Language is more abstract than you think, or, why aren’t languages more iconic?

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  • University of Wisconsin-Madison


How abstract is language? We show that abstractness pervades every corner of language, going far beyond the usual examples of freedom and justice. In light of the ubiquity of abstract words, the need to understand where abstract meanings come from becomes ever more acute. We argue that the best source of knowledge about abstract meanings may be language itself. We then consider a seemingly unrelated question: Why isn’t language more iconic? Iconicity—a resemblance between the form of words and their meanings—can be immensely useful in language learning and communication. Languages could be much more iconic than they currently are. So why aren’t they? We suggest that one reason is that iconicity is inimical to abstraction become iconic forms are too connected to specific contexts and sensory depictions. Form-meaning arbitrariness may allow language to better convey abstract meanings.


Original languageEnglish
Number of pages37
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2018


  • iconicity, abstractness, abstract concepts, concept, concept development