Limiting the Arbitrary

Linguistic naturalism and its opposites in Plato's Cratylus and modern theories of language

John E. Joseph | University of Edinburgh
ISBN 9789027245854 (Eur) | EUR 105.00
ISBN 9781556197499 (USA) | USD 158.00
ISBN 9789027283726 | EUR 105.00 | USD 158.00
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The idea that some aspects of language are ‘natural’, while others are arbitrary, artificial or derived, runs all through modern linguistics, from Chomsky’s GB theory and Minimalist program and his concept of E- and I-language, to Greenberg’s search for linguistic universals, Pinker’s views on regular and irregular morphology and the brain, and the markedness-based constraints of Optimality Theory. This book traces the heritage of this linguistic naturalism back to its locus classicus, Plato’s dialogue Cratylus. The first half of the book is a detailed examination of the linguistic arguments in the Cratylus. The second half follows three of the dialogue’s naturalistic themes through subsequent linguistic history — natural grammar and conventional words, from Aristotle to Pinker; natural dialect and artificial language, from Varro to Chomsky; and invisible hierarchies, from Jakobson to Optimality Theory — in search of a way forward beyond these seductive yet spurious and limiting dichotomies.
Publishing status: Available
Table of Contents
“[A] must-read for any serious linguist, let alone a linguistic historiographer. [The author's] mission is to challenge linguists to reflect on their own fundamental assumptions and to recognize that there is nothing much new under the sun — and in this he succeeds admirably. The whole is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.”
Cited by

Cited by 26 other publications

Amsler, Mark E.
2010. Premodern Letters and Textual Consciousness. Historiographia Linguistica 37:3  pp. 279 ff. DOI logo
Ayres-Bennett, Wendy
2004. Sociolinguistic Variation in Seventeenth-Century France, DOI logo
Carretero-González, Margarita
2021. 'My Name is Growing All the Time': Entish, or the Possibility of a Natural Language. Green Letters 25:4  pp. 415 ff. DOI logo
Cram, David
2020. Review of Joseph (2018): Language, Mind, and Body: A conceptual history. Historiographia Linguistica 47:2-3  pp. 332 ff. DOI logo
De Cuypere, Ludovic & Klaas Willems
2008. Meaning and Reference in Aristotle’s Concept of the Linguistic Sign. Foundations of Science 13:3-4  pp. 307 ff. DOI logo
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Goddard, Cliff
2009. The ‘Communication Concept’ and the ‘Language Concept’ in Everyday English. Australian Journal of Linguistics 29:1  pp. 11 ff. DOI logo
Handman, Courtney
2023. The Last Language on Earth: Linguistic Utopianism in the Philippines.PiersKelly, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2022. 328 pp. 47 illustrations. Hardback (9780197509913) 99.00 USD, Paperback (9780197509920) 39.95 USD. Journal of Sociolinguistics DOI logo
Handman, Courtney
2023. Language at the Limits of the Human: Deceit, Invention, and the Specter of the Unshared Symbol. Comparative Studies in Society and History 65:4  pp. 726 ff. DOI logo
Joseph, John E.
2000. The unconscious and the social in Saussure. Historiographia Linguistica 27:2-3  pp. 307 ff. DOI logo
Joseph, John E.
2012. Language Pedagogy and Political-Cognitive Autonomy in Mid-19th Century Geneva. Historiographia Linguistica 39:2-3  pp. 259 ff. DOI logo
Joseph, John E.
2015. Iconicity in Saussure’s Linguistic Work. Historiographia Linguistica 42:1  pp. 85 ff. DOI logo
Joseph, John E.
2019. La norme et le naturel. Histoire Epistémologie Langage 41:2  pp. 13 ff. DOI logo
Joseph, John E. & Frederick J. Newmeyer
2012. ‘All Languages Are Equally Complex’. Historiographia Linguistica 39:2-3  pp. 341 ff. DOI logo
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2016. The origins of invented vocabulary in a utopian Philippine language. Asia-Pacific Language Variation 2:1  pp. 82 ff. DOI logo
McLelland, Nicola
2006. Letters, sounds and shapes: Reflections on the sounds of german in early modern linguistic awareness. Transactions of the Philological Society 104:2  pp. 229 ff. DOI logo
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2022. Reappraising Plato’s Cratylus . Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 0:0 DOI logo
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2013. Références bibliographiques. In La grammaire nationale selon Damourette et Pichon (1911-1939),  pp. 235 ff. DOI logo
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2006. Environmental Discourses. Annual Review of Anthropology 35:1  pp. 457 ff. DOI logo
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2016. Language and identity: national, ethnic, religious. <i>WORD</i> 62:4  pp. 276 ff. DOI logo
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2016. Arbitrary, Natural, Other: J. G. Herder and Ideologies of Linguistic Will. European Romantic Review 27:2  pp. 259 ff. DOI logo
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2020. Language Ideology. In The International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology,  pp. 1 ff. DOI logo
[no author supplied]
2012. Reviews. Language & History 55:2  pp. 144 ff. DOI logo

This list is based on CrossRef data as of 14 february 2024. Please note that it may not be complete. Sources presented here have been supplied by the respective publishers. Any errors therein should be reported to them.




Main BIC Subject

CF: Linguistics

Main BISAC Subject

LAN009000: LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / General
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ONIX 2.1
ONIX 3.0
U.S. Library of Congress Control Number:  00062112 | Marc record