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Summary and Keywords

Iconicity is a relationship of resemblance or similarity between the two aspects of a sign: its form and its meaning. An iconic sign is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way. The opposite of iconicity is arbitrariness. In an arbitrary sign, the association between form and meaning is based solely on convention; there is nothing in the form of the sign that resembles aspects of its meaning. The Hindu-Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3 are arbitrary, because their current form does not correlate to any aspect of their meaning. In contrast, the Roman numerals I, II, III are iconic, because the number of occurrences of the sign I correlates with the quantity that the numerals represent. Because iconicity has to do with the properties of signs in general and not only those of linguistic signs, it plays an important role in the field of semiotics—the study of signs and signaling. However, language is the most pervasive symbolic communicative system used by humans, and the notion of iconicity plays an important role in characterizing the linguistic sign and linguistic systems. Iconicity is also central to the study of literary uses of language, such as prose and poetry.

There are various types of iconicity: the form of a sign may resemble aspects of its meaning in several ways: it may create a mental image of the concept (imagic iconicity), or its structure and the arrangement of its elements may resemble the structural relationship between components of the concept represented (diagrammatic iconicity). An example of the first type is the word cuckoo, whose sounds resemble the call of the bird, or a sign such as RABBIT in Israeli Sign Language, whose form—the hands representing the rabbit's long ears—resembles a visual property of that animal. An example of diagrammatic iconicity is vēnī, vīdī, vīcī, where the order of clauses in a discourse is understood as reflecting the sequence of events in the world.

Iconicity is found on all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. It is found both in spoken languages and in sign languages. However, sign languages, because of the visual-gestural modality through which they are transmitted, are much richer in iconic devices, and therefore offer a rich array of topics and perspectives for investigating iconicity, and the interaction between iconicity and language structure.

Keywords: iconicity, arbitrariness, sign, imagic, diagrammatic, ideophones, onomatopoeia, sound symbolism, motivation, sign languages

1. Introduction: Defining Iconicity

Iconicity is a relationship of resemblance or similarity between the two aspects of a sign: its form and its meaning. An iconic sign is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way. The opposite of iconicity is arbitrariness. In an arbitrary sign, the association between form and meaning is based solely on convention; there is nothing in the form of the sign that resembles aspects of its meaning. A word like cuckoo is iconic because its sound mimics to a certain extent the calls that the bird makes; the word book is arbitrary because its sounds are not related to the concept of a book. However, the relationship between iconicity and arbitrariness is more complex than a simple opposition. First, both can be present in a single sign. A road sign that marks a bicycle lane has both iconic and non-iconic components: the image of bicycle on it is iconic because the form of the graphic image on it is related in a direct way to its meaning; both form and meaning have to do with bicycles. But the form of the sign (square) and its colors (white bicycle on blue background) are arbitrary; they are not motivated by any aspect of its meaning.

Furthermore, if a sign is non-arbitrary, it is not necessarily iconic; some signs display systematicity, the regular mappings of form and function. Those signs typically display subtle statistical tendencies of certain phonological forms to correlate with grammatical or semantic functions (e.g., a stress pattern distinguishing between nouns and verbs, see Kelly, 1992). The difference between iconicity and systematicity is in the manner of form-meaning association. In iconic signs, the form is directly influenced by its meaning, and thus is not necessarily specific to a certain language. In systematic signs, the form is arbitrary (in the sense that nothing in the form itself signals its function), but comes to represent its function by the virtue of other similar forms with similar meanings, and therefore is necessarily language-specific (for further discussion, see Dingemanse, Blasi, Lupyan, Christiansen, & Monaghan, 2015; Nielsen, 2016; and references therein).

Because iconicity has to do with the properties of signs in general and not only those of linguistic signs, it plays an important role in the field of semiotics—the study of signs and signaling. However, language is the most pervasive symbolic communicative system used by humans, and the notion of iconicity plays an important role in characterizing the linguistic sign and linguistic systems. Iconicity is also central to the study of literary uses of language, such as prose and poetry. The main questions concerning the role of iconicity in language is whether linguistic signs are iconic or arbitrary, how iconicity and arbitrariness interact in language, and what are the functions of iconicity in language. The first of these questions was raised several millennia ago regarding the nature of the relationship between the form and the meaning of words. Later on, the scope of the question was expanded to include other types of linguistic entities, such as morphological and syntactic structures. The linguistic study of sign languages, which began in the early 1960s, has made a special contribution to the study of the role of iconicity in language, given that sign languages are capable of much greater iconic expressions than spoken languages.

2. Brief History of the Notion

The oldest documented discussion about iconicity and its role in constructing words is the Cratylus dialogue of Plato (5th century bce; see translation by Cooper and Hutchinson [Plato, 1997]). In the dialogue, Socrates is asked whether names belong to their objects “naturally” or “conventionally.” Though Socrates admits that convention and usage play a role in the creation of names, he confesses that he prefers the view “that names should be as much like things as possible” (pp. 433–435). In other words, for Socrates an iconic sign is the epitome of linguistic signs. However, this view is not the one that came to prevail in linguistic thought. John Locke, in his 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, argues that the existence of different languages, and consequently different words (sounds) for the same objects, provides strong evidence against the view of a “natural” connection between form and meaning of words. This argument is taken further in Saussure (1959), which develops an explicit model of signs in the foundational work, A Course in General Linguistics, originally published in 1916 by Saussure’s students, after his death. Saussure stresses that the relationship between the signifier, or the form of a sign, and the signified, its meaning, is arbitrary. Though he does admit that arbitrariness may be a relative notion, some signs more arbitrary than others (Saussure, 1959, p. 131), he stresses that the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is the first principle of language, a view shared later by Hockett (1960), who regards arbitrariness as one of the “design features” of language. A somewhat different view of iconicity is presented by Peirce (19311958), who develops a theory of taxonomy of signs. One of the basic classifications in the first volume of Peirce, 19311958 is based on different modes of relationship between form and meaning: icons are signs whose forms resemble or imitate their meanings and are regarded as more basic modes of signaling than indices, signs whose forms are connected in some way to their meanings by contiguity, and symbols, signs whose forms do not resemble their meaning. However, not all linguists have adhered to the view of the arbitrary nature of language. Jespersen (1922) argues that sound symbolism, a specific type of iconicity, plays a role in the linguistic reality of languages. Bühler (1934) argues that the structure of a word can be iconic of the spatiotemporal structure of an event.

The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed changes in the attitude toward iconicity. The issue of the non-arbitrary nature of linguistic phenomena became legitimate and interesting, after being ridiculed and ignored for centuries (see, e.g., Simone, 1995, p. viii; Haiman, 1980, 1985). It became a principal issue in studies of grammaticalization and metaphors, and in theories such as functional linguistics (e.g., Givón, 1979, 1984; Hopper & Thompson, 1980, 1985) and cognitive linguistics (e.g., Langacker, 1987). The appearance of sign languages on the central stage of the linguistic arena in the last few decades has added a new dimension to our understanding of iconicity and arbitrariness in language, as demonstrated in Taub (2001). Perniss, Thompson, and Vigliocco (2010), Perniss and Vigliocco (2014) show how the appearance of sign language linguistics has made it possible to compare expressions of iconicity and sensitivity to iconicity in spoken and sign languages, and how iconicity can be regarded as a powerful tool for bridging between linguistic expression and sensorimotor experience in language evolution, development, and processing.

3. Iconicity in Spoken Languages

Spoken languages are made of sounds. These combine with each other to form meaningful units, the words, which in turn combine to generate sentences. There are various ways in which the form of a linguistic element (be it a sound, a lexical item, or a structure) may resemble its meaning. Peirce distinguishes between two kinds of icons: images and diagrams. Images are signs whose form constitutes an image (visual or acoustic) of some characteristic(s) of the concept that it stands for. In diagrams, the resemblance between sign and referent is in the arrangement or the structural relationship between features or parts of the sign, which mirror the relations between parts of the denoted concept. Phenomena that illustrate imagic iconicity in spoken languages are often referred to as instances of sound symbolism and pertain mainly to phonological elements—phonemes, features (such as voicing, vowel height, manner of articulation, etc.), or some broader acoustic feature. Diagrammatic iconicity, explored in depth in Haiman (1980), encompasses various phenomena in which the relation between elements of form is parallel to the relation between elements of meaning. Because diagrammatic iconicity is found in the organization of meaningful elements, the phenomena exhibiting this type of iconicity in spoken languages are at the morphological, syntactic, and discourse level.

