UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Iconicity as a Bridge between Language and the World

Languages (spoken and signed) are iconic in addition to being arbitrary. What is iconicity and why is it there?

Illustration showing the motion for tearing

Iconicity describe those cases in which the linguistic form evokes some properties of referent, as it is the case in onomatopoeic words (e.g., “boom”, “quack”), or in hand gestures that evoke properties of shape of objects or manner of actions. We have put forward the proposal that iconicity (i.e., presence of transparent relationships between linguistic form and properties of referents may have had a critical role in language evolution. It also has a critical role in language learning and language processing.

We argue that in language evolution, iconicity has been pivotal to the development of language as a displaced communicative system (i.e., the possibility to use language to talk about things and events which are not present in the immediate environment). In language development iconicity would be critical to establishing a link between linguistic forms and referents in the world and in language processing it could support efficient comprehension and production.

Much of the work that has led to this proposal comes from studies of Sign Language learning and processing, carried out as part of our DCAL projects).

Currently, we are especially interested in how multimodal (i.e., comprising the speech, but also the prosody and gestures) communication in spoken languages exploit iconicity. In one project (funded by the ESRC) we ask whether caregivers use iconicity to help their children learn new labels. In a first study in British Sign Language (BSL) we have compared the language used by caregivers when describing sets of objects when the objects where present to when they were absent. We found that caregivers modify their language making it more iconic when objects are not present. Our interpretation is that these changes help building a mental image of referents when they are absent and therefore support learning. Currently, we are investigating the multimodal language (including prosody and gestures) of English speaking caregivers of children aged 2-3 to see whether they use iconicity (onomatopoeias, prosodic modulation and gestures) especially when objects are absent and especially when the objects are unknown to the child  and if such iconicity supports learning of new labels and new concepts.

Key Publications

Perniss, P., Lu, J.C., Morgan, G. & Vigliocco, G. (2017). Mapping language to the world: The role of iconicity in the sign language input. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12551.

Perniss, P., Vigliocco, G. (2014). The bridge of iconicity: From a world of experience to experience of language. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 369, 20140179.

Perniss, P., Thompson, R.L. & Vigliocco, G. (2010). Iconicity as a general principle of language. Frontiers in Psychology.

Children look at a icon on a computer

Perniss, P., Lu, J., Morgan, G., Vigliocco, G. (accepted). Iconicity in the input to children. Developmental Science

Meteyard, L., Cappa, S., Vigliocco, G. (2015). When semantics aids phonology: A processing advantage for iconic word forms in aphasia. Neuropsychologia, 76, 264-275.

Thompson, R., Vinson, D.P.& Vigliocco G. (2010). The link between form and meaning in British sign language: effects of iconicity on phonological decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 36, 1017-1027.

Vinson, D.P., Thompson, R., Skinner, R., Fox, N. & Vigliocco, G. (2015). A faster path between meaning and form? Iconicity affects sign language across comprehension and production. Journal of Memory & Language. 82, 56-85.