Musings from Nephelokokkygia: The Words the Birds Gave Us

Date and Time: 
Friday, 18 March, 2016 - 14:00
, Karen - University of Pittsburgh

“The linguistic sign is arbitrary,” (Saussure: 1915).  The logical assertion that there is an arbitrary relationship between words and meaning gave Linguistics a definitive answer to the age-old debate between “conventionality” and “naturalness” in language, and laid the foundation for current research inquiry in the field.  And yet, iconicity – delightful corners where arbitrariness is all but invisible – persists in the creative system that is human communication.  Linguists are cautioned about these ‘naturalness’ corners: onomatopoeia has no place in Historical Linguistics methods, the Bow-wow Theory of language origin is for the dogs, and language is more of the mind than of culture.  This presentation, therefore, dances on the edge of respectability in Linguistics, exploring questions of onomatopoeia, metaphor, and language origin within the context of words the birds have given us.  These cross-species borrowings demonstrate a very human relationship with birds that informs etymological transitions from mimicry to meaning.