3.1 Phonology

Iconicity at the phonological level is mainly imagic; the sounds of a word resemble in some way aspects of its meaning. This phenomenon, often referred to as sound symbolism, has received attention in a huge body of research; see, for example, Sapir (1929), Bloomfield (1933), Bolinger (1977), Jespersen (1922), Jakobson and Waugh (1979), Hinton, Nichols, and Ohala (2006), and Blasi, Wichmann, Hammarström, Stadler, and Christiansen(2016), among many others. This umbrella term covers various phenomena, the main ones being onomatopoeia—words whose sounds resemble or imitate the sounds of the concept they convey, such as cuckoo or ding-dong; phonesthemes—systematic pairing of phonological segments to specific meanings, as exemplified by the sequence sl- in the words slide, slick, slither, all involving frictionless motion; and mimetics—word-like units that mimic sounds or other sensations, as in the Japanese word kari-kari, which can mean “a sound produced when something hard is bitten or scraped” (see, e.g., Hasada, 1998 and Kakehi, Tamori, & Schourup, 1996 for a description and analysis of Japanese mimetics and Dingemanse, 2011 on mimetics in Siwu). Mimetics, also called ideophones, expressives, and onomatopoetics, are found in numerous language families on five continents and often exhibit a number of formal and semantic anomalies that set them aside from other word classes (Nuckolls, 1999; Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz, 2001; Dingemanse & Akita, 2017).

Non-segmental phonological features can also be iconic. Bolinger (1985) points out that intonation can also be used iconically, as a part of a larger complex of visible and audible gestures accompanying speech, using emotive correlations in order to reinforce the conveyed message. Another well-known example is the correspondence between vowel quality and size: it has been argued that low pitch is often associated with largeness and high pitch with smallness, as is evidenced by diminutive forms that in many languages employ high front vowels (Jespersen, 1922). Some recent proposals make prosody central to iconicity: for example, Filippi (2016) argues that the ability to process prosody for emotional and interactional communication might have evolved for using prosodic features of the voice as a cue to language processing, which is now exploited in iconic features of the language (see also Nielsen, 2016). Imagic iconicity is also abundant in sign languages at various levels of linguistic structure (discussed in sections 4.24.5).

3.2 Morphology and Syntax

Iconicity at the morphological and syntactic levels of spoken languages is characterized by and large as diagrammatic iconicity. This term encompasses various phenomena in which the relation between elements of form is parallel to the relation between elements of meaning. One such relationship is linear, that is, the linear order of grammatical elements and that of elements in the world. Greenberg (1963), in his influential work on universals of grammar, points out that morpheme and word order in languages is not random. He suggests that such orderliness can be explained by relying on the iconic principle that “the order of elements in language parallels that in physical experience or the order of knowledge” (p. 103). A famous example is vēnī, vīdī, vīcī, (“I came, I saw, I conquered,” attributed to Julius Caesar) where the order of clauses in a discourse is understood as reflecting the sequence of events in the world.

Diagrammatic iconicity can also be expressed in terms of adjacency, as when concepts that are connected to each other conceptually are expressed by adjacent constituents. Moreover, the more relevant the constituents are to each other, the closer to each other they are placed. For instance, if a head has several modifiers, the most relevant modifier will be closest to the head. Consider an example from Van Langendonck (1995, p. 85): in the noun phrase nice little wooden dolls, the modifier wooden is the closest to the head dolls, because it denotes the feature inherent to the objects described, as opposed to little, which is a feature arising only from comparing the objects in question to other objects. Diagrammatic iconicity may also be found in correspondence in quantity (e.g., a larger chunk of information will be given a larger chunk of code) and markedness (categories that are cognitively marked—i.e., complex—tend also to be structurally marked) (Givón, 1995). An example of correspondence in quantity may be found in the form of complex words. The formal complexity of words often corresponds to semantic complexity. While the German word Schuh ‘shoe’ is arbitrary, the compounds Handschuh ‘glove/mitten’ and its derivatives Fingerhandschuh ‘glove’ and Fausthandschuh ‘mitten’ represent in their internal structure the hyponymy between the terms (Haiman, 1980, p. 531).

Diagrammatic iconicity is often invoked as an explanation for the structure of various morphological phenomena, as discussed in section 3.2. For example, Bybee (1985) refers to iconicity of adjacency and cohesion to explain the ordering of affixes with respect to the stem. Greenberg (1963) and Givón (1985) refer to iconicity in explaining syntactic phenomena pertaining to word order.

Although most phenomena of iconicity at the morphological and syntactic levels are diagrammatic, imagic iconicity is not altogether irrelevant to morphology in spoken languages, because phonesthemes are regarded by some linguists as a type of morpheme, or as a sound segment that can eventually become morphemic. Bolinger (1950) provides a detailed analysis of the synchronic significance of phonesthemes for language users and for the description of relations between words in the lexicon of English. He suggests, for example, that a word such as shivaree became popular over other, more established synonyms, because it patterns with other phonologically infrequent words such as jamboree, husking bee, jubilee, glee, all of which have a final stressed [i:], and all have a related meaning of ‘absence of restraint’, especially unrestrained celebration. The very uniqueness of the stress in those words and their shared meaning helps them to remain a family. Markel and Hamp (1960) coined the term psychomorphs instead of phonesthemes, arguing that the meaning of these units derives from the connotations of the words they appear in, as in the famous example of gl- phonestheme in words such as glow, glitter, glister, and glimmer. Whereas units such as gl-, sp-, and fl- do not have the syllabic structure of a morpheme, they nevertheless carry cultural meaning that is readily discernible and productive. It should be pointed out that the iconicity of some of the phonesthemes is not so obvious. While the [l], a liquid consonant, may be iconically related to frictionless motion in the sl- cluster, its iconic motivation in the gl- cluster is not so obvious (see Cuskley & Kirby, 2013).

3.3 Iconicity as an Explanatory Tool

Iconicity has often been invoked as an explanatory tool to account for properties of linguistic structures. The idea behind such explanations is that linguistic elements and structures have the forms that they have because the form somehow is determined by and mirrors the structure of experience, as expressed in Croft (1990): “The intuition behind iconicity is quite simple: the structure of language reflects in some way the structure of experience… . The structure of language is therefore motivated or explained by the structure of experience to the extent that the two match” (p.164). The reason for the preference for iconicity is that signals that manifest this form-meaning correspondence are “more natural” and therefore easier to process, store, retrieve, and communicate (Givón, 1985; Dressler, Mayerthaler, Panagl, & Wurzel, 1987). Some authors take this as evidence of a cognitive bias for iconicity (Nielsen & Rendall, 2011).

Explanations in terms of iconicity have been referred to in accounts of phenomena at various linguistic levels. At the phonological level, there is a huge body of research using sound symbolism to account for the form of words, morphemes, and mimetics. For example, onomatopoeic words such as cock-a-doodle-doo and tick-tock represent environmental sounds, and movement imitatives such as ding-dong can use reduplication to represent the sound and rhythm of the entity they describe (Hinton, Nichols, & Ohala, 2006). These phenomena also figured prominently in many psycho-linguistic studies, aiming to verify the psychological reality of the form-meaning correspondences at the basis of sound symbolism.

At the morphological level, the theory of Natural Morphology developed in Dressler et al. (1987) assigns iconicity a central role in accounting for certain morphological structures and processes. “Natural” refers to linguistic phenomena that are cognitively simple, easily accessible to children and second-language learners, cross-linguistically frequent, and unmarked. Thus, English plurality patterns can be classified according to their degree of iconicity: the regular plural glove-s is diagrammatically iconic, because it is created by analogy of addition in meaning and form. The irregular plural feet exhibits weaker iconicity, because the addition of meaning (plural) does not have an analogous addition in form. However, the change in form (foot>feet) signals addition of meaning. Irregular forms such as deer are non-iconic, as the addition in meaning has no correspondence in form (Dressler, 1999). Thus it is predicted that forms such as glove-s will be easier to process and to acquire than feet or fish.

