Form Miming Meaning

Form Miming Meaning:

Iconicity in Language and Literature
Edited by Max Nänny and Olga Fischer       
(Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1999. ISBN 90 272 2179 0 (Eur), 1 55619 533 8 (US))


Olga Fischer and Max Nänny: Iconicity as a Creative Force in Language Use

1. General       
Ivan Fónagy: Why Iconicity?   
John Haiman: Action, Speech and Grammar: The Sublimation Trajectory.   
Ralf Norrman: Creating the World in Our Image: A New Theory of Love of Symmetry and Iconicist Desire.   
John White: On Semiotic Interplay: Forms of Creative Interaction between Iconicity and Indexicality in Twentieth-Century Literature.   
Simon Alderson: Iconicity in Literature: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Prose Writing.

2. Sound and Rhythm       
Andreas Fischer: What, if Anything, Is Phonological Iconicity?   
Hans Heinrich Meier: Imagination by Ideophone.   
Walter Bernhart: Iconicity and Beyond in “Lullaby for Jumbo”: Semiotic Functions of Poetic Rhythm.

3. Letters, Typography and Graphic Design           
Max Nänny: Alphabetic Letters as Icons in Literary Texts   
Michael Webster: “singing is silence”: Being and Nothing in the Visual Poetry of E.E.Cummings.   
Matthias Bauer: Iconicity and Divine Likeness: George Herbert’s “Coloss. 3.3”.   
Peter Halter: Iconic Rendering of Motion and Process in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams.   
Andreas Fischer: Graphological Iconicity in Print Advertising: A Typology.   
Eva Lia Wyss: Iconicity in the Digital World — an Opportunity to Create a Personal Image?

4. Word-Formation       
Friedrich Ungerer: Diagrammatic Iconicity in Word-Formation.   
Ingrid Piller: Iconicity in Brand Names.

5. Syntax and Discourse       
Olga Fischer: On the Role Played by Iconicity in Grammaticalisation Processes.   
Bernd Kortmann: Iconicity, Typology and Cognition.   
Wolfgang G. Müller: The Iconic Use of Syntax in British and American Fiction.   
Elzbieta Tabakowska: Linguistic Expression of Perceptual Relationships: Iconicity as a Principle of Text Organization (A Case Study).

Last Update: 20 March 2002

Introduction (Excerpts)            

Iconicity as a Creative Force in Language Use   

By Olga Fischer and Max Nänny

Adam's one task in the Garden had been to invent language, to give each creature and thing its name. In that state of innocence, his tongue had gone straight to the quick of the world. His words had not been merely appended to the things he saw, they had revealed their essences, had literally brought them to life. A thing and a name were interchangeable. After the fall, this was no longer true. Names became detached from things; words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs; language had been severed from God. The story of the Garden, therefore, records not only the fall of man, but the fall of language (Paul Auster, City of Glass, 70).    

There seems to be an innate iconic streak in us that makes us somehow feel or believe that there is a direct link between a word or name (the ‘signifier’) and the object or concept (the 'signified') it stands for. Following Paul Auster’s mythical interpretation in the above excerpt from his City of Glass, we may construe this latent streak in us as a relic of a prelapsarian innocence, a primeval state when the signifier and the signified were still, in Auster's words, "interchangeable". According to this mythical view, the Edenic innocence of iconic signification was destroyed by the Fall which led to the babelisation or equally fatal Fall of language: for Adam’s pristine language fell apart into a plurality of different languages. This had the effect that the same meaning was now expressed by different linguistic signs: “words devolved into a collection of arbitrary signs”. Auster’s fictional myth belongs to the tradition of what Simpson (1978: 662) refers to as the “natural language fantasy”, i.e. the fantasy that ‘nature’ had established a real connection between signs and the things they signify.

