Linguistic Arbitrariness

The Disconnect Between Form and Meaning of Words

tadpole - arbitrariness in langage
"Consider the arbitrariness of linguistic rules," says Timothy Endicott. "The rule that the word for tadpole in English is 'tadpole' is arbitrary (i.e., lacking in reason) in one sense, as linguists have often remarked: there is no reason a language ought to use those phonemes arranged in that order to refer to a tadpole" ("The Value of Vagueness," 2011). (Robert Trevis-Smith/Getty Images)

In linguistics, arbitrariness is the absence of any natural or necessary connection between a word's meaning and its sound or form. An antithesis to sound symbolism, which does exhibit an apparent connection between sound and sense, arbitrariness is one of the characteristics shared between all languages.

As R.L. Trask points out in "Language: The Basics," "the overwhelming presence of arbitrariness in language is the chief reason it takes so long to learn the vocabulary of a foreign language." This is largely due to confusion over similar-sounding words in a secondary language.

Trask goes on to use the example of trying to guess the names of creatures in a foreign language based on the sound and form alone, providing a list of Basque words — "zaldi, igel, txori, oilo, behi, sagu," which mean "horse, frog, bird, hen, cow, and mouse respectively" — then observing that arbitrariness is not unique to humans but instead exists within all forms of communication. 

Language is Arbitrary 

Therefore, all language can be assumed to be arbitrary, at least in this linguistic definition of the word, despite occasional iconic characteristics. Instead of universal rules and uniformity, then, language relies on associations of word meanings deriving from cultural conventions.

To break this concept down further, linguist Edward Finegan wrote in "Language: Its Structure and Use" about the difference between nonarbitrary and arbitrary semiotic signs through an observation of a mother and son burning rice.

"Imagine a parent trying to catch a few minutes of the televised evening news while preparing dinner," he writes. "Suddenly a strong aroma of burning rice wafts into the TV room. This nonarbitrary sign will send the parent scurrying to salvage dinner."

The little boy, he posits, might also signal to his mother that the rice is burning by saying something like "The rice is burning!" However, Finegan argues that while the utterance is likely to elicit the same result of the mother checking on her cooking, the words themselves are arbitrary — it is "a set of facts about English (not about burning rice) that enables the utterance to alert the parent," which makes the utterance an arbitrary sign.

Different Languages, Different Conventions

As a result of languages' reliance on cultural conventions, different languages naturally have different conventions, that can and do change — which is part of the reason that there are different languages in the first place!

Second language learners must, therefore, learn each new word individually as it's generally impossible to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word — even when given clues to the word's meaning. 

Even linguistic rules are considered to be slightly arbitrary. However, Timothy Endicott writes in "The Value of Vagueness" that "with all norms of language, there is a good reason to have such norms for the use of words in such ways. That good reason is that it is actually necessary to do so to achieve the coordination that enables communication, self-expression and all the other priceless benefits of having a language."

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Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Arbitrariness." ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-arbitrariness-language-1689001. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 18). Linguistic Arbitrariness. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-arbitrariness-language-1689001 Nordquist, Richard. "Linguistic Arbitrariness." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-arbitrariness-language-1689001 (accessed December 16, 2017).