Category Archives: Linguistics

Iconicity in written language

Just as written text can be indexical, it can also be iconic. For example, a handwritten extract in a novel can be iconic in its capacity to convey the mental state of its writer at the moment of writing it. Similarly, the use of italics and capital letters can be iconic in that they represent a nuanced pronunciation.

The iconic capacity of the written word has its basis in metaphor. Just as the expression time is money demonstrates a mental association between the concepts of time and money, similar associations can be demonstrated by visual metaphors in written language; we tend to associate, for example, letter size with volume. Lewis Carroll famously took advantage of this with the beetle character in Through the Looking-Glass: The creature’s tiny voice is rendered in correspondingly tiny type.


Though the relationship between type size and spoken volume might be universal, Alexandra Jaffe warns that such paragraphemic iconicity may not always be so: “Becoming literate is not just the acquisition of orthographic decoding skills, but also involves the development of a (culturally conditioned) graphic sensibility.” In truth, all aspects of communication—as an endeavor that depends on symbolic, indexical and iconic associations in itself—depend on the cultural background of both interlocutors.

The same apparently goes for communication online: In a study on the localization of Wikipedia pages, the researchers concluded that the Web is, to some extent, culturally determined. They found diverse cultural markers that differentiated the appearance, organization and particular content of different localized websites. “Members of different cultural groups,” they say, “prefer different icons, colors, and site structures.”

Indexicality in written language

In semiotics, the principle of indexicality refers to a token that refers to an object, not because it is visually similar to that object (as in iconicity) nor because it is analogous to that object (as in symbolism), but rather because the token is associated with the same general traits and connotations as its referent. A classic example of iconicity is the presence of smoke, which indicates fire. In this case, smoke is an index of fire.


Virtually any linguistic trait that is particular to a speech community can be indexical of that community. In her groundbreaking article Indexing Gender, Elinor Ochs systematized this sociolinguistic indexicality, which explains how certain aspects of speech (e.g., particular lexical items, syntactic complexity, hypercorrection and intonation) can be indices for the gender of the speaker. However, it is important to highlight Ochs’ caveat that indexicality is not static, rather it evolves across time and space. Thus, a trait that