Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Eric Mandelbaum

Committee Members

Stephen Neale

Saul Kripke

Jake Quilty-Dunn

Katherine Ritchie

Subject Categories

Cognitive Science | Philosophy of Language | Philosophy of Mind


Arbitrariness, Iconicity, Phonology, Sound Symbolism, Speech Processing


It is generally assumed that the expressions of a natural language are largely arbitrary. That is, any expressions that display a nonarbitrary connection between what their utterances sound like and what they mean are small in number and of no real theoretical importance.

This thesis challenges such a position. I argue that nonarbitrariness is a pervasive feature of natural language and that understanding the sound/meaning connections that exist in language is necessary if to appreciate how languages work.

I begin, in Chapter 1, by showing that many theorists are committed to the idea that nonarbitrary sound/meaning connections are of little theoretical importance and considering what a commitment to this position entails. I then lay out a principle of Pervasive NonArbitrariness that stands in opposition to the widely held view and serves as that for which the subsequent chapters argue.

In Chapter 2, I consider the nature of what words sound like by considering speech perception in general and the contents of speech perception in particular. I argue that the contents of speech perceptions are phonological forms, i.e., strings of complex, computational symbols that play a specialized role in the speech articulation and speech comprehension. Demonstrating that these symbols are complex entities and intrinsically linked to articulatory actions is a necessary step towards appreciating the nonarbitrary connections that exist.

In Chapter 3, I consider the types of expressions that empirically minded theorists have suggested are nonarbitrary. I begin with a general taxonomy of such expressions. Then, I assess whether members of these subclasses display a connection between their perceptual content and their meaning. I argue that there are, in fact, three mechanisms by which a perceptual content and meaning can be linked, one involving iconic representation, a second involving analogical processing, and a third involving associative connections that arise during the word learning process. I discuss the nature of each mechanism as well as the empirical evidence for its existence.

Finally, in Chapter 4, I consider whether any of the connections discussed in Chapter 3 can be classified as nonarbitrary. To do this, I compare expressions associated with each of the three mechanisms to paradigmatically arbitrary and nonarbitrary relationships. My conclusion is that iconic and analogical expressions are genuinely nonarbitrary while associative expressions are arbitrary in a nonparadigmatic way. I then argue that the nonarbitrary expressions that exist are sufficient to say that nonarbitrariness is a pervasive feature of natural language. I conclude the thesis by discussing the implications that pervasive nonarbitrariness has for discussions about what language is for and for our understanding of what the intuitive judgments we form when presented with linguistic expressions actually track. In so doing, I show that pervasive nonarbitrariness has wider implications for linguistic theorizing.