Competing iconicities in the structure of languages

Irit Meir, Carol Padden, Mark Aronoff, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The paper examines the role that iconicity plays in the structuring of grammars. Two main points are argued for: (a) Grammar does not necessarily suppress iconicity; rather, iconicity and grammar can enjoy a congenial relation in that iconicity can play an active role in the structuring of grammars. (b) Iconicity is not monolithic. There are different types of iconicity and languages take advantage of the possibilities afforded by them. We examine the interaction between iconicity and grammar by focusing on the ways in which sign languages employ the physical body of the signer as a rich iconic resource for encoding a variety of grammatical notions. We show that the body can play three different roles in iconic forms in sign languages: it can be used as a naming device where body parts represent body parts; it can represent the subject argument of verbal signs, and it can stand for first person. These strategies interact and sometimes compete in the languages under study. Each language resolves these competitions differently, which results in different grammars and grammatical structures. The investigation of the ways in which grammar and iconicity interact in these languages provides insight into the nature of both systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)309-343
Number of pages35
JournalCognitive Linguistics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health grant number R01 DC006473 and the Israel Science Foundation grants number 553/04 and 580/09. We thank Calle Börstell, Ryan Lepic and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


  • Body
  • Grammatical person
  • Iconicity
  • Sign languages
  • Subject

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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