    [. . .]       
Moving from a phylogenesis of language development — from its mythical origins in ‘natural language’ to some twentieth-century literary revivals of pristine iconicity — to ontogenesis, we discover that a natural language fantasy is also strongly present in children, as many studies have shown (cf. Slobin 1985, Pontecorvo 1994, Fónagy 1980, and this volume). It is well-known that children make much more frequent use of onomatopoeic words than adults, resorting, for instance, to the sounds made by animals as a name for these animals. Additionally, Fónagy (this volume) shows that children from different language backgrounds consistently associate certain sounds with particular characteristics of the objects signified. Children are also spontaneous folk-etymologists and tend to change forms and meanings of signs in such a way that they become in their eyes more 'natural'. For instance, Dutch children may refer to the word rotonde 'round about', as rontonde, thereby indicating that they consider the expression to have a relationship with 'round' (Dutch /ront/ means 'round'). Similarly opereren 'to operate upon' often becomes openreren, because they associate it with the body that has to be opened up. Adults etymologise less in this way because they have discovered the arbitrary value of most signs, i.e. they have come to learn that most signs are 'symbols' (in the Peircean sense). It is interesting, however, that folk-etymology again may play an active part once a sign has for some reason become opaque, e.g. through infrequency of use, through language change, or because it is a borrowed word and as such less transparent. Thus, the change in the form and/or meaning of words like 'hangnail' (from OE ang nægl, a nail that gives 'distress') and 'bridegroom' (from OE brydguma) occurred because the words ang and guma ('man') had disappeared from the language.

    [. . .]   
 . . . linguists also suggest that icons do not play a large part in language anymore. Indeed, within Saussurean or structural linguistics, the idea that the linguistic sign is essentially arbitrary has long reigned supreme. Similarly, the advances that were made in historical linguistics by the Neogrammarian school in the late nineteenth century were fully based on the notion of the arbitrariness of the sign. However, even the Neogrammarians had to admit that there were exceptions to their 'sound-laws'. These they listed under the rather vague notion of 'analogy'. Analogy, as will be discussed below, must be seen as a type of change that is motivated, a change against an iconic backcloth. It seems then that in language change, and therefore in language in general, both arbitrary and iconic rules play a role. Many linguistic signs (or structures) may once have started off as icons, but in the course of time, they have tended to become worn down to mere symbols. (This, however, is not only true for language, but for all cultural artefacts, as Haiman 1993, among others, has shown.) In language, however, there is a constant opposition between economy, which causes linguistic items and structures to be eroded, thus becoming conventional, that is, more and more 'symbolic' (arbitrary), and the need for expressivity to counterbalance the erosion (cf. Plank 1979, Haiman 1983).

    [. . .]   
Hence, we discover iconicity in circumstances in which language is created: more consciously, as in literary texts, but also unconsciously in children's acquisition of language, in the creolisation of pidgins, and (as we have noted above) in situations in which linguistic structures have become opaque for some reason or other, have become difficult to process because of changes having taken place elsewhere, so that some re-analysis is inevitable. In all these situations language users unleash their creative energies, which, we think, involve iconicity. And as "our linguistic system is inextricably interwoven with the rest of our physical and cognitive selves" (Sweetser 1990: 6; and see also especially Haiman, Kortmann and Norrman, this volume), with the world we live in, we tend to fall back on our power of imitation, which, according to Lieberman (1991: 140-42), is one of the most primitive means that humans have that allows them to adapt and succeed in the struggle for survival.        
Considering, as we have noted above, that there are two competing forces at work in language (that of 'economy' and that of 'expressivity'), it may not come as a surprise that there have been proposals to distinguish also two systems in language formation or language generation. Thus, Ivan Fónagy (1995: 285-86) has suggested that there is a dual structuring of sentences at work, namely a linguistic and a paralinguistic coding, the latter involving an expressive transgression of the regular linguistic rules. In this volume, Fónagy refers to the paralinguistic (or "secondary") code as a "Distorter" or "Modifier", which processes all linguistic units generated by the Grammar (or "primary code") in live speech. Both Grammar and Distorter, however, are rule governed, but the rules of the Grammar are symbolic, arbitrary or conventionalised, whereas those of the Distorter are motivated or iconic.

    [. . .]   
The studies presented in this volume will explore iconicity from two different angles. A first group of scholars is especially interested in how far the primary code, the code of grammar, is influenced by iconic motivation (see Tabakowska on rules involved in discourse, Ungerer on rules in word formation, and A. Fischer, Fónagy and Meier on phonological rules) and how originally iconic models have become conventionalised (cf. O. Fischer, Haiman, and also Fónagy). Others go one step further in exploring how, for instance, the presence of iconicity can tell us more about the structure of human cognition (Kortmann, Ungerer) or how the "iconicist desire for symmetry" can be related to the symmetry of the human body (Norrman). A second group of contributors is more interested in the presence of iconicity as part of the secondary code, i.e. in how speakers and writers remotivate or play with the primary code, how they concretise what has become conventional or how they use form to add to meaning (see Bauer, Halter, Müller, Nänny and Webster for this presence in literary texts, A.Fischer and Piller in commercial language, and Wyss in the electronic use of language).

