Cross-modal iconicity: A cognitive semiotic approach to sound symbolism

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


It is being increasingly recognized that the Saussurean dictum of "the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign" is in conflict with the pervasiveness of the phenomenon commonly known as "sound symbolism". After first presenting a historical overview of the debate, however, we conclude that both positions have been exaggerated, and that an adequate explanation of sound symbolism is still lacking. How can there, for example, be (perceived) similarity between expressions and contents across different sensory modalities? We offer an answer, based on the Peircian notion of iconic ground, and G. Sonesson's distinction between primary and secondary iconicity. Furthermore, we describe an experimental study, in a paradigm first pioneered by W. Kohler, and recently popularized by V. Ramachandran, in which we varied vowels and consonants in fictive word-forms, and conclude that both types of sounds play a role in perceiving an iconic ground between the word-forms and visual figures. The combination of historical conceptual analysis, semiotic explication and psychological experimentation presented in this article is characteristic of the emerging paradigm of cognitive semiotics.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


  • iconicity, sound symbolism, arbitrariness, ideophones, psychomimes, expressives, semiotics, cognitive semiotics
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)298-348
JournalSign Systems Studies
Issue number1/4
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015. The record was previously connected to the following departments: Linguistics and Phonetics (015010003)