A faster path between meaning and form? Iconicity facilitates sign recognition and production in British Sign Language

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • University College London
  • Institute for Multimodal Communication
  • The Centre for Translation and oInterpreting Studies in Scotland
  • University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Cognition and Language Research Centre


A standard view of language processing holds that lexical forms are arbitrary, and that non-arbitrary relationships between meaning and form such as onomatopoeias are unusual cases with little relevance to language processing in general. Here we capitalize on the greater availability of iconic lexical forms in a signed language (British Sign Language, BSL), to test how iconic relationships between meaning and form affect lexical processing. In three experiments, we found that iconicity in BSL facilitated picture-sign matching, phonological decision, and picture naming. In comprehension the effect of iconicity did not interact with other factors, but in production it was observed only for later-learned signs. These findings suggest that iconicity serves to activate conceptual features related to perception and action during lexical processing. We suggest that the same should be true for iconicity in spoken languages (e.g., onomatopoeias), and discuss the implications this has for general theories of lexical processing.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-85
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Early online date30 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • Embodiment, Iconicity, Language comprehension, Language production, Lexicon