Compositionality and iconicity
Kathryn Davidson
January 2024

Although language is often taken to be a paradigmatic case of the use of arbitrary symbols to communicate ideas, it is also clear that linguistic communication across all modalities frequently incorporate elements of iconic depiction and non-arbitrariness. How exactly symbolic and iconic aspects of language interact is an area of active research on spoken and signed languages and gesture studies across the cognitive sciences. Here we overview approaches to formally modeling the contribution of iconic and symbolic meaning within natural language. The case is made that while both symbolic and iconic content are pervasive in language, they contribute primarily to two very different kinds of meaning. Propositional meaning is built entirely from symbolic abstractions (which may make reference to external particulars, such as objects, events, and even iconic depictions of them), and can be the input for negation or question formation, which involve reasoning over alternatives, a key feature contributed by abstract symbols. In contrast to symbolic descriptions, iconic depictions are represented as particulars, and must be reanalyzed as symbolic in order to evoke alternatives. In addition, we discuss non-depictive/descriptive iconicity within conventionalized symbolic lexicons, which seems to play important roles in acquisition and/or language processing.
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Reference: lingbuzz/007881
(please use that when you cite this article)
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keywords: depiction, description, iconicity, gesture, sign languages alternatives, compositionality, semiotics, psycholinguistics, semantics
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