Iconicity in the speech of children and adults

Lynn Perry, Marcus Perlman, Bodo Winter, Dominic Massaro, Gary Lupyan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)
326 Downloads (Pure)


Iconicity—the correspondence between form and meaning—may help young children learn to use new words. Early-learned words are higher in iconicity than later learned words. However, it remains unclear what role iconicity may play in actual language use. Here, we ask whether iconicity relates not just to the age at which words are acquired, but also to how frequently children and adults use the words in their speech. If iconicity serves to bootstrap word learning, then we would expect that children should say highly iconic words more frequently than less iconic words, especially early in development. We would also expect adults to use iconic words more often when speaking to children than to other adults. We examined the relationship between frequency and iconicity for approximately 2000 English words. Replicating previous findings, we found that more iconic words are learned earlier. Moreover, we found that more iconic words tend to be used more by younger children, and adults use more iconic words when speaking to children than to other adults. Together, our results show that young children not only learn words rated high in iconicity earlier than words low in iconicity, but they also produce these words more frequently in conversation – a pattern that is reciprocated by adults when speaking with children. Thus, the earliest conversations of children are relatively higher in iconicity, suggesting that this iconicity scaffolds the production and comprehension of spoken language during early development.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12572
Number of pages28
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number3
Early online date18 May 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 May 2017


  • language acquisition
  • iconicity
  • sound symbolism
  • word learning
  • Age of acquisition
  • language evolution
  • child-directed speech
  • onomatopoeia


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