Iconicity as structure mapping

In March we revisit the subject of iconicity, this time the question of structured mappings between the form and the meaning of the signs in sign language. In her article, Iconicity as structure mapping, Karen Emmorey defines iconicity as a “structured mapping between two mental representations, rather than as a link between linguistic form and experience”.

A word or a sign maps to the schematized mental representation of a concept, which either relates directly to experience (eg. sensory-motor experience for sign language: sign for “stir” imitates the action), or requires additional cultural and conceptual knowledge to process the mapping (the associated element stands for the concept, eg. sign for “pirate” shows the eye patch). Because of those properties, Emmorey argues that children cannot use iconicity as a help in language learning prior to acquiring the skills or conceptual knowledge the iconic signs refer to, in the same way children struggle with metaphors until certain age.

What are your thoughts on the role of iconicity in learning a language, and how big do you think is the influence of iconicity in general on forming and changing the language?

1 Comment

  • Thomas Müller
    Thomas Müller 27 March 2017 (18:27)

    A structure mapping account
    A nice paper that made me think more about the nature of iconic mappings. The main value I see is that it proposes a cognitive account of the process of how these mappings occur, while at the same time generating new predictions that are empirically testable. Additionally, it seems to be able to reconcile some older conflicting experimental results.

    Relating this to our previous discussions on iconicity, the structure mapping account emphasizes the notion of the subjective part in iconicity, in that for something to be iconic the two representations compared within a mind have to be similar; as such, there is no objectively iconic sign, and as the authors state, several constraints arise. I like the example of the “Pirate”-sign, as it showcases that the iconicity in the code can 1) be greatly influenced by cultural representations of concepts (the stereotypical pirate eye patch) and 2) make use of different schematic images such as metonymy.
    Also discussed previously, the iconicity in signs can get lost over language development, and they acknowledge this with the paragraphs on cognitive constraints, articulatory constraints and historical change. I think further studies with children would be most useful to provide persuasive evidence for or against this or other accounts of iconicity.