Syntactic phenomena such as word order (e.g., Greenberg, 1963, 1966), topic-comment order (Givón, 1985), the expression of arguments (DuBois, 1985), and the preferential object marking (Aissen, 2003) all rely on isomorphism between the arrangement of linguistic elements and the structure of events in the world, and the way we experience it. For example, Aissen addresses cases where direct objects in a particular language are not always case marked. She explains this fact by resorting to iconicity of markedness: the more marked a direct object is, in terms of both its role in discourse and semantic features of its referent, the more likely it is to be overtly case marked. Greenberg’s quest for cross-linguistic universals brought attention to iconic patterns affecting grammatical structure. For instance, his Universal 20 states: “When any or all of the items (demonstrative, numeral, and descriptive adjective) precede the noun, they are always found in that order. If they follow, the order is either the same or its exact opposite” (1966, pp. 86–87). This order can be regarded as reflecting the degree of cohesion of the different types of modifiers to the head noun.

Iconicity also figures prominently in theories of conceptual metaphor, developed extensively by Lakoff and Johnson (1980). The use of linguistic elements from one domain of experience (the source domain) to describe another domain of experience (the target domain) is made possible because of the structural correspondences between elements in the source domain and those of the target domain. Source domains are usually more concrete than target domains and help us grasp more abstract domains in terms of concrete and more familiar domains. Consider metaphors in which thinking is conceptualized as eating. Eating is a basic bodily function, and all humans are intimately familiar with it. Thinking, however, is a more mysterious and poorly understood process, because it is not perceived by our senses. Thus, metaphors such as food for thought, digesting ideas, half-baked idea, raw facts, etc. help us understand the complex phenomenon of thinking through concepts that are easy to grasp.

Many have appealed to iconicity not only to explain the form of structures in language but also to explain certain processes of language development, both in individuals (language acquisition) and in language communities (language change). As for first language acquisition, Slobin (1985) suggests that children strive to produce structures in which the form-function correspondence is transparent. He argues that cross-linguistic analysis of children’s errors shows that children restructure their parents’ language in similar ways and reveal some iconic motivation. For example, children prefer operations such as negation to have a propositional scope, that is, be indicated by the verb or the clause as a whole, and not by nonverbal lexical items within the clause. Recently, there has been an increased interest in the role of imagic iconicity in first language acquisition of spoken languages. Some studies argue that even infants as young as four-months-old are sensitive to sound-meaning correspondences (Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Peña, Mehler, & Nespor, 2011). More typically, however, studies claim that iconicity comes into play in acquisition only when children develop cognitive awareness of iconicity, around three years of age (see Imai & Kita, 2014 and Perniss & Vigliocco, 2014 for an extensive literature review of iconicity effects in first language acquisition). For example, Imai, Kita, Nagumo, and Okada (2008), in their study of two- and three-year-old Japanese-speaking children, show that these children were better at learning novel action verbs when the sound of the verb matched the action it described than when it did not. Interestingly, this increased sensitivity to spoken-language iconicity in two- to three-year-olds is paralleled by emergence of iconic-gesture use at around 2.5 years of age (Namy, Campbell, & Tomasello, 2004; Özçalişkan & Goldin-Meadow, 2009).

Similarly, a number of studies have found that iconicity does facilitate word learning in second language acquisition. Nygaard, Cook, and Namy (2009) found that participants were better at memorizing English translations for pairs of antonyms in Japanese than randomly paired English and Japanese meanings. They take these findings to suggest that natural languages contain non-arbitrary links between sound structure and meaning, and that learners are sensitive to these non-arbitrary relationships. Kovic, Plunkett, and Westermann (2010) present the results of the neuroimaging study suggesting that iconicity facilitates language learning of novel words in adults. They propose that this facilitation may reflect a more general process of auditory-visual feature integration, whereby properties of auditory stimuli facilitate a mapping to specific visual features.

Regarding diachronic changes in language, iconicity plays an important role in the theories of language change (e.g., Croft, 1990) and language emergence. Some researchers argue that earlier forms of language were more iconic (e.g., Deacon, 1997), but that, as language evolved, iconic structures incorporated into a more complex and accordingly more arbitrary new system (Givón, 1995). Recent proposals emphasize cross-modal effects of iconicity in language emergence. For instance, Perlman, Dale, and Lupyan (2015) argue that people take advantage of iconic potentials of each modality (e.g., gestures for actions and spatial relations and vocalizations for objects and events that are associated with specific sounds), and that both likely played a role in language emergence. Similarly, Cuskley (2013) speculates that protolexicon emerged based on shared biases of sensory modalities. That is, the protolexicon was grounded in our perceptual systems, and was therefore non-arbitrary.

A central theory of language change is grammaticalization theory. Fischer (1999) argues that some of the fundamental processes that drive grammaticalization processes are iconic in nature, for example, analogy, isomorphism, and persistence. However, the endpoint of the process of grammaticalization—that is, the change of a lexical, independent element into a grammatical one—may result in a decrease of iconicity, because the change in form and the change in function or meaning often blur the original relationship between the forms and their meanings (Ramat, 1995).

Iconicity was also studied from a psycholinguistic point of view, in order to establish whether the meaning-form correspondences underlying the different types of iconicity have psychological reality. Most experiments in spoken languages focus on the psychological reality of sound symbolism. In such experiments, the typical design is to present participants with words (whether real words or nonce-words) that have particular phonological or phonetic features and to ask them to match these words with target perceptual stimuli—words or phonemes—or to place them on a scale of a specific feature (high–low, big–small). Cross-linguistic similarities are taken as evidence for the universality, or at least language-independence, of certain form-meaning associations.

In one of the earliest studies on the psychological reality of sound symbolism, Sapir (1929) demonstrated that English speakers show high levels of agreement in making comparative judgments between non-word pairs, e.g. in judging mal to be larger than mil. Köhler’s (1929) study was the first to show that speakers tend to match certain speech sounds to certain shapes. He showed the participants the image of an angular self-intersecting shape alongside the image of a rounded self-intersecting shape and asked, “which is takeke and which is baluba?” The majority of participants matched the jagged image with takeke and the rounded image with baluba. The association of front vowels with small objects and back vowels with big round objects has been replicated in numerous studies and in different languages (see Johnson, 1967 on English; Huang, Pratoomraj, & Johnson, 1969 on Mandarin Chinese and Thai; Kim, 1977 on Korean; as well as Gebels, 1969 and Malmberg, 1964; and more recently Westbury, 2005; Maurer, Pathman, & Mondloch, 2006; Nielsen & Rendall, 2011; Sidhu & Pexman, 2015). Westbury (2005) confirms the bouba-kiki effect with reaction time tasks, and Nielsen and Rendall (2011) show that the effect of consonants may be even greater than that of the vowels, that is, the association is triggered by the opposition of strident and sonorant consonant and not just by high and low vowels. Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) present some neurological explanations for this phenomenon, such as a possible extensive cross wiring between brain regions that represent abstract concepts. Subsequent cross-linguistic studies of sound symbolism yielded different results. Some studies argue for universal correspondence between certain physical properties (e.g., size and shape) and certain sound properties (such as vowel height, vowel backness, and obstruent voicing, e.g., Shinohara & Shigeto, 2012), while others argue against the hypothesis regarding the universal character of phonetic iconicity (Brackbill & Little, 1957).

Though iconicity has been invoked as an explanatory tool in almost all domains of linguistics, such over-arching use of this line of explanation has been criticized by several linguists. Haspelmath (2008) argues that iconicity is overused in explaining linguistic phenomena. He advocates other types of explanations, such as frequency of use in discussing some linguistic asymmetries. For example, in inchoative-causative verb pairs, that is, verbs that express the same situation, but the inchoative verb expresses the action or change of state as spontaneous (e.g., “The cup broke”), and the causative verb as caused by an explicit agent (e.g., “The boy broke the cup”), whichever member of the pair occurs more frequently tends not to be marked, and the less frequent member tends to be overtly marked. Bauer (1996) argues, on the basis of a sample of fifty languages, that there does not appear to be any universal principle of sound symbolism operating in markers of diminutive and augmentative forms. The preference for close front vowels and palatal consonants in diminutive forms seems to be restricted to particular language families, including Indo-European. Bauer concludes that patterns of sound symbolism seem to be language- and culture-specific, not universal.

