly been taken from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family in which the origin of onomatopoeic expressions, as well as sound symbolic clusters, or phonaesthemes, can be traced historically to Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European. Two main types of motivated connections between expression and content are distinguished: iconic and indexical. Iconic connections basically embrace onomatopoeic expression, in which there is an attempt towards creating a likeness between the sound created by the content and the linguistic form of the expression. These types of motivated expressions behave differently from the indexical, even though the boundaries to some extent are floating. Phonaesthemes are regarded as predominantly indexically motivated and analysed synchronically in the Germanic languages, in which there is considerable agreement on the meaning connected to some of them, e.g. fl-, gl-, bl- which are connected to light and similar semantic associations. Other phonaesthemes, such as fj-, are restricted to individual languages only. The all-Germanic phonaesthemes are traced back historically as well as into reconstructed stages of the proto-language, and the origin of words and groups of words are taken into consideration. The later phonaesthemes, occurring in individual languages only, are traced back historically, taking older sources and first occurrences into consideration. The study shows that a number of different mechanisms of change, both on the form and the meaning side, are involved when sound symbolic clusters grow in a language. This shows that the general principles of change are disrupted or distorted by synchronically operative linguistic mechanisms, involving iconicity and indexicality. Finally, motivated language change is compared to other similar changes such as analogical change, and the consequences for the classification of various types of iconicity are discussed.
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Keywords: Indo-European; iconicity; language change; onomatopoeia; sound symbolism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Linguistics, Lund University,

Publication date: July 3, 2014

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