Iconicity Atlas


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 – imitative, 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 in modern linguistics.

Among English publications, probably the most frequently quoted work on the subject of language iconicity is Sound Symbolism (1994), edited by L. Hinton, J. Nickols and J.J. Ohala. Hinton et al. In the Introduction (pp. 1-12) to their volume the following classification of iconic words is given:

  • 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);
  • Conventional sound symbolism (analogical association of certain phonemes and clusters with certain meanings).

The other 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).



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

The latest edition of Stanislav Voronin’s work 'Fundamentals of Phonosemantics' (2006: 44-70) gives a detailed description of onomatopoeia types. All onomatopoeic words are into five major classes:

  • Instants;
  • Continuants;
  • Frequentatives;
  • Instants-Continuants;
  • Frequentatives-Instants-Continuants.


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

English examples of instants, therefore, are: click, tap, tick, clack etc. (Voronin 2006). Examples from other languages: Turkish cab cup 'imitation of a splashing sound' (Krasnova 2018); Estonian kop-kop ‘knock-knock’ (Veldi 1988); Indonesian bobok ‘a sound heard when an empty bottle is submerged under water’ (Bratus 1976).


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

Examples of tone continuants: Buryat piid ‘high-pitched sound (such as peeping of birds, squeaking of mice)’ (Voronin 1988); Turkish düdük ‘a tooting horn’ (Krasnova 2018); Italian ululareto howl’ (Shamina, Smekhova 2016).

Examples of noise continuants: Indonesian sis ‘hissing’ (Bratus 1976); Turkish fıs fıs 'imitation of whispering' (Krasnova 2016); Ossetian syf-syf  'imitation of rustling' (Voronin 2006).


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

Examples of frequentatives include: Indonesian cur ‘a murmuring sound of water or a rumble of thunder’ (Bratus 1976); Nanai durr 'denotations of abrupt, vibrating sounds' (Voronin 2006); Chuvash tyrr 'denotations of sounds of movement, whirling' (Voronin 2006).


Instants-Continuants imitate sounds combining the characteristics of both pulses and tones in various combinations (clash, clang).

Examples of instants-continuants are: Bashkir dömp ‘a muffled sound of an abrupt hit’ (Voronin 2006); Indonesian le-bam ‘a loud sound of something falling on a rubber surface’ (Bratus 1976); Negidal choŋŋ-choŋŋ 'sound of loud resonant hits' (Voronin 2006).


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

Examples of FIC are: Bashkir görš 'a munching sound cattle makes while chewing hay’ (Voronin 2006); Turkish şarp şarp 'spund of splashing water' (Krasnova 2018).



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.

Voronin (2006) distinguishes three classes and subclasses of articulations (mimetic actions) which are rendered by intrakinesemisms:

Class A. Nose artuculations

Sub-class A. Pure nasal articulations

Type 1. Sniffing

Sub-class AC. Nasal-throat articulations

Type 2. Snorting

Type 3. Snoring

Class B. Mouth articulations

Sub-class BA. Mouth-nasal articulations

Type 4.Whistling

Type 5. Sneezing

Sub-class B. Pure mouth articulations

Type 6. Licking

Type 7. Sucking

Type 8. Sucking in (liquid)

Type 9. Spitting

Type 10. Smacking the lips

Type 11. Tut-tuting

Type 12. Clicking the tongue

Type 13. Champing

Sub-class BC. Mouth-throat articulations

Type 14. Blowing

Type 15. Inhaling

Type 16.Wheezing

Type 17. Weeping

Type 18. Shouting

Type 19.Roaring

Type 20. Screaming

Type 21. Laughing

Sub-class BAC. Mouth-nose-throat articulations

Type 22. Biting

Type 23.Yawning

Type 24.Grumbling

Type 25. Moaning

Type 26. Whining

Type 27.Giggling

Class C. Throat articulations

Sub-class СА. Throat-nose articulations

Type 28. Chocking

Sub-class CB. Throat-mouth articulations

Type 29. Gulping

Sub-class B. Pure mouth articulations

Sub-class C. Pure throat articulations

Type 30. Hiccupping

Type 31.Coughing

Type 32. Groaning (under exercise stress)

Type 33. Producing a swishing sound

Type 34. Burping

Type 35.Vomiting

Type 36. Stertor



Extrakinesemisms are purely articulatory copies; they are mimetic gestures produced by our vocal cords, facial muscles and tongue, by which the sound is only secondary. The well known examples of conveying small objects or trifling qualities of by words containing i-like sounds (e.g. teeny-weeny, pimple, little) fall into this category. 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. 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’ at the hypothetical zero de-iconization stage (SD-0). A word at this ‘purely iconic’ stage is but an imitative utterance containing no phonemes of any existing language and thus – unrestricted by any conventional constraints is the most accurate in conveying its meaning.

A word at 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 can be 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 at SD-3 either (a) has a dramatically changed form or (b) has 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.