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Effects of iconicity in lexical decision

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2019

University of Calgary
University College London
University of Calgary


In contrast to arbitrariness, a recent perspective is that words contain both arbitrary and iconic aspects. We investigated iconicity in word recognition, and the possibility that iconic words have special links between phonological and semantic features that may facilitate their processing. In Experiment 1, participants completed a lexical decision task (“Is this letter string a word?”) including words varying in their iconicity. Notably, we manipulated stimulus presentation conditions such that the items were visually degraded for half of the participants; this manipulation has been shown to increase reliance on phonology. Responses to words higher in iconicity were faster and more accurate, but this did not interact with condition. In Experiment 2 we explicitly directed participants’ attention to phonology by using a phonological lexical decision task (“Does this letter string sound like a word?”). Responses to words that were higher in iconicity were once again faster. These results demonstrate facilitatory effects of iconicity in lexical processing, thus showing that the benefits of iconic mappings extend beyond those reported for language learning and those argued for language evolution.

Copyright © UK Cognitive Linguistics Association 2019 

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The authors thank Mark Dingemanse and Darin Flynn for helpful correspondence about matters related to this work. The authors also thank Kristen Deschamps and Stella Heo for assistance in running the experiments.



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