Iconicity: Definition
(Last Update: 12 January 2001)

See also the entries 'Icon' and 'Iconicity' by Göran Sonneson in Paul Bouissac (ed.) Encyclopedia of Semiotics (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 293-94 and 294-97; and the relevant entries in Winfried Nöth's Handbuch der Semiotik (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2000): esp. 'Ikon und Ikonizität', 193-98; 'Sprachliche Ikonizität', 329-31; 'Motivation', 340; 'Ikonizität und Konventionalität, 345-46; et passim.

Iconicity as a semiotic notion refers to a natural resemblance or analogy between the form of a sign (‘the signifier’, be it a letter or sound, a word, a structure of words, or even the absence of a sign) and the object or concept (‘the signified’) it refers to in the world or rather in our perception of the world. The similarity between sign and object may be due to common features inherent in both: by direct inspection of the iconic sign we may glean true information about its object. In this case we speak of ‘imagic’ iconicity (as in a portrait or in onomatopoeia, e.g. ‘cuckoo’) and the sign is called an ‘iconic image.’

When we have a plurality of signs, the analogy may be more abstract: we then have to do with diagrammatic iconicity which is based on a relationship between signs that mirrors a similar relation between objects or actions (e.g. a temporal sequence of actions is reflected in the sequence of the three verbs in Caesar’s dictum “veni, vidi, vici”): in this instance, the sign (here the syntactic structure of three verbs) is an ‘iconic diagram.’ Obviously, it is primarily diagrammatic iconicity that is of great relevance to language and literary texts.

Both imagic and diagrammatic iconicity are not clean-cut categories but form a continuum on which the iconic instances run from almost perfect mirroring (i.e. a semiotic relationship that is virtually independent of any individual language) to a relationship that becomes more and more suggestive and also more and more language-dependent.

A similar continuum informs the categories of what has been termed primary diagrammatic iconicity and second degree diagrammatic iconicity. In the first there is still some language independent (semiotic) relation present, e.g. temporal order – as in the “veni, vidi, vici”-example. In the second category, the semiotic relation has become marginal and it is the linguistic relation between the forms used that suggests a similar relation between the concepts it refer to. Thus in the “veni, vidi, vici”-example above, the formal similarity of the three verbs iconically also reflects a similarity of the three actions referred to. For this formal concordance additionally emphasises the ease with which Caesar’s conquest took place: each verb consists of two syllables, each syllable (formed by a consonant and vowel) is of the same length and each starts with the same consonant (v). This type of second-degree iconicity plays a role in folk etymology, in word formation, in sound-symbolism, and it is used to great effect in poetry.

Contrary to the Saussurean idea that language is fundamentally if not exclusively arbitrary (or in semiotic terms, ‘symbolic’), considerable linguistic research in the twentieth century has shown that iconicity operates at every level of language (phonology, morphology, syntax) and in practically every known language. Recent literary criticism has confirmed that iconicity is also pervasive in the literary text, from its prosody and rhyme, its lineation, stanzaic ordering, its textual and narrative structure to its typographic layout on the page.

Quite generally, it is important to realise that the perception of iconicity in language and literary texts is semantically motivated. Hence, the interpretative process must always move from meaning to form and never the other way round. Thus, the perception of iconic features in language and literature depends on an interpreter who is capable of connecting meaning with its formal expression. What is true of all signs is also true of an iconic sign: it is not self-explanatory.