The Sign is Not Arbitrary  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Sign is Not Arbitrary (1949) is an essay by Dwight Bolinger of Harvard University. Its title refers to de Saussure's dictum that "the linguistic sign is arbitrary." However, de Saussure is not mentioned in the text.

Incipit: "One of the cardinal assumptions of linguistics is that the signs of language are, by and large, not appropriate to the meanings that they convey."

Bolinger was the primary proponent of phonosemantics through the late 1940s and the 1950s. In this paper he concludes that morphemes cannot be defined as the minimal meaning-bearing units, in part because linguistic meaning is so ill-defined, and in part because there are obvious situations in which smaller units are meaning-bearing.


"While I have attempted to prove the vast importance of cross-influences, I have not aimed at demonstrating their omnipotence. We can be singularly deaf at times, to an assonance that seems as if it ought to clamor for attention. The existence of a constellation in blob, gob, cob, knob, daub, bob, fob, hob, and job implying 'compactness' reflects little upon snob. Toilet water remains a delicacy despite the unfavorable implications of toilet. This is not fatal to my thesis, which was that a given form is physiologically tied to a given meaning. Any discriminable form, however similar (and discrimination here includes non-linguistic context), may be tied to a totally different meaning. It is sufficient evidence if we find that a large part of the time similar forms will tend in the direction of similar meanings. We are in the position of a doctor who proves the existence of a disease by pointing to an infallible symptom, but does not disprove the disease by the symptom's absence. Language, like health and like disease, is systemic."

See also

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