    [. . .]


Jean-Jacques Lecercle (Cardiff University)

Review of Form Miming Meaning: Iconicity in Language and Literature, edited by Max Nänny and Olga Fischer. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1999

The European English Messenger, vol. IX, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 55.


Linguists and specialists of literature generally agree to differ: such are the limits of their common ground, even if they work in the same departments. At best, kind words are exchanged about the importance of literary language or the necessity of grammatical parsing for close commentary, after which everyone minds their own business. For in spite of the heroic efforts of stylisticians we are no longer in the heady days of structuralism, when literature too was to be the object of a science, and the common language of semiotics was being formulated. It is no mean feat, therefore, to bring together linguists and literary theorists under the same roof, in the same conference, about the same subject. This is why Max Nänny’s and Olga Fischer’s enterprise must be welcomed. And an enterprise it is: a first conference in Zürich (the papers are collected in this volume), a second in Amsterdarn (which will produce another volume and an issue of EJES) …. They have at least proved the possibility of building a bridge between literature and linguistics.   
    The site of the bridge has been carefully chosen. Because iconicity is treated as a marginal phenomenon in both literary studies and linguistics, a rapprochement will involve specialists prepared to explore beyond the normal paradigm, and will not threaten mainstream research programmes. Thus, iconicity, as the repressed of ‘scientific linguistics’, regularly returns, as it hints at a more natural philosophy of language than Chomskyan metaphysics; and those literary theorists who are not completely bogged down in the quicksands of identity and representation, and are still aware that literature is about the materiality of language rather than the unholy Trinity of gender, race and class, will be interested in iconic phenornena in literary texts.   
    The volurne collects the work of such linguists and such literary critics and theorists. One expects, when the subject of iconicity is broached, to hear the name of John Haiman, and he is duly represented in the volume by his theory of sublimation. One is always happy to read a piece by Ivan Fonagy: his essay: ‘Why Iconicity?’, a summary of twenty years’ work on the subject, is a gem. And one will also expect a treatment of the iconic aspects of the poetry of e. e. cummings (Michael Webster) and one will be delighted by Max Nänny’s authoritative mise au point about the iconicity of single letters in literary texts (my surname makes me particularly attentive to the iconic potential of the letter O). The five parts of the collection: General; Sound and Rhythm; Letters, Typography and Graphic Design; Word-Formation; Syntax and Discourse) manage to give the impression that the totality of the field is covered—one is grateful, for instance, for the inclusion of semiotic papers, like Andreas Fischer’s ‘Graphological Iconicity in Print Advertising’. The very success of this collection of essays, however, shows that there is still a little way to go: the welcome rapprochement has been initiated, but it is not yet complete. Thus, the five parts are careful to mix contributions from literature and from linguistics. But it is still a matter of amiable coexistence rather than fusion. We go, in part 5, from Olga Fischer’s remarkable piece on iconicity and grammaticalisation, with its acute insights on the grammaticalisation of infinitival ‘to’, to the excellent survey of iconic uses of syntax in British and American fiction by Wolfgang Müller—but we are left dreaming of a piece that would weave the two strands together and show literature working with and in linguisties, or vice versa […] but in a sense our dream is already realised in Ralph Norman’s extraordinary piece, ‘Creating the World in Our Image. A New Theory of Love of Symmetry and Iconicist Desire’. For desire will have the last word, even in a book partly devoted to the science of linguistics.    

book notice of Form Miming Meaning by Tawny L. Holmin Language 78 (2002): 381-82


"This stimulating volume presents a selection of papers from a symposium on 'Iconicity in Language and Literature' (Zurich, March 1997) organized by the University of Zurich and the University of Amsterdam. In this international gathering, the first of its kind, both linguists and literary scholars presented studies of iconicity in their respective areas."

"After an excellent introduction by the editors, the book's 20 contributions are divided into 5 sections, in which the linguistic studies are intermingled with the literary..." [see Table of Contents]

"This diverse and invigorating collection should be of lively interest to linguists and literary critics alike."