Facts and and fiction about iconicity: the story of ideophones

Here’s the abstract for the keynote lecture I’ll be giving at the 11th Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature in Brighton, April 6-8, 2017 (site).

The notion of iconicity has seen a remarkable increase in prominence in recent years. No longer the marginal phenomenon it once was, it has become a canvas upon which we paint our wildest dreams about lexical structure, language learning, and the evolution of communication. Amid the flurry of exciting work it is sometimes hard to see what exactly iconicity is. Some divide it into subtypes, treating it as a semiotic relationship that comes in kinds. Others measure it by graded judgements, treating it as a substance that comes in degrees. Yet others use it as a predictor variable in experimental work, treating it as a property that can be present or absent. These diverse operationalizations point to a need for clarity about the empirical foundations of iconicity. Here I approach this goal from the perspective of research on ideophones, vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s spoken languages. Studies of ideophones have it all: daring claims of pervasive iconicity down to the level of speech sounds, counterarguments positing the utter irrelevance of anything iconic, and a variety of approaches trying to chart a middle way between these extremes. I report on a series of linguistic and experimental investigations of iconicity in ideophones. Starting from the use of ideophones in conversation —the primordial ecology of language and verbal art— I show that they are best understood as multimodal depictions: communicative acts that invite us to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted. This basic fact helps explain a range of cross-linguistic observations about ideophones: from their marked forms to their special morphosyntax, and from their sensory semantics to their uses as direct appeals to experience. Careful psycholinguistic experimentation allows us to see how phonemes and prosody can come to function as iconic cues, why iconic ideophones are easier to learn than arbitrary adjectives, and how the cross-modal associations they thrive on may be related to synaesthesia. Ideophones challenge us to take a fresh look at language and consider how it is that our communication system combines multiple modes of representation.

Some relevant readings (a larger selection of papers is here):

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