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{language, word, form}
{theory, work, human}
{rate, high, increase}
{film, series, show}
{island, water, area}
{group, member, jewish}
{line, north, south}
{system, computer, user}
{food, make, wine}
{town, population, incorporate}

In functional-cognitive linguistics, as well as in semiotics, iconicity is the conceived similarity or analogy between the form of a sign (linguistic or otherwise) and its meaning, as opposed to arbitrariness.

Iconic principles:

  • Quantity principle: conceptual complexity corresponds to formal complexity
  • Proximity principle: conceptual distance tends to match with linguistic distance
  • Sequential order principle: the sequential order of events described is mirrored in the speech chain


Quantity principle

The use of quantity of phonetic material to iconically mark increased quality or quantity can be noted in the lengthening of words to indicate a greater degree, such as "looong". It is also common to use reduplication to iconically mark increase, as Sapir is often quoted, “The process is generally employed, with self-evident symbolism, to indicate such concepts as distribution, plurality, repetition, customary activity, increase of size, added intensity, continuance” (1921:79). This has been confirmed by the comparative studies of Key (1965) and Moravcsik (1978). This can be seen, for example, in Amharic: täsäbbärä 'it was broken' and täsäbbabärä 'it was shattered'.

Iconic coding principles may be natural tendencies in language and are also part of our cognitive and biological make-up. The question whether iconicity is indeed a true part of language has always been debated in linguistics. Recently, for instance, Haspelmath has argued against iconicity, claiming that most iconic phenomena can be explained by frequency biases: since simpler meanings tend to be more frequent in the language use they tend to lose phonological material.

Onomatopoeia may be seen as a kind of iconicity, though even onomatopoeic sounds have a large degree of arbitrariness.

Iconicity and gesture

Iconicity is often argued to play a large role in the production and perception of gesture. Proposed ways in which iconicity is achieved is through Hands that Act, Embody, Model, and Draw. In sign languages iconicity was often argued to be largely confined to sign formation. After longer usage the iconicity would no longer play an actual role in perception and production as the sign becomes part of the conventionalized vocabulary (comparable to onomatopeia). More recently, as sign language researchers gain confidence (and the fear of losing linguistic status subsides), iconicity is allowed to play a more central role again. Current sign language phonology acknowledges that certain aspects are semantically motivated. An important way in which iconicity plays an active role is in the modulation of signs, where the meaning of a sign is elaborated or altered by changing aspects of it. The ability to work creatively with sign language in this way has been associated with accomplished, or native signers.

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