Iconicity in English Vocabulary and its Relation to Toddlers’ Word Learning


Scholars have documented substantial classes of iconic vocabulary in many non-Indo-European languages. In comparison, Indo-European languages like English are assumed to be arbitrary outside of a small number of onomatopoeic words. In three experiments, we asked English speakers to rate the iconicity of words from the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Developmental Inventory. We found English—contrary to common belief—exhibits iconicity that correlates with age of acquisition and differs across lexical classes. Words judged as most iconic are learned earlier, in accord with findings that iconic words are easier to learn. We also find that adjectives and verbs are more iconic than nouns, supporting the idea that iconicity provides an extra cue in learning more difficult abstract meanings. Our results provide new evidence for a relationship between iconicity and word learning and suggest iconicity may be a more pervasive property of spoken languages than previously thought.

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