Seminar Series

The role of iconicity in learning and creating communicative systems

For humans to communicate effectively, words (or signs) need to be easy to produce and discriminate, but crucially, they also need to be readily mapped into objects and events in the real world. In my talk, I will discuss iconicity (i.e., a resemblance between properties of linguistic form and meaning) in face-to-face communication as a powerful vehicle for bridging between language and human sensori-motor experience. First, I will address how iconicity might have supported displacement (the ability of language to refer beyond what is immediately present, which is core to what language does) during language evolution. I will present studies that ask speakers to create novel labels to refer to novel objects (differing in shape) and novel motion events (differing in terms of manner and duration of motion) to assess whether iconicity emerges in the creation of novel vocabularies. I will also address whether iconicity emerges in the process of language change across generations, as simulated using the iterated learning paradigm. Next, I will ask whether iconicity has a critical role in supporting word learning during childhood. I will present results from studies carried out in British Sign Language (BSL) that show that iconic signs are among the first signs being learnt; and that children are sensitive to iconicity of the sign in mapping seen labels to objects. Finally, I will report on studies showing that caregivers use iconicity to modify their signing when interacting with children, crucially, especially when referents are not physically present. I will conclude my talk by discussing iconicity in the context of a framework in which ease of production, discriminability of the signal and the need to map words/signs into the real world are among the fundamental constraints that shape language (spoken and signed) as a communicative system.