Date of Award

January 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Regina Blass


The goal of this thesis is to propose that resemblance plays an important role in human communication. Saussure proposed a characteristic principle of the linguistic sign: that connections between linguistic codes and the objects they signify are arbitrary; however, I intend to show that resemblance, which I define as the visual or aural similarity between a stimulus, the thought it is intended to activate, and the real world target that utterance is about, is an important part of human communication and should be taken into consideration when defining language and proposing theories of human communication.

I have chosen Relevance Theory as the framework for this analysis because it highlights the importance of inferential communication. According to Relevance Theory, human communication is guided by expectations of relevance, a balance between cognitive effects (information the addressee finds worthwhile) and processing effort (the amount of work required to understand that information). Human communication reduces the amount of processing effort through conventionalization; words signify concepts, starting points from which inference can be used to arrive at a communicator's intended meaning. I suggest that the range of human perception and experience acts as common ground between communicators, providing a shared context between communicator and addressee and reducing what must be explicitly communicated. Essentially, resemblance between an utterance and an intended thought performs a similar function to conventionalization, activating concepts from shared context and providing a starting point for inferential communication, guiding addresses to the communicator's intended meaning.

My claim that resemblance has a role to play in human communication raises significant questions about the widely held stance that language is inherently arbitrary. I have proposed that signs can meaningfully resemble the things they signify; if this is true, we must consider the implications for modern linguistic analysis and adjust linguistic theory to accurately account for the use of resemblance in human communication.