In this paper I propose that certain global uses of intonation across languages exhibit sound symbolism, i.e. they show a motivated link between the shape of an intonation pattern and its meaning or function. This is not a new claim (Hermann 1942) and, in general, there is a very large literature claiming the existence of sound symbolism in other, usually segmental or lexical, domains. But there are several good reasons for being sceptical of such claims, including those I make here.
First, it runs counter to the dominant Saussurian dictum that “the sign is arbitrary,” i.e. that the link between sound and meaning is conventional, not natural. This has been a productive working principle and we should not weaken its application to language without good reason. Actually, some amount of acoustic iconism or onomatopoeia in language has always been acknowledged, but it was usually held to represent a negligible fraction of the entire language.
Second, there has typically been no convincing theory offered as to why sound symbolism should exist in languages, nor for the most part has anyone offered a motivation for linkage between particular phonetic features and semantic features. Notable exceptions to this can be found in the work of Paget (1930) and Fonagy (1983), among others, although none of these can be said to have had widespread influence.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.