Where is iconicity and why isn’t there more of it?

Activity: Academic and Industrial eventsGuest lecture or Invited talk


More and more studies show that spoken and signed languages harbor a considerable degree of iconicity, form-meaning mappings that are motivated by resemblance, such as the word “bang”, which sounds somewhat like an actual bang. In this talk, I will consider iconicity as a graded quantity, with certain words being more or less iconic. Rather than asking the question, “Are languages iconic or arbitrary?”, I will be asking, “Where is iconicity?” Using English iconicity scores from a rating study, I will show that iconicity is ramped up in children’s speech and the child-directed speech of adults. I will then show that iconicity is also heightened in perceptual language, in particular for sound words (“squealing”, “beeping”, “rustling”) and touch words (“rough”, “smooth”, “prickly”). These analyses of the distribution of iconicity within language also help us understand why languages are characterized by a lot of arbitrariness. In particular, I will argue that it is precisely the connection between iconicity and perceptual semantics which restricts its domain of use. To this end, I will report new quantitative evidence which shows that iconicity is inimical to abstraction in language.
Period14 May 201815 May 2018
Event titleIconicity Workshop
Event typeWorkshop
LocationBerlin, GermanyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • iconicity
  • abstractness
  • concreteness
  • perception
  • senses
  • arbitrariness
  • language
  • language evolution