Arbitrariness ‘vs’ iconicity

13 Jul 2017 | all notes

Over the last few years, iconicity has established itself as a thriving research area within linguistics. New results regarding the iconic nature of linguistic forms or systems are often couched in more or less ground-breaking terms based on the fact that iconic relationships are supposed to contradict the arbitrariness of the sign, thereby supposedly shaking up a central dogma of linguistics. While I don’t want to play down the results, the argument that subtle sub-morphemic regularities are supposed to challenge linguistic arbitrariness strikes me as rather odd. This view is probably best formulated by Joseph (2015) who notes that

the sign still functions perfectly well as part of the language for a speaker who does not interpret it iconically. Sound-meaning iconicity does not impact upon the fundamental arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

Joseph (2015), p.93

What he means by this is that, in the first instance, the concepts of arbitrariness and iconicity really belong to two different domains of language, and that any supposed competition between the two is in fact a false dichotomy. Even signs of high absolute iconicity, such as onomatopoeia, are ultimately arbitrary, as evidenced by the fact that they can be realised very differently by speakers of different languages. While some forms are no doubt more easily understood by a naive speaker who encounters them for the first time, which realisation becomes the norm in a community is always subject to the vagaries of chance and history, which is to say an arbitrary choice.

In other words, iconicity is not so much a property of a linguistic sign, which derives its arbitrary, conventional force from the speech community as a whole, but an aspect of its process of interpretation. According to this view, iconicity effects are primarily grounded in how each individual maps signifier to signified, both of which are that individual’s ‘internal’ mental representations (as also pointed out by Emmorey 2014). It is interesting to note that, unlike synesthesia, most results on iconicity are regarded as pertaining to the ‘vocabulary’ as an autonomous system, or to how that system is shaped by the speaker population as a whole. According to the iconic processing view, however, individual differences (or lack thereof) are actually key to making valid claims about the iconicity of words. Let’s say a subpart of the population has a strong (synesthetic?) bias for a certain form-meaning mapping that comes to be reflected in a group’s vocabulary: as long as those biases are not shared across the entire group or species, we can only say that a subpart of the population happens to process that vocabulary iconically.

Beyond terminological nitpicking

This post is not about terminological nitpicking, or playing down these results or their relevance. What I’m more interested in is the way in which they are framed, and how that influences the scientific discourse on them. As I’ve written before, the metaphorical frame in which a scientific subject matter is discussed can strongly affect the way that it is perceived and understood. And in this case the idea of a dichotomy, a dialectic battle between two directly opposing forces, brings much conceptual baggage with it.

My rather vague reference to ‘biases’ and ‘processing iconically’ already pointed to this fact, namely that iconicity is currently often treated as if it was one monolothic and coherent entity. Rounded up against one monolothic strawperson of ‘arbitrariness’, very different processing effects elicited by different tasks can be brought together under one umbrella term. In reality, the many different results regarding the influence of iconicity on individuals in experiments and on lexica obtained from corpus studies reflect a wide range of very task-specific effects on one hand, and long-term outcomes of complex historical processes on the other. While they are (perhaps correctly) perceived to all speak to the same underlying phenomenon, using ‘iconicity’ as a catch-all term covers up the fact that this synthesis, if possible, has yet to be achieved.

On another note, the juxtaposition of iconicity and arbitrariness might actually get in the way of achieving such a synthesis, by portraying their dynamic as a to-and-fro between two opposing pressures. Again, the (natural-)sciency sounding yet strictly metaphorical idea of ‘competing forces’ is popular in linguistics these days, yet what it misses out on is the way in which different forces might act on very different levels, and might to some extent even act orthogonal to each other.

Iconicity vs ?

So if the term ‘arbitrariness’ has merely been recruited as an adversary to iconicity because its name was well-known and available, what is the natural opponent (or counter-part) to iconicity? This question reminds me of a remark from John Joseph’s book, in which he stressed how the different ideas of `naturalness’ (and related concepts such as iconicity) might only be understood in the context of the research of their time. The research of our time is of course all about big data and, thanks to a well-known perverse incentive structure in scientific funding and publishing, significant results with often relatively minute effect sizes.

So if significant cross-linguistic correlations between certain sounds and semantic concepts are evidence of iconicity, we are suddenly dealing with a completely new counter-part: the null hypothesis of a uniformly random distribution of constituent sounds within words to meanings. To my knowledge, arbitriness has never been conceived as saying that the pool of variants from which a norm is picked is completely unconstrained, or that the playing ground between different forms should be completely level. The space of forms which a linguistic sign can co-opt to signify is always limited in every domain, whether due to constraints of articulation, working memory or processing. These constraints have always shaped language change by limiting the pool of variants that arbitrary historical processes can select from, a complex interaction that has to be studied and understood in its own right in order to make sense of the bigger picture.


Emmorey, Karen. 2014. “Iconicity as structure mapping.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369 (1651): 20130301. doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0301.

Joseph, John E. 2015. “Iconicity in Saussure’s linguistic work, and why it does not contradict the arbitrariness of the sign.” Historiographia Linguistica 42 (1): 85–105. doi:10.1075/hl.42.1.05jos.