Iconicity Atlas

What is Iconicity?

Iconicity is a wide semiotic notion, which comes from Peirce’s general theory of signs (Peirce 1982). Peirce divides all natural signs into three major groups according to the relation between the signal carrying the sign and its object: indices, icons and symbols. The relation is indexical if the sign is directly connected to the object (as smoke to fire), iconic – if it bears a physical resemblance to its object (as portrait partakes of its model) or symbolic – if the relation is simply a matter of convention (Matthews 2007: 292).

The majority of words in any language are symbols, according to Peirce’s classification. Nonetheless, iconic elements do constitute some part of the vocabulary – any language contains a number of imitative words the form of which roughly reflects their ‘meanings’.

There are various terms used for denoting iconic words – imitatives, expressive, onomatopoeic or echoic words, ideophones, mimetic and sound symbolic words. These terms all encompassing words with iconic semblance between form and meaning are not entirely synonymous – some overlapping, some reflecting a further sub categories of lexical iconicity.

Iconic Terminology

Despite the long and persistent interest in lexical iconicity, unfortunately, there is no clear terminological basis existing in modern linguistics.

Perhaps the most frequently quoted work on the subject of language iconicity is Sound Symbolism (1994: 1-12), edited by L. Hinton, J. Nickols and J.J. Ohala. Hinton et al. in the Introduction to their volume distinguish Corporeal sound symbolism (words denoting ‘symptomatic’ sounds like hiccupping and coughing); Imitative sound symbolism (onomatopoeic words); Synesthetic sound symbolism (acoustic symbolization of non-acoustic phenomena) and Conventional sound symbolism (analogical association of certain phonemes and clusters with certain meanings).

The second classification of iconic words despite being designed three decades earlier (Voronin 1969) is not as well known as the one proposed in Hinton et al., but nevertheless, it gives a more detailed subdivision. Stanislav Voronin divided all iconic words in two major groups – onomatopoeic (acoustic imitation) and sound symbolic (articulatory and acoustic-articulatory imitation).

Onomatopoeic words

These iconic words are acoustic copies, i.e. entities iconically representing natural sound sequences by the means phonemes with more or less similar acoustic characteristics.

The latest edition of Stanislav Voronin’s works (2006: 44-70) gives the division of all onomatopoeic words into five major categories: Instants, Continuants, Frequentatives – Instants-Continuants and Frequentatives-Instants-Continuants.

Instants necessarily contain plosives in their phonemic frame and designate pulse-like sounds (tap, clap). The plosive nature of phonemes /b/, /p/ etc. acoustically reflects intense natural sounds of short duration.

Continuants designate a tone or a noise of audible duration. The tonal continuants necessarily contain vowels (long or tense is such oppositions exist in a language) (toot, bleep). Noise continuants necessarily contain fricatives or sibilants (shush, sizzle).

Frequentatives designate vibratory dissonance-like sounds, the core element being R of some quality (purr, historically /pʋr/).

Instants-Continuants imitate sounds combining the traits of pulses and tones (clash, clang).

Frequentatives-Instants-Continuants convey sounds combining the traits of dissonances, pulses and tones (crash, ring).

Sound Symbolic Words

Sound symbolic words are verbal gestures either accompanied by the sound or purely articulatory. Sound symbolic words differ from onomatopoeic by the principle of imitation – paramount becomes not the acoustic characteristics of the uttered phonemes, but the place of their articulation.

Stanislav Voronin (2006: 71) divides sound symbolic words into two categories: intrakinesemisms and extrakinesemisms.

Intrakinesemisms are imitative words conveying their meaning by the means of both articulation and acoustic mimicry.

We can illustrate such articulatory-acoustic imitation, for example, on the English word cough. The process of coughing is represented by the word, which contains a velar sound /k/, articulated closest to the throat and at the same time imitative of the sound we hear when the action in question is performed.

Extrakinesemisms are purely articulatory copies are mimetic gestures produced by our vocal cords, facial muscles and tongue, by which the sound is only secondary. Into this category fall well known examples of conveying small objects or trifling qualities of by words containing i-like sounds (e.g. teeny-weeny, pimple, little). By such imitation the narrowing of vocal cords is deemed to be iconic (Jespersen 1933: 285).


In the course of language evolution imitative words tend to lose their iconicity due to two major factors: regular sound changes (which transfigure the form) and the change of meaning. In order to distinguish the degree of ‘imitativeness’ we have introduced (Flaksman 2015) the concept of de-iconization and divided the process of iconicity loss into four stages.

The ideal iconic word is a ‘word’ on the hypothetical zero de-iconization stage (SD-0). A word on this ‘purely iconic’ stage is but an imitative utterance containing no phonemes of any existing language and thus – unrestricted by any conventional constraints – most accurate in conveying its meaning.

A word on SD-1 is an interjection containing phonemes from the phonemic inventory, highly susceptible to form variations, with the form practically inseparable from its meaning (e.g. English bzzz! sh-sh! flump! a-aaa! fnarr-fnarr! etc.). It constitutes a sentence on its own; it is hardly integrated into a sentence, and often requires special introductory words.

An SD-2 word is any part of speech other than interjection, with fixed form and a meaning directly related to sound/articulatory gesture (e.g. English buzz, hiss, clash, boom etc.).

A word on SD-3 either (a) has a dramatically changed form or (b) lost its original meaning. For example, English laugh (SD-3a) has very little in common with OE hlæhhan from which it descends; having undergone a series of regular sound changes at present it reflects its meaning (laughing) less expressively. On the other hand, English chip ‘a small piece removed by chopping, cutting etc.’ (SD-3b) although hasn’t undergone any significant regular sound changes, at the moment does not have any sound-related meanings.

When a word reaches SD-4, its iconic origin can only be established with the help of etymological and/or typological analysis, as it has lost both its original form and meaning.