College of Letters & Science

Linguistics Fridays Colloquium Talk - Lupyan

Event Date
201 Van Hise

How arbitrary is spoken language? New evidence for iconicity

Gary Lupyan, Department of Psychology, UW-Madison


It has been taken as self-evident that the relationship between word forms and meanings is arbitrary. Knowing what a word sounds like offers little hint as to its meaning. New research has upended this dogma and highlighted that languages consistently deviate from pure arbitrariness. Far from a mere linguistic quirk, iconicity — a motivated relationship between forms and meanings — appears to be widespread in spoken language. This new appreciation of iconicity raises two questions. First, what are the costs and benefits of iconic form-meaning relationships? Second, why isn’t language even more iconic? I will present empirical work bearing on these two questions.