In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Iconicity

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Work
  • Books, Edited Volumes, and Book Series
  • Journals
  • Journal Articles
  • Psycholinguistics

Linguistics Iconicity
Irit Meir, Oksana Tkachman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0182


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 road sign that marks a bicycle lane and has an image of bicycle on it is iconic because the form of the sign, in particular the graphic image on it, is related in a direct way to its meaning; both form and meaning have to do with bicycles. A warning road sign that has the form of a white triangle with red margins is arbitrary, because its formational units are not motivated by any aspect of its meaning. 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 question concerning the role of iconicity in language is whether a given linguistic sign is iconic or arbitrary. This question 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, since sign languages are capable of much greater iconic expressions than are spoken languages.

Foundational Work

The oldest documented discussion about iconicity and its role in constructing words is the Cratylus dialogue of 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). However, this view is not the one that came to prevail in linguistic thought. John Locke, in his 1690 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. Saussure 1959 stresses that the relationship between the signifier, or the form of a sign, and the signified, its meaning, is arbitrary. The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is the first principle of language in Saussure 1959, and it is later designated in Hockett 1960 as one of the “design features” of language. In contrast to Saussure’s principle, Peirce 1931–1958 presents a theory of taxonomy of signs. One of the basic classifications in the first volume of Peirce 1931–1958 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 arbitrariness. 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 spatio-temporal structure of an event. The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed changes in the attitude toward iconicity. 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, et al. 2010 shows 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.

  • Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena, Germany: Gustav Fischer.

    In English: “Theory of language: The representational function of language.” This monumental work of the German psychologist and linguist, Karl Bühler, encompasses many essential topics and issues in the study of language. Bühler develops his “organon model” of language, which defines the communication functions of language and his view of the linguistic symbol, and in which he also addresses onomatopoeic language.

  • Hockett, Charles F. 1960. The origin of speech. Scientific American 203:89–96

    This seminal work delineates the features that are essential to human languages, arbitrariness being one of them.

  • Jespersen, Otto. 1922. Language: Its nature, development, and origin. London: Allen and Unwin.

    Jespersen laid out his view of the “life-cycle” of language, which draws on how language is actually used and acquired. An entire section of the book is devoted to language change and the mechanisms that operate in these processes, including sound symbolism, a type of iconicity.

  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1931–1958. Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. 8 vols. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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

  • Perniss, Pamela, Robin L. Thompson, and Gabriella Vigliocco. 2010. Iconicity as a general property of language: Evidence from spoken and signed languages. Frontiers in Psychology 1: 00227.

    A clear and well-presented survey of the role of iconicity in spoken and sign languages, including its psycholinguistic reality. The authors conclude by suggesting that both iconicity and arbitrariness are general principles of language and represent adaptations to two fundamental constraints acting on the language system: the need to ensure an effective linguistic signal and the need to link linguistic form to human experience.

  • Plato. 1997. Cratylus, 433–435. In Plato: Complete works. Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, 149–151. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

    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). While Socrates holds that names are best when they are similar to the things they stand for, Hermogenes argues that names stand for concepts due to custom and convention.

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1959. Course in general linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    The book is based on notes taken from de Saussure’s lectures between 1906 and 1911. It was published posthumously by his students in 1916. It 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. Baskin provides an introduction and notes.

  • Taub, Sarah. 2001. Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American sign language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511509629

    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.

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