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date: 16 December 2018

The Playful Lexicon in the Romance Languages: Onomatopoeia, Reduplication, Prosodic Templates, Blending

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

We describe a lexical item as “playful” or “ludic” when it shows evidence of manipulation of the relation that inheres between its form (signifier) and its meaning (signified). The playful lexicon of any given language, therefore, is the sum total of its lexical items that show signs of such manipulation.

Linguists have long recognized that the only necessary link between a word’s form and its meaning is the arbitrary social convention that binds them. However, nothing prevents speakers from creating additional, unnecessary, and therefore essentially “playful” links, associating forms with meanings in a symbolic, hence nonarbitrary way. This semantic effect is most evident in the case of onomatopoeia, through which the phonetic form of words that designate sounds is designed to be conventionally imitative of the sound. A second group of playful words combines repeated sequences of sounds with meanings that are themselves suggestive of repetition or related concepts such as collectivity, continuity, or actions in sequence, as well as repeated, back-and forth, or uncontrolled movements; or even, more abstractly, intensity and hesitation. The playfulness of truncated forms such as clips and blends is based on a still more abstract connection between forms and meanings. In the case of clipping, the truncation of the full form of a word triggers a corresponding connotative truncation or diminution of the meaning, that is, a suggestion that the referent is small—either endearingly so, as in hypocoristics, or contemptuously so, as in insults. In blending, truncation is often accompanied by overlapping, which symbolically highlights the interrelatedness or juxtaposition of the constituents’ individual meanings. Prosodic templates do not constitute a separate category per se; instead, they may play a part in the formation or alteration of words in all of the categories discussed here.