Iconicity: The Evolution of Language

I’m going to attempt to explain something that I myself only have a tenuous grasp of, it is the concept of iconicity.

Iconicity was born out of functional-cognitive linguistics, a field that I didn’t even know existed half an hour ago. A word is just a sound that has a meaning and iconicity is the idea that meanings are mapped on to words in a non-arbitrary manner. Put another way, iconicity is when a word physically resembles the concept it represents. This shouldn’t be confused with onomatopoeia which is when a word sounds like the thing it represents (sizzle, plop, bang) so let me give you a few examples to try to clear this up.

Let’s start simple. You’re at work and, by god, the day is dragging. You fire off a message to your best bud about how the end of the day feels a looooooooong time away. There you have it, you’ve mutated the word long using iconicity to make it physically longer.

Which is bouba and which kiki?
Which is bouba and which kiki?

Another example. Look at the picture to the right, there are two shapes present. I want you to name them but I’m going to give you the two possible options. One of them must be named bouba and the other kiki. Go!

The vast overwhelming majority of you will say that the shape on the left is kiki and the one on the right is bouba. No matter who you ask, no matter what their first language, 95-98% of people will give that answer. This has led some to suppose that the attaching of meaning to words was not arbitrary during the evolution of language amongst humans. Perhaps the rounded shape of the mouth makes us think of the rounded shape in the picture whereas we think of the sound of a k as being harder and sharper? It’s possible. This to me, though, feels a bit like evolutionary biology and it is still very much open to debate whether or not evolutionary biology is even science or if it’s just philosophy. It provides no testable hypotheses, at least so far, and therefore I don’t see how it could be called science. It doesn’t stop it being interesting, though.

r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r by E. E. Cummings
r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r by E. E. Cummings

One final, more playful, example. The poet E. E. Cummings did not like the normal way of writing poetry. He didn’t like the way the words went from left to right on the page or how the letters were all in such an order as to spell out words or niceties like grammar and syntax. So he came up with his own style and, consciously or not, he employed a lot of iconicity. Here we have a copy of his poem r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r. Take a minute or two to read it through a few times.

Upon reflection you’ll probably figure out that it is a poem about the movement of a grasshopper. More conventionally it reads:



as we look

now upgathering to himself



to become



His rather idiosyncratic style is forcing the reader to make the leaps and jumps and bounds that the grasshopper might make. He’s making your eye scurry back and forth over the page. The alternating upper and lower case letters give a sense of repetitive jumping up and down. Some people think he has tried to trace out the form of a grasshopper on the page using the letters. Whilst, perhaps, not being nearly as profound as a theory on the evolution of language itself, I do think this final example is a lot more fun.

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