The bridge of iconicity: from a world of experience to the experience of language

Pamela Perniss, Gabriella Vigliocco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Iconicity, a resemblance between properties of linguistic form (both in spoken and signed languages) and meaning, has traditionally been considered to be a marginal, irrelevant phenomenon for our understanding of language processing, development and evolution. Rather, the arbitrary and symbolic nature of language has long been taken as a design feature of the human linguistic system. In this paper, we propose an alternative framework in which iconicity in face-to-face communication (spoken and signed) is a powerful vehicle for bridging between language and human sensori-motor experience, and, as such, iconicity provides a key to understanding language evolution, development and processing. In language evolution, iconicity might have played a key role in establishing displacement (the ability of language to refer beyond what is immediately present), which is core to what language does; in ontogenesis, iconicity might play a critical role in supporting referentiality (learning to map linguistic labels to objects, events, etc., in the world), which is core to vocabulary development. Finally, in language processing, iconicity could provide a mechanism to account for how language comes to be embodied (grounded in our sensory and motor systems), which is core to meaningful communication.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B - Biological Sciences
Publication statusPublished - 4 Aug 2014

Bibliographical note

© 2014 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.


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