Which words are most iconic? Iconicity in English sensory words

Bodo Winter, Marcus Perlman, Lynn Perry, Gary Lupyan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)
1011 Downloads (Pure)


Some spoken words are iconic, exhibiting a resemblance between form and meaning. We used native speaker ratings to assess the iconicity of 3001 English words, analyzing their iconicity in relation to part-of-speech differences and differences between the sensory domain they relate to (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell). First, we replicated previous findings showing that onomatopoeia and interjections were highest in iconicity, followed by verbs and adjectives, and then nouns and grammatical words. We further show that words with meanings related to the senses are more iconic than words with abstract meanings. Moreover, iconicity is not distributed equally across sensory modalities: Auditory and tactile words tend to be more iconic than words denoting concepts related to taste, smell and sight. Last, we examined the relationship between iconicity (resemblance between form and meaning) and systematicity (statistical regularity between form and meaning). We find that iconicity in English words is more strongly related to sensory meanings than systematicity. Altogether, our results shed light on the extent and distribution of iconicity in modern English.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433–454
JournalInteraction Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2017


  • sound symbolism
  • iconicity
  • perception
  • sensory words
  • touch


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