Seminar Series

Where is iconicity in language, and why isn’t there more of it?

Decades of linguistic research purport that language is arbitrary. What is “arbre” in French is “boom” in Dutch and “tree” in English—three completely different words for the same concept. In contrast to this age-old dogma of arbitrariness, the cognitive sciences are currently undergoing an “iconicity revolution”. More and more work recognizes that iconic form-meaning mappings (as in the vowel /i/ signalling smallness compared to /a/ and /o/) serve important functions in communication, language acquisition, and language evolution. In my talk, I will give an overview of research on how iconicity is distributed within the English lexicon, as well as across languages. I will show that early-learned words tend to be relatively more iconic, with children slowly starting to prefer more arbitrary words as they grow older. Moreover, I will show that iconicity depends on perceptual semantics, with sound words (“squealing”, “beeping”, “rustling”) and touch words (“rough”, “smooth”, “prickly”) being relatively more iconic than sight, taste, and smell words. New studies on tactile iconicity across languages furthermore shows that the /r/ sound is universally associated with “rough” meanings, and new evidence from a large-scale experimental study with 26 genealogically diverse languages shows that some iconic biases are language-independent. I will use this within-and-across language distributional analysis to argue that it is precisely the strong connection between perceptual semantics and iconicity that helps explaining why researchers have long-since held the view that language is arbitrary. In other words, looking at where iconicity is in language helps answering the question as to why there isn’t more of it.