The iconic impetus of language: From sensorimotor simulation to the lexicon

Greg Woodin and Marcus Perlman

Contrary to the longstanding view in linguistics that language is arbitrary (e.g., Saussure,
1966), increasing evidence shows that communicative forms often resemble their meanings
and so can be described as iconic (e.g., Dingemanse et al., 2015; Perniss & Vigliocco, 2014).
In this paper, we present a model of language evolution in which iconicity is placed front and
centre, and in which sensorimotor simulation is the driving force.
First, we propose that sensorimotor simulation – the reactivation of previously experienced
perceptions and actions during thought and communication (Barsalou, 2007, 1999) –
motivates the production of iconic words, vocalizations, signs, and gestures. Sensorimotor
simulations are activated when people comprehend language (e.g., Hauk et al., 2004;
Pulvermüller, 1999). Moreover, people routinely represent the content of their sensorimotor
simulations through language (Perlman & Gibbs, 2013). Thus, successful communication can
be partly viewed as the relaying of sensorimotor simulations between interlocutors. Iconic
forms of expression may be particularly good at communicating the content of sensorimotor
simulations due to their direct resemblance to these simulations. We argue that people are
more likely to use iconic forms of expression when they are communicating based on
sensorimotor simulations rather than amodal, propositional codes, and when the simulations
are vivid and detailed (see Hostetter & Alibali, 2008). When sensorimotor vividness is
sufficiently high, iconic communication emerges.
Second, we connect this psychological account of language use to language evolution. We
posit that iconic forms coined via sensorimotor simulations are repeated and shared between
language users, gradually becoming codified as part of the lexicon. For instance, the English
interjection ‘ugh’ /əx/ communicates disgust using the non-standard /x/ phoneme, a sound
resembling gagging or throat-clearing (Flaksman, 2017). The fact that ‘ugh’ is listed by the
dictionary Merriam-Webster (2020a) indicates that this vocalization has gained wide enough
currency to have undergone some degree of conventionalization. Processes connected to
conventionalization and grammaticalization drive language toward efficiency, but also tend to
diminish iconicity (Flaksman, 2017). For example, Merriam-Webster notes that ‘ugh’ can be
pronounced as /ə/, /əg/, or /ək/, indicating a move toward more conventional English
phonology. However, the loss of the throat-clearing /x/ phoneme in ‘ugh’ makes this
interjection less expressive of its meaning.
While individual forms such as ‘ugh’ tend to lose their iconicity over time, sensorimotor
simulations trigger people to produce new iconic forms: vocalizations, gestures, and
expressively modified words and signs. These iconic forms then become new targets for
conventionalization and grammaticalization, and therefore risk losing their iconicity. As the
cycle repeats, the continual coinage of iconic words and signs via sensorimotor simulation
replenishes the iconic lexicon, keeping levels of iconicity roughly constant over the course of
language evolution.


Barsalou, L.W., 2007. Grounded cognition. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 59, 617–645.
Barsalou, L.W., 1999. Perceptual symbol systems. Behav Brain Sci 22, 577–609; discussion
Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D.E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M.H., Monaghan, P., 2015.
Arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity in language. Trends Cogn. Sci. (Regul. Ed.)
19, 603–615.
Flaksman, M., 2017. Iconic treadmill hypothesis: The reasons behind continuous
onomatopoeic coinage, in: Bauer, M., Zirker, A., Fischer, O., Ljungberg, C. (Eds.),
Dimensions of Iconicity, Iconicity in Language and Literature. John Benjamins
Publishing Co., Amsterdam, pp. 15–38.
Hauk, O., Johnsrude, I., Pulvermüller, F., 2004. Somatotopic representation of action words
in human motor and premotor cortex. Neuron 41, 301–307.
Hostetter, A.B., Alibali, M.W., 2018. Gesture as simulated action: Revisiting the framework.
Psychon Bull Rev.
Hostetter, A.B., Alibali, M.W., 2008. Visible embodiment: Gestures as simulated action.
Psychon. Bull. Rev. 15, 495–514.
Perlman, M., Gibbs, R.W., Jr., 2013. Sensorimotor simulation in speaking, gesturing, and
understanding, in: Müller, C., Cienki, A.J., Fricke, E., Ladewig, S.H., McNeill, D.,
Teßendorf, S. (Eds.), Body – Language – Communication: An International
Handbook on Multimodality in Human Interaction. De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 512–533.
Perniss, P., Vigliocco, G., 2014. The bridge of iconicity: From a world of experience to the
experience of language. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B:
Biological Sciences 369, 20130300.
Pulvermüller, F., 1999. Words in the brain’s language. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22,
Saussure, F. de, 1966. Course in General Linguistics. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.