Saussure vindicated

by George Walkden (University of Manchester)

A new paper in the journal PNAS provides the most striking and robust empirical support ever found for Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

That’s not how the authors (henceforth Blasi et al. 2016) interpret it. Nor is it how it’s been reported in the many media outlets that have seized on it. For example, writing for the Guardian, David Shariatmadari describes their findings as the hidden sound patterns that could overturn years of linguistic theory. (The issue of why linguistics papers published in “science” journals get so much press while the same paper published in Diachronica or our own Transactions would be largely ignored is a topic for another blog post.) The authors, for their part, state that “These striking similarities call for a reexamination of the fundamental assumption of the arbitrariness of the sign”. ABC News goes even further: “The breakthrough finding disproves one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics — the idea that the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is unrelated”.

To see why these are probably overstatements, let’s go back to the source. Continue reading “Saussure vindicated”