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Thu November 3, 2011
Dr. Daniela Ribitsch, Lycoming College - Words, Sounds, and Meaning
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Daniela Ribitsch of Lycoming College examines the arbitrary connection between words and the objects they represent.
Dr. Daniela Ribitsch is a professor of German at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. from Karl Franzens Universit t in her home town of Graz, Austria.
Dr. Daniela Ribitsch - Words, Sounds, and Meaning
Have you ever noticed that most of the words we use do not intrinsically relate to the image or concept they refer to? What, for example, is treeish about a tree, or birdish about a bird? If we compare various languages, and explore homonyms - which are words with different meanings -, we will find how non-natural the relationship in fact is.
In English, there are relatively few words that imitate the sound of their source. A rooster's cock-a-doodle-do and a dog's woof, woof are such onomatopoetic words. Compared to other words, they more frequently share similar sound patterns in the various languages. In German and Italian a rooster crows kikeriki and chicchirich , while a dog barks wau, wau and bau, bau.
In contrast to onomatopoetic words, most words do not inherently relate to their concepts but are characterized by a so-called arbitrary relationship. A simple comparison between English bird, German Vogel, and Italian uccello already illustrates this arbitrariness. Homonyms support this theory as well. In a sentence like She is very pretty, the word pretty means attractive. But it can also be used synonymously to fairly in a sentence like That's pretty nice.
Despite the arbitrary relationship, however, we cannot use words randomly. If we say, "Look at the table," but instead mean "Feed the bird," no one would understand us. As a language community we share a common language and have agreed on the meanings of words. If we did not follow this agreement but rename concepts individually, successful communication would be impossible.