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Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries

Haspelmath, Martin

This paper argues that three widely accepted motivating factors subsumed under the broad heading of iconicity, namely iconicity of quantity, iconicity of complexity and iconicity of cohesion, in fact have no role in explaining grammatical asymmetries and should be discarded. The iconicity accounts of the relevant phenomena have been proposed by authorities like Jakobson, Haiman and Givón, but I argue that these linguists did not su‰ciently con- sider alternative usage-based explanations in terms of frequency of use. A closer look shows that the well-known Zipfian e¤ects of frequency of use (leading to shortness and fusion) can be made responsible for all of the al- leged iconicity e¤ects, and initial corpus data for a range of phenomena confirm the correctness of the approach.

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