Mapping language to the world: the role of iconicity in the sign language input

Pamela Perniss, Jenny C. Lu, Gary Morgan, Gabriella Vigliocco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most research on the mechanisms underlying referential mapping has assumed that learning occurs in ostensive contexts, where label and referent co-occur, and that form and meaning are linked by arbitrary convention alone. In the present study, we focus on iconicity in language, i.e. resemblance relationships between form and meaning, and on non-ostensive contexts, where label and referent do not co-occur. We approach the question of language learning from the perspective of the language input. Specifically, we look at child-directed language (CDL) in British Sign Language (BSL), a language rich in iconicity due to the affordances of the visual modality. We ask whether child-directed signing exploits iconicity in the language by highlighting the similarity mapping between form and referent. We find that CDL modifications occur more often with iconic signs than with non-iconic signs. Crucially, for iconic signs, modifications are more frequent in non-ostensive contexts than in ostensive contexts. Furthermore, we find that pointing dominates in ostensive contexts, and suggest that caregivers adjust the semiotic resources recruited in CDL to context. These findings offer first evidence for a role of iconicity in the language input and suggest that iconicity may be involved in referential mapping and language learning, particularly in non-ostensive contexts.
Original languageEnglish
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Perniss P, Lu JC, Morgan G, Vigliocco G. Mapping language to the world: the role of iconicity in the sign language input. Dev Sci. 2017;21(2):e12551, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.


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