4. Iconicity in Sign Languages

Iconicity is much more prevalent in sign languages than in spoken languages, because the manual–visual modality offers a wealth of possibilities for iconic expressions at every level of linguistic structure. Imagic iconicity, which in spoken language is restricted to the lexical or phonological level, is pervasive in sign languages in all levels of linguistic organization (Pietrandrea & Russo, 2007). At one time, the pervasiveness of iconicity in sign languages was a factor that was used in arguing that they were not “real” languages but rather inferior communication systems, some sort of pantomime. It was only several decades later, when research into the linguistic structure of sign languages had clearly proved that they are indeed full-fledged complex linguistic systems on par with spoken languages, that iconicity ceased to be threatening and researchers delved into investigating the iconic possibilities offered by sign languages. This research has offered new insights into the nature of iconicity and its interaction with linguistic structure.

4.1 Historical Perspective

Because of the modality, sign languages can express concepts, relations, and structures in an iconic way that cannot be paralleled by spoken languages. Because of the three-dimensional spatial nature of the modality, and the flexibility of the hands and arms to move in space, concepts such as size and shape, direction, and manner of motion, locative relations as well as actions of the hands and other body organs are easily amenable to iconic representations in the manual-spatial modality. This is noticeable first and foremost in the lexicon; the vocabulary of any sign language contains many more iconic words than that of a spoken language. This property of sign languages led many people to assume that sign languages are not “real” languages but rather a degraded or primitive form of language, or a sort of pantomime. This view, articulated by distinguished linguists such as Bloomfield (1933, p. 39), had its impact on the first decades of sign language linguistic research. In order to demonstrate that sign languages are real languages, rich, complex, and expressive as spoken languages, many researchers focused on downgrading the role of iconicity in sign languages. It was emphasized that sign languages have many arbitrary signs as well. Moreover, various studies showed that the iconic nature of signs may change over time. Frishberg (1975), comparing American Sign Language (ASL) signs of the 1920s to those of the 1970s, found that signs often become less iconic as a result of diachronic changes. For examples, several signs denoting emotions, such as LIKE, PLEASE, FEEL, LOVE, were originally signed over the heart but gradually became to be signed at the center of the chest, because of a tendency of signs to move to the center. Meir and Sandler (2008, p. 54) point out that the original sign for CAMERA in Israeli Sign Language (ISL) was fully iconic: one hand was positioned as if holding the camera, while the other ‘pushed the button down’. Over time, the sign became symmetrical, and therefore less iconic; both hands ‘push the button down’.

Certain morphological operations were also shown to play a role in reducing iconicity, as illustrated by the intensive inflection of adjectives in ASL. This inflection is signaled by a short, rapid, and tense movement, which can be regarded as an iconic representation of the notion of ‘intensity’. Yet in some signs this inflection results in a counter-iconic form. The sign SLOW is made with one hand moving along the back of the other hand. But the sign meaning ‘very slow’ has a short rapid movement, rather than a movement slower than the base sign (Klima & Bellugi, 1979, p. 31). Also, iconicity has shown not to play a role in child sign language acquisition. Iconic signs constitute only about 30% of the child’s early words (Orlansky & Bonvillian, 1984), and more iconic forms of verb agreement in ASL are not acquired earlier than less iconic forms (Meier, 1982).

However, a few works in the early days of sign language linguistics, such as Mandel (1977) and DeMatteo (1977), did acknowledge the prevalence of iconicity in sign languages and offer detailed descriptions of their iconic devices. Furthermore, these works also raised the question of whether linguistic theories that were constructed on the basis of spoken languages can adequately account for sign languages as well. DeMatteo argues that it is necessary to incorporate a linguistic level of visual imagery into a linguistic model of sign languages.

Gradually, as research on sign languages expanded and deepened, it became clearer that iconicity need not stand in contrast with grammar; rather, it became obvious that iconicity and grammar interact in interesting ways. Because the status of sign languages as a true language no longer need be established and defended, iconicity has become a central issue of investigation, no longer suppressed and downgraded, but rather one of the impacts of the physical modality on the structure of language (Emmorey & Lane, 2000; Meier, Cormier, & Quinto-Pozos, 2002; Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006; Vermeerbergen, 2006; and Perniss, Thompson, & Vigliocco, 2010, among others). More iconicity effects have been discovered, not only in the lexicon, but in other linguistic domains as well.

4.2 Phonology

As mentioned earlier, in sign languages imagic iconicity is very salient at the phonological level. That is, the form of many signs reflects aspects of their meanings. For example, the verb EAT in Israeli Sign Language (ISL) and other sign languages has the form of holding something and putting it into the mouth; in the sign HOUSE the two hands are held in a configuration reminding of a pointed roof; in the sign HEN the thumb and the index finger are held close to the mouth, representing the hen’s beak. The prevalence of iconic signs obscured for a long time the insight that signs in sign languages have phonological structure. It was Stokoe’s (1960) pioneering work that showed that signs are not holistic units but are made up of specific formational units—hand configuration, movement, and location. These units function as phonemes, because they are contrastive. For example, the signs MOTHER and NOON in ISL have the same movement and location, and differ in their handshape: Iconicity versus Iconicity, respectively. Similar minimal pairs can be found with the movement and location features of the signs.

However, unlike phonemes in spoken languages, which are usually taken to be meaningless (though this is challenged by the literature on sound symbolism), in sign languages these formational units are in many cases not devoid of meaning. The ISL verb EAT illustrates this point. The hand assumes a particular shape (Iconicity), moving toward the mouth from a location in front of it, and executes this movement twice. Eat means ‘to put (food) in the mouth, chew if necessary, and swallow’ (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 3d College Edition). The sign EAT is iconic, because there is a regular mapping between its formational elements and components of its meaning: the Iconicity handshape corresponds to holding a solid object (food); the mouth corresponds to the mouth of the eater, the agent argument; the movement toward the mouth corresponds to putting the object into the mouth; and the double movement indicates a process.

Though there are also many arbitrary signs in any given sign language, the prevalence of iconic signs in these languages presents several challenges to their linguistic description. The first is the description of the rich iconic inventory of sign languages. DeMatteo (1977), Boyes-Braem (1980), and Brennan (1990) provide thorough descriptions of the different iconic means and mechanisms in sign languages, which Taub (2001) further develops into a detailed and comprehensive theoretical model, which allows for explicit formalization of the form-meaning mapping in iconic forms and also in metaphorical-iconic form.

A second challenge is how to incorporate iconicity into a phonological theory of sign languages. Van der Kooij (2002) develops a theory of phonological representation of handshapes in the Sign Language of the Netherlands. A radical aspect of her theory is the central role given to iconicity. According to her approach, handshape specifications, which are purely phonological in nature, are determined by visual properties of the concept denoted by the sign, which are iconically represented by its handshape. Therefore iconicity should be incorporated in a phonological theory of sign languages. Other researchers argue that all phonological components of signs are meaning-bearing, and therefore sign languages have a different type of phonology from spoken languages (e.g., Tobin, 2007, 2008; Fuks & Tobin, 2009). Shepard-Kegl (1985) develops a theory of “syntax below the level of the word” and argues that the different formational elements of signs (in particular verbal signs) are themselves morphemes representing components of an event, often in an iconic way.

Thirdly, iconicity presents a challenge for the traditional division between phonemes and morphemes, because the basic formational units, the phonemes of sign languages, may be meaning-bearing and not meaningless. Meaningfulness is usually regarded as the factor distinguishing phonemes from morphemes: phonemes are meaningless, while morphemes are meaningful units. Phonemes are the basic building blocks of meaning bearing units in a language. But in sign languages, those basic building blocks can also be meaning-bearing. Can they be regarded as morphemes, then? This would also seem problematic, because they are not composed of more basic formational elements, and the units they attach to are not words, stems, or roots but rather other basic formational units. This dual nature of the basic building blocks of signs led some researchers to posit new types of linguistic units or linguistic levels of organization to account for the iconic properties of signs. Boyes-Braem (1980) suggests that signs are characterized by a structural level that has no counterpart in spoken languages and that is metaphoric and iconic in nature. Johnston and Schembri (1999) propose that these units function simultaneously as phonemes and morphemes, given that they serve as the basic formational building blocks and at the same time as minimal meaning-bearing units. They propose the term phonomorphemes to capture the nature of these basic elements. Similarly, Fernald and Napoli (2000) posit a new linguistic unit, the “ion-morph,” a combination of one or more phonological features that, within a certain set of signs, has a specific meaning. This shared phonological material carrying a specific meaning results in a specific organization of the lexicon into “sign families”—signs that share a formational element (or elements) and some meaning component. For example, many signs in ISL that are articulated on the temple express some kind of mental activity (KNOW, REMEMBER, LEARN, WORRY, MISS, DREAM, DAY-DREAM); signs articulated on the chest often denote feelings (LOVE, SUFFER, HAPPY, PROUD, PITY, HEART-ACHE). Many signs with a Iconicity handshape denote activities performed by the legs (JUMP, GET-UP, FALL, WALK, RUN, STROLL). The nature of these units is reminiscent of phonesthemes: both are phonological units that are associated with specific meanings. Yet the iconicity of the signed units is much more transparent than that of the vocal units.

4.3 Morphology

Sign languages, like spoken languages, have two types of morphological mechanisms: sequential and simultaneous. A sequential operation adds phonological segments onto a base, suffixes (as in baker) and prefixes (as in unhappy). In a simultaneous operation, meaningful units are added not by adding segments but rather by changing them. The plurality of feet, for example, is encoded by changing the quality of the vowel of the singular form foot. In sign languages, simultaneous morphology is much more common than sequential morphology. Simultaneous morphological processes are achieved by manipulating formational elements of the signs, especially the movement component, and many of these processes are built on iconic mapping of formational elements onto conceptual or grammatical categories.

Various sign languages have a class of verbs (called ‘agreement verb’, Padden, 1983) that marks the core arguments of the verb. The direction of motion of these verbs represents in an iconic manner the motion of an entity from its source argument to the goal argument (Johnston, 1991; Friedman, 1975; Shepard-Kegl, 1985; Engberg-Pedersen, 1993; and Meir, 2002; Taub, 2001 presents a somewhat different analysis of the iconicity of agreement verbs).

Another simultaneous morphological mechanism is the encoding of various types of verbal aspects by changing the quality of the movement component of the sign (Klima & Bellugi, 1979). The characteristics of the movement in various operations are argued to be iconically motivated. Bergman and Dahl (1994) show that reduplication of verbs in Swedish Sign Language has the function of expressing certain aspectual meanings such as prolonged action or iterative action. The authors argue that these reduplicative forms behave more like ideophones in certain spoken languages than like forms inflected for aspect in rich inflecting languages such as Russian and Latin. Wilcox (2004) investigates verbal aspects in American Sign Language (as well as other constructions, e.g., classifier constructions) and offers an analysis of iconicity in the framework of cognitive linguistics. Wilbur (2008) expands the analysis of iconicity of the movement in predicate signs, arguing that each feature of the movement (e.g., manner of motion, direction, whether or not it has a pronounced endpoint) encodes temporal aspects of the event structure. This mapping between form and meaning is captured in the author’s Event Visibility Hypothesis: “In the predicate system, the semantics of the event structure is visible in the phonological form of the predicate sign” (p. 229).

In the classifier constructions of sign languages, not only the movement component is iconic, but the handshape and the relative position of the hands as well. These constructions express the location or motion in space of referents. The handshape often represents visual properties of the referents, for example, their size and shape. For example, long thin objects may be represented by a Iconicity handshape, wide-rectangular objects by a Iconicity handshape, cylindrical objects by a Iconicity handshape, and round objects by a Iconicity handshape. The motion of the entity is represented by features of the movement of the construction. In order to show a car going uphill in ISL, the signer may move the Iconicity hand in a slanted upward movement; a zig-zag movement indicates that the vehicle is moving in a zig-zag fashion; and a ‘bouncy’ movement shows a car moving on an unpaved, rugged road. The two hands may each represent a different entity. To show a car going underneath a bridge, the signer may use one hand to represent the bridge, while the other hand moves underneath it. The highly iconic nature of these constructions raised a lot of discussion as to their nature—whether they are linguistic or gestural or a combination of the two (see, e.g., articles in Emmorey, 2003; Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006; Zwitserlood, 2012).

The handshape of a sign can represent iconically not only visual properties of referents, but also quantity. In several sign languages, in pronominal signs and in signs denoting time periods, age, and money, the number of fingers denotes quantity. For example, the basic form of the signs HOUR, DAY, WEEK, MONTH, and YEAR in ISL is made with a Iconicity handshape. By using a Iconicity, Iconicity, Iconicity, or Iconicity handshape, the number of units is expressed. That is, signing the sign for DAY with a Iconicity handshape means ‘two days.’ A Iconicity handshape would mean ‘three days,’ etc. This mechanism, called ‘numeral incorporation,’ has been reported on in many sign languages, for example, ASL, BSL, ISL, DGS, Auslan, Indo-Pakistani sign language, Catalan sign language, and Japanese sign language, among others (Liddell, 1996; Fuentes, Massone, del Pilar Fernandez, & Makotrinsky,2010; Ktejik, 2013; and references therein).

4.4 Syntax, Semantics, and Discourse

The syntactic structure of sign languages can be shaped by diagrammatic iconicity; like spoken languages, for example, the order of clauses may reflect the chronological order of events. But sign languages, unlike spoken languages, may reflect syntactic notions in a more imagistic way by the structure of the signs, specifically predicative signs. Various aspects of the event represented by a sign can be encoded by the different formational (phonological) components of the sign. Take, for example, the sign EAT, described in section 4.2. The handshape represents holding a small solid object. These are the properties of the patient argument, the food. The mouth, the location of the sign, represents aspects of the agent argument. The direction of movement, toward the mouth, represents the relationship between the two arguments. And the repeated movement of the sign represents an atelic ongoing event. The phonological components of the sign, then, represent the two arguments as well as temporal-aspectual properties of the event. The sign EAT is by no means exceptional; many signs in the lexicons of different sign languages reflect iconically aspects of the argument structure and temporal texture of the event, leading researchers to develop models that can capture the regularities in such iconic encoding.

Shepard-Kegl (1985) develops a theory of “syntax below the level of the word” and argues that the different formational elements of signs (in particular verbal signs) are themselves morphemes representing components of an event, often in an iconic way. Wilbur (2008) develops a detailed analysis of the movement component of the sign, showing how its various parts encode the event structure of the sign. Strickland et al. (2015) show that different sign languages encode telicity versus atelicity in a similar way: telic events are encoded by a movement with salient visual boundaries while repeated movement without salient boundaries corresponds to atelic events. They further show that hearing non-signers are sensitive to these differences as well, suggesting “universally accessible ‘mapping biases’ between telicity and visual form.” Meir, Padden, Aronoff, and Sandler (2007) argue that the syntactic notion of “subject” is iconically represented in the lexical structure of signed predicates. In this iconic representation, it is the signer’s body that is central to the form-meaning mapping: a specific body part (such as mouth, eyes, temple, chest, etc.) functions as the phonological location of the sign and represents features of the subject argument of the event. The number of hands in signs may also be motivated by its semantics. Lepic, Börstell, Belsitzman, and Sandler (2016), in a cross-linguistic study of four sign languages, argue that signs whose meaning involves the notion of plurality tend to be two-handed. The richness of the system in constructing and depicting different aspects of an event is presented in Dudis (2004), which provides a detailed analysis of the use of the signer’s body to iconically represent different aspects of an event in a simultaneous fashion by body partitioning, in which different parts of the body (e.g., face, hands) each depict a specific aspect of an event.

While most of the studies on iconicity and semantics in sign languages focus on argument structure and event structure, recent works of Philippe Schlenker and his colleagues address the notion of iconicity through the framework of formal semantics. Schlenker, Lamberton, and Santoro (2013) analyze the status of loci in the signing space as both formal variables and iconic representations. They develop a framework, ‘formal semantics with iconicity’, to account for this dual nature of loci, suggesting that some geometrical properties of signs must be preserved by the interpretation function. In this framework, logic and iconicity are integrated as the core of sign language semantics.

Finally, Russo (2004) suggests that iconicity also plays a role in sign language discourse, specifically the differentiation of registers in Italian Sign Language (LIS). His analysis of three registers in LIS (poems, narratives, and lectures), shows that each register makes different use of dynamic iconicity, that is, the ability to create novel expressions by relying on iconic mappings.

4.5 Iconicity and Metaphor

It is a widespread misconception that iconic signs can represent only concrete entities. Sign languages show that iconicity is in fact central to creating signs for abstract concepts. They often do it by using metaphorical extension of concrete entities and actions. The sign STUDY in ISL represents this intricate relationship between iconicity and metaphor. This sign constitutes a minimal pair with the sign EAT, previously described: both have a Iconicity handshape and an inward double movement. They differ in their location features: EAT is signed close to the mouth and STUDY close to the temple. Both signs are also iconic: EAT iconically represents putting a small object into the mouth, and STUDY iconically represents putting a small object into the head. However, while the event of eating actually involves putting food in the mouth, the event of studying does not involve putting a concrete small object into the head. Rather, the meaning of STUDY is built on the metaphor that our head is a container for mental activities, and that ideas and pieces of knowledge are like small objects contained in a container. This metaphor lies in the basis of many metaphoric expressions in spoken languages, such as ‘Who put this idea in your head?!’. In sign languages, the source domain, the physical action of putting small objects in a container, the head, is expressed in an iconic way by the form of the signs. Other signs in the language are also built on this metaphor: REMEMBER has the form of the hand making contact with the temple (as if ‘gluing’ an object to the head), and in INFORM the hand moves from the temple toward the addressee, as if taking a small object from the head and transferring it to the addressee.

The use of iconicity in creating signs for abstract concepts through the use of metaphor has been noticed and analyzed in many works, for example, Wilbur (1987), Brennan (1990), Wilcox (2000), Taub (2001), Johnston and Schembri (2007), and Sutton-Spence and Woll (1998). Taub (2001) developed a detailed explicit model of the relationship between the iconicity of a sign and its metaphoric extensions. According to her model, iconic-metaphoric signs involve double mapping: iconic mapping from the source domain of the sign to its phonological structure (where each phonological component corresponds to a meaning component in the source domain), and a metaphoric mapping, where components of the source domain are mapped onto concepts of the goal domain. An analysis of the sign STUDY, based on Taub’s model, is presented in Table 1:

Table 1. Double Mapping of the Sign STUDY (ISL)





Head region

Mental activities

Location at head

Location inside the head

Locus of mental activity

Iconicity handshape

Grasping a small object

A piece of information/idea

Movement toward temple

Putting something inside the head

Containing information/learning

Meir (2010) builds on Taub’s “Double Mapping” to explain why certain metaphorical expressions that are very common among spoken languages are impossible in sign languages, for example, “time flies.” She suggests that the iconicity of signs such as FLY prevents them from taking a metaphorical meaning when the iconic mapping clashes with the metaphoric mapping. The verb FLY in ISL iconically represents the flapping of the wings. But the metaphoric expression is not built on the wing flapping but rather on the speed of the action: flight is taken to be a very rapid form of movement. Yet the speed is not represented in the iconic mapping. The discrepancy between the iconic mapping (the flapping of the wings) and the intended metaphoric meaning (a fast movement) blocks the use of this metaphor in ISL.

4.6 Space

Sign languages, unlike spoken languages, are spatial languages; the hands move in a three-dimensional space around the signer’s body called the signing space. The motion of the hands in the signing space from one location to another, with respect to the body and with respect to each other, is a rich source for various types of iconic expression. Research on several sign languages, for example, Danish Sign language (Engberg-Pedersen, 1993), American Sign Language (Emmorey, Tversky, & Taylor, 2000), German Sign language (Perniss, 2007), and Kata Kolok Sign Language (de Vos, 2012), demonstrates that there are different ways to use space in the grammars of sign languages, as well as different possibilities for iconic depictions of space and different ways of mapping real-world space onto the signing space.

One distinction made in the literature is between topographical and syntactic uses of space. In the former, locations in the signing space represent locations in the real world and the spatial relations between them. In the latter, locations in the signing space are associated with discourse arguments but have no spatial meaning. Emmorey, Corina, and Bellugi (1995) argue that these two uses of space are processed differently. Poizner, Klima, and Bellugi (1987) show that they are impaired by lesions and traumas to different hemispheres. However, there is no consensus on whether the two uses of space are necessarily mutually exclusive (Emmorey et al., 1995), or on whether the distinction is valid at all (Liddell, 2003).

Another distinction related to iconic representation of space and spatial events is between observer and character perspectives. When an event is represented from the observer perspective, the signer is external, and the view on the event or scene described is global. In the character perspective, the signer represents an argument taking part in the described event (Emmorey et al., 2000; Perniss, 2007). For example, in order to show a character moving down a street, the signer may map the street to the signing space in front of his or her chest and then use the hand moving along that street (that is, the place in the signing space where the street was mapped onto) to represent the character moving along the street. The signer is an external observer to the scene, not taking part in the event. Or the signer can imagine himself or herself going down a street. In that case, the street extends from the signer’s chest forward, and the signer may show his or her own motion along the street by moving the arms as if walking along a path. Both strategies are iconic, as real-world locations are mapped onto the signing space, but the representations of the space and the entities moving in it are different.

Space can be used to represent iconically some discursive relations and functions, by drawing on different types of diagrammatic iconicity (Engberg-Pedersen, 1993). When comparing or contrasting two entities or topics, a signer may use the left-right axis of the signing space to place one topic on the right and the other on the left. The signing stretches that are related to the first entity or topic will be signed on the right, and those pertaining to the second, on the left (Engberg-Pedersen’s convention of comparison). The signer’s stance toward a referent can be indicated by the choice of a spatial locus close to or farther from the body (for liked or disliked referents, respectively). The height of the signing may represent authority: signers may localize a referent to whom they attribute authority higher up in the signing space (Engberg-Pedersen’s authority convention). The partitioning of space can also be used to indicate cohesion between different parts of signed narratives. Mather and Winston (1998) describe how signers create two main discourse spaces in the signing space, to describe events that took place in different locales (inside and outside the house, in this case).

4.7 Iconicity as an Explanatory Tool

Iconicity is prevalent in sign languages, on every linguistic level, whereas in spoken languages it is less salient and more restricted. Is this difference merely a matter of degree, or does it have an effect on certain processes and structures of languages of the two modalities? Some studies suggest that the difference is not merely quantitative, but rather that it lies in the basis of certain differences between sign and spoken languages. On the lexical level, the degree of lexical similarity between different and unrelated sign languages is much higher than that found for spoken languages. Guerra Currie, Meier, and Walters (2002) compared the lexicons of four sign languages (Mexican, Spanish, Japanese, and French sign languages), and found the degree of similarly articulated signs between each two of these languages between 23% and 38%. These results indicate that even two completely unrelated sign languages, such as Japanese and Mexican sign languages, still share about 20% of their vocabularies. Similar results are reported in an earlier comparative study by Woll (1983). A central explanation for this observation is the iconic nature of many signs, which can result in similar signs for the same concepts in unrelated sign languages.

Cross-linguistic similarities in sign languages are found in morphology too. The system of verb agreement, where verbs denoting transfer cross-reference their subject and object (source and goal) arguments by the direction of the verb's movement, is very similar across different sign languages. This similarity is attributed to the iconic nature of the mechanism: the verb moves from a spatial location of its source argument to that of its goal argument (Johnston, 1991; Meir, 2002). Aronoff, Meir, and Sandler (2005) further suggest that the iconicity of the system explains the fact that sign languages develop complex morphology in spite of their young age (in contrast with spoken creoles). They suggest that the complex spatial morphology, representing an iconic way of mapping spatial notions such as source and goal, emerges much earlier in the development of a language than inflectional morphemes that are the result of grammaticalization processes. Wilbur (2008) extends the cross-linguistic similarities to the structure of predicate signs in general, suggesting that temporal properties of event structure, such as telicity, are encoded in a very similar way in different sign languages.

Iconicity can also explain why certain structures do not develop in sign languages. Meir (2003, 2010) suggests that some grammaticalization paths common in spoken languages are absent from sign languages because of the iconicity of the source items. For example, in sign languages we do not find a grammaticalization path from body parts to spatial preposition to a grammatical case marker (which is common in spoken languages [Blake, 1994]). Meir suggests that the iconicity of signs denoting body parts and spatial prepositions in sign languages (the hands showing the spatial relation in question) prevents them from undergoing the semantic bleaching that is characteristic of the early stages of grammaticalization. Similarly, certain metaphorical extensions are prevented because the sign’s iconicity highlights a property of the concept that is irrelevant for the metaphorical interpretation, yet cannot be ignored because of its iconicity.

The richness of iconic devices in the manual-visual modality made possible another line of investigation: studying the relationship between linguistic organization and different iconic strategies. Padden and colleagues (2013, 2014) studied how sign languages organize their lexicons by using different iconic strategies to represent signs denoting tools and man-made artifacts. In signs denoting objects manipulated by a human hand, the handshape can depict either some salient visual property of the object (object strategy) or the way the object is handled by a human hand (handling strategy). For example, a toothbrush can be represented by a Iconicity handshape, standing for a long thin object, or by a Iconicity handshape, showing how the toothbrush is held. Though sign languages use both strategies, Padden et al. (2013) found that different sign languages tend to prefer one strategy over another. ASL, for example, shows a strong tendency toward the object strategy, while ISL shows preference toward the handling strategy. Furthermore, Padden, Hwang, Lepic, and Seegers (2014) found that ASL uses the two strategies to encode a grammatical distinction, between nouns and verbs: nouns tend to have an object handshape, while verbs have a handling handshape. Thus the availability of different iconic strategies is exploited to organize the grammar.

In a similar vein, Meir, Sandler, Padden, and Aronoff (2013) show how different iconic strategies pertaining to the body of the signer are used to delineate different grammatical categories. The body may stand for the subject arguments (as described), but also for first person. Pronominal signs and agreement verbs employ the body-as-first-person strategy, while another class of verbs, plain verbs (verbs that do not inflect for agreement), employ the body-as-subject strategy.

4.8 The Acquisition and Processing of Iconicity

The abundance of iconic signs in the lexicon of any given sign language makes it possible to investigate whether iconicity affects certain psycholinguistic processes such as acquisition, production, and perception. Early studies on the acquisition of sign languages as first languages (Meier, 1982; Orlansky & Bonvillian, 1984) found that iconicity did not affect the rate and order of acquisition. Iconic signs were not acquired before non-iconic signs, and iconic morphological structures were not acquired before non-iconic structures. Furthermore, the analysis of production errors in a longitudinal study of four deaf children (following the children from as early as 8 months of age up to 17 months of age) indicated that errors did not tend to be more iconic than the correct signs, as might be expected if children were tuned to iconicity (Meier, Mauk, Cheek, & Moreland, 2008). However, later studies (e.g., Thompson, Vincent, Woll, & Vigliocco, 2012) argue that iconicity may indeed facilitate acquisition. For instance, Vinson, Cormier, Denmark, Schembri, and Vigliocco (2008) used familiarity questionnaires with deaf adults to assess the connection between iconicity and age of acquisition in British Sign Language signers, and found that early acquired signs were rated as the most iconic. A major question, then, is whether children are able to recognize iconic aspects of signs. Tolar, Lederberg, Gokhale, and Tomasello (2008) and Namy (2008) find that the ability to recognize iconicity is not found in very young children (under three years old), and that it develops over time. The fact that young children do not recognize iconic motivations behind signs, however, does not necessarily imply that iconicity does not affect acquisition. For instance, in their study on young children acquiring ASL and Sign Language of the Netherlands, Slobin et al. (2003) found that iconicity may aid acquisition of meaningful handshape distinction (e.g., handling classifiers) even in children younger than three years old. And verbs that map real-world movements, such as give, emerge already by the age of two (Casey, 2003). To further complicate matters, children might be variably sensitive to iconicity at different ages. Namy, Campbell, and Tomasello (2004) found that English-speaking children who were taught action-based iconic and arbitrary signs displayed a U-shaped trajectory: they were equally good at acquiring both iconic and arbitrary signs at 18 months and at four years of age, but learned iconic signs much better than arbitrary ones at 24 months of age. The authors believe that those results indicate the children’s changing expectations as to what form a label can take. In addition, children may be sensitive to different types of iconicity at different ages, though research indicates that they are more sensitive to action-based iconicity at all ages (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 1998). And the ability to recognize iconicity in signs has been found to steadily increase in hearing children of preschool ages (Tolar et al., 2008).

While the role of iconicity in lexical acquisition in first language is complex and controversial, in second language learning its effects are clearer. Brown (1980) reports on experimental findings in which hearing children (average age, four years) were better at memorizing iconic signs for objects compared with memorizing non-iconic signs for objects. Several studies have shown that adult learners benefit from iconicity in the early stages of sign language acquisition, both in delayed memory tasks (Liebert & Gamble, 1991) and in forced choice recognition tasks (Campbell, Martin, & White, 1992), but only when they recognize the link between the sign’s form and its meaning (see also Luftig & Lloyd, 1981 and more recently Baus, Carreiras, & Emmorey, 2013). This positive effect is mostly manifested in lexical processing and does not help hearing adult signers in phonological decision tasks (Thompson, Vinson, & Vigliocco, 2010). On the contrary, beginning signers imitate iconic signs far less accurately than non-iconic signs, probably due to a more superficial processing of the signs’ phonetic form (Ortega & Morgan, 2010, 2015). Chen Pichler (2011) found that when non-signers are imitating iconic signs, they produce their own gestural forms instead. She argues they do so because they do not process the sign’s sub-lexical elements. Not surprisingly, when the target sign has the same handshape as the participants’ gesture, their production is far more accurate (Ortega & Ozyurek, 2013).

Another question regarding iconicity is whether iconic signs are processed differently from non-iconic signs. Some studies indicate that iconic signs are processed just like non-iconic signs. Emmorey et al. (2004) showed that the same brain regions are employed in production of iconic and non-iconic signs. In their memory experiments, Poizner, Bellugi, and Tweney (1981) found that iconicity does not improve performance on free recall or ordered recall of lists of signs. Iconic signs are also as likely to be impaired in aphasia as non-iconic signs (Marshall, Atkinson, Smulovitch, Thacker, & Woll, 2004) and in tip-of-the-finger states (Thompson, Emmorey, & Gollan, 2005).

However, Thompson et al. (2010) found that iconic signs are much harder to inhibit than non-iconic ones, even in tasks that require no access to meaning. They asked deaf signers of British Sign Language (BSL) to make a phonological decision: to decide whether BSL signs, presented in video clips, were produced with a handshape with straight or curved fingers. The signs were both iconic and non-iconic, but, importantly, the iconicity of the signs was irrelevant for the task, as the task did not involve access to the meaning or meaning components of the signs. Thompson et al. found that iconic signs led to slower reaction times and more errors in the participants’ responses. They suggest that meaning is activated automatically for highly iconic signs, because of the closer form-meaning mapping in these signs. This automatic activation of meaning interfered with the task because it provided information that could not be inhibited yet was irrelevant to the task at hand. It seems, then, that iconicity cannot be ignored, even when it is irrelevant. A similar conclusion comes from another study on feature-matching task in German Sign Language (DGS). Grote and Linz (2003) showed their participants a picture of some feature (such as a wing of a bird) and asked them to respond if that feature belonged to the object expressed by a DGS sign (e.g., eagle). Their participants responded faster if the feature on the picture was the same as the one depicted by the sign's form. Ormel, Hermans, Knoors, and Verhoeven (2009) showed similar effects of iconicity in sign recognition in children as young as eight years old.

It appears that a life-long familiarity with iconicity makes signers more sensitive to its effects. Vigliocco et al. (2005) asked deaf and hearing participants to judge which two of three signs were most closely related in meaning. Deaf participants were more affected by the imagery component of the signs, which led the authors to conclude that familiarity with iconicity made them more sensitive to imagery. This sensitivity can be language-specific, though. In a study by Adam, Iversen, Wilkinson, and Morford (2007) deaf signers of DGS rated DGS signs as more iconic than ASL signs, and rated ASL signs as less iconic than did signers of ASL. Pizzuto and Volterra (2000) showed transparent and non-transparent LIS (Italian Sign Language) signs to both deaf and hearing participants from six different national origins. Both deaf and hearing participants were able to guess some of the signs, but all deaf signers outperformed the hearing participants, and hearing Italians outperformed the other hearing participants, which suggests cultural sensitivity to iconicity as well.

5. Conclusions: Changing the View Toward Iconicity in Language

As is clear by now, iconicity is far from being an unimportant and negligible characteristic of language. On the contrary: it is widespread in both spoken and sign languages, in all levels of linguistic structure, and is a key factor in many linguistic processes, both synchronic and diachronic. While in earlier works the key question concerning iconicity in language was whether human languages are iconic or arbitrary in nature, research since the second part of the 20th century steered the focus of investigation to other directions: the interaction between iconicity and arbitrariness in language, and the functions of iconicity in language, in linguistic processes, and in language processing. An example of these new directions is Perniss and Vigliocco (2014), an article arguing that iconicity is a fundamental property of language, on the same level as arbitrariness. Iconicity facilitates the transfer of meaning because it provides scaffolding for the cognitive system as to how to connect the communicative (linguistic and gestural) form to the way we experience the world; arbitrariness ensures that the linguistic signal is efficient and discriminable. Both are needed for successful communication. Based on evidence from both sign and spoken languages, they propose that iconicity plays a key role in language evolution, language development, and language processing.

Other directions for investigation have focused on the existence of different types of iconicity, and how these are exploited to create grammatical distinctions in language. Here again, we see an important change: while iconicity used to be regarded as nongrammatical and even opposed to grammar, works such as Meir, Sandler, Padden, and Aronoff (2013), Padden et al. (2013), and Padden, Hwang, Lepic, and Seegers (2014) show that iconicity can contribute to the development of grammatical categories and distinctions.

Most recently, research on iconicity has undergone an important paradigm shift from simply debating about whether or not iconicity plays a role in language evolution, processing, and acquisition to asking to what extent iconicity does play this role. For example, Dingemanse, Schuerman, Reinisch, Tufvesson, and Mitterer (2016) reevaluated the famous bouba-kiki effect with ideophones from five natural spoken languages. In their study, Dutch speakers were able to guess the meaning of ideophones above chance, but this effect was more modest than usually reported in studies with pseudowords, and the effect was only viable when both segments and prosody contributed to sound symbolism. The authors conclude that the iconic association exists in structural correspondences that recur across words and involves both segmental and suprasegmental information, and raise important concerns about the methodologies of previous studies. Likewise, a number of recent studies showed that young children are sensitive to iconicity and acquire iconic words earlier than non-iconic ones, and tend to produce them more frequently in early stages of language acquisition (see Perry, Perlman, Winter, Massaro, & Lupyan, 2017; Imai & Kita, 2014; Perniss, Lu, Morgan, & Vigliocco, 2017; Massaro & Perlman, 2017; and references therein). However, recent studies also demonstrate that young children’s input also has a disproportional number of iconic words compared to speech directed to older interlocutors, suggesting that it is possible that children acquire iconic words earlier simply because of the frequency of those words in the child-directed language (Perry et al., 2017). This recent trend in studies on iconicity shows that the field is entering a new stage, with more sound scientific techniques, more sophisticated questions, and more understanding of the nature of the phenomenon, which no doubt will bring new exciting insights into the role iconicity plays in human communication.

Iconicity in language and literature.

Ideophones and iconicity (Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics).

Further Reading

DeMatteo, A. (1977). Visual imagery and visual analogues in American Sign Language. In L. Friedman (Ed.), On the other hand: New perspectives on American Sign Language (pp. 109–136). London: Academic Press.Find this resource:

    In this early paper, the author argues that it is necessary to incorporate a linguistic level of visual imagery into a linguistic model of sign languages.

    Fischer, O., & Ljungberg, C. (Eds.). (1999–). Iconicity in Language and Literature [Book series]. Amsterdam: Benjamins.Find this resource:

      This multidisciplinary book series, which includes 13 volumes published to date of this article, is devoted to investigating iconicity as a cognitive process pervasive in all forms of verbal communication, including linguistics and literature.

      Frishberg, N. (1975). Arbitrariness and iconicity: Historical change in American Sign Language. Language, 51, 696–719.Find this resource:

        This paper offers a very interesting comparison between earlier and more recent forms of some ASL signs. Frishberg shows that historical change often results in waning of iconicity and increase in arbitrariness.

        Haiman, J. (1980). The iconicity of grammar: Isomorphism and motivation. Language, 56, 515–540.Find this resource:

          A classic article investigating the role of two types of diagrammatic iconicity: isomorphism (one form = one meaning) and motivation (the structure of language directly reflects some aspect of the structure of reality).

          Haiman, J. (Ed.). (1985). Iconicity in syntax. Amsterdam: Benjamins.Find this resource:

            One of the first edited volumes devoted to iconicity. The volume includes a wealth of classical articles on iconicity from many perspectives.

            Jakobson, R., & Waugh, R. L. (1979). The sound shape of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

              This book is based on the life-long research of Roman Jakobson in phonology. A basic hypothesis of the book is that language is a completely semiotic system, and therefore, all linguistic elements have meaning or function, including phonological distinctive features. Section IV, “The Spell of Speech Sounds,” provides a detailed and fascinating survey of the study of sound symbolism.

              Klima, E. S., & Bellugi, U. (1979). The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                A very influential and accessible volume, this book provides the first in-depth study of the grammatical system of a specific sign language, ASL. Several chapters are devoted to iconicity, showing that in spite of its presence, it does not play a role in various linguistic and psycho-linguistic processes but is employed in more artistic forms of signing such as prose and poetry.

                Peirce, C. S., Hartshorne, C., Weiss, P., & Burks, A. W. (Eds.). (1931–1958). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (8 vols.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                  This is the most comprehensive collection of Peirce’s works. It includes his works on both semiotics and classification of signs.

                  Perniss, P., Thompson, R. L., & Vigliocco, G. (2010). Iconicity as a general property of language: Evidence from spoken and signed languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, 227.Find this resource:

                    A clear and well-presented survey of the role of iconicity in spoken and sign languages, including its psycholinguistic reality.

                    Plato[nonInvertible]. (1997). Cratylus, 433–435. In J. M. Cooper & D. S. Hutchinson (Eds.), Plato: Complete works (pp. 149–151). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.Find this resource:

                      This dialogue is a fascinating discussion about the “correctness of names,” that is, the nature of the relationship between a name (a word’s form) and what it stands for (the concept).

                      Saussure, F. de. (1959). Course in general linguistics (W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: McGraw-Hill.Find this resource:

                        The book is considered to be one of the foundational works of modern linguistics. Part 1 of the book lays out general principles of linguistics, the first of which is the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

                        Simone, R. (Ed.). (1995). Iconicity in language. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.Find this resource:

                          This volume focuses on various non-arbitrary phenomena in language and other semiotic systems, including numeration systems, sign languages, the emergence of writing in children, and inter-ethnic communication. Contributors include philosophers, linguists, semioticians, and psychologists.

                          Taub, S. (2001). Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                            This excellent book offers a thorough and comprehensive analysis both about iconicity and iconic devices in sign languages and about how metaphors in signs build on and exploit the various possibilities for iconic expression in signs.

                            Voeltz, E. F. K., & Kilian-Hatz, E. (2001). Ideophones. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam: Benjamins.Find this resource:

                              The articles in this volume study ideophones in a diversity of language families on five continents.

                              Wilcox, P. P. (2000). Metaphors in American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.Find this resource:

                                This book is a rich resource concerning metaphors in ASL and their relationship with other phenomena, such as simile, metonymy, and iconicity.

                                Wilcox, S. (2004). Cognitive iconicity: Conceptual spaces, meaning, and gesture in signed language. Cognitive Linguistics, 15(2), 119–147.Find this resource:

                                  This article surveys manifestations of iconicity at different levels and structures of sign languages within the framework of cognitive grammar.


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