Arbitrary Reference

Certainty Style Key
Hover over keys for definitions:
True   Likely   Speculative
Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Likely Difference
Human Universality: 
Individual Universal (All Individuals Everywhere)
MOCA Domain: 
MOCA Topic Authors: 

Human language is primarily symbolic in nature (as opposed to iconic or indexical): there is in general no inherent relationship between the nature of a linguistic sign and the nature of its referent. (1,2) This relationship is arbitrary and conventionalized within individual cultures. The one possible exception in human speech is what is known as “sound symbolism”, in which certain sounds over time come to be accepted as representing some aspect of physical reality via the same process of conventionalization, such as submorphemic elements like –ump in bump, hump, lump, mumps, rump, stump (but cf. dump, grump, jump, pump). (3) Representation in signed languages likewise often has roots in iconic and/or indexical gestures, but the exact conventionalization (i.e. the iconic and/or indexical feature singled out as most salient) varies widely across signed languages, and tends to abstract away from the iconic-indexical basis over time in any event. (4) No non-human species naturally uses symbolic representation in this strict sense, though some species have been trained to use limited symbolic systems of communication in laboratory settings. (5,6,7,8,9) Most naturally occurring animal communication is iconic and/or indexical in nature. The only possible exception would be alarm call systems in which particular types of vocalization are associated in an apparently arbitrary manner with particular predator types. (10) Such alarm calls are nonetheless indexically triggered by the presence of the predator in question (cf. "Meaning (semantics and pragmatics)," "Displaced reference," "Prevarication"). Certain cetacean and psittacine (parrot) species appear to develop "signature calls" that they use preferentially to communicate with particular conspecfics, however it is questionable whether these are actually referential in nature.(11)


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Probable Appearance: 
100 thousand years ago
Related MOCA Topics
Related Topics (hover over title for reason):
Referenced By:
Title Certainty
Displaced Reference Likely


  1. Vocal learning in the functionally referential food grunts of chimpanzees., Watson, Stuart K., Townsend Simon W., Schel Anne M., Wilke Claudia, Wallace Emma K., Cheng Leveda, West Victoria, and Slocombe Katie E. , Curr Biol, 2015 Feb 16, Volume 25, Issue 4, p.495-9, (2015)
  2. Border collie comprehends object names as verbal referents, Pilley, John W., and Reid Alliston K. , Behavioural Processes, Volume 86, Issue 2, p.184 - 195, (2011)
  3. Behavior. Can a dog learn a word?, Bloom, Paul , Science, 2004 Jun 11, Volume 304, Issue 5677, p.1605-6, (2004)
  4. Word learning in a domestic dog: evidence for "fast mapping"., Kaminski, Juliane, Call Josep, and Fischer Julia , Science, 2004 Jun 11, Volume 304, Issue 5677, p.1682-3, (2004)
  5. Comprehension of signs by dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)., Tschudin, A, Call J, Dunbar R I., Harris G, and van der Elst C , J Comp Psychol, 2001 Mar, Volume 115, Issue 1, p.100-5, (2001)
  6. Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings, Peirce, C. , Amherst, NY, (1998)
  7. Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication., Seyfarth, R M., Cheney D L., and Marler P , Science, 1980 Nov 14, Volume 210, Issue 4471, p.801-3, (1980)
  8. Arbitrariness and Iconicity: Historical Change in American Sign Language, Frishberg, Nancy , Language, Volume 51, p.696-719, (1975)
  9. Course in General Linguistics, de Saussure, Ferdinand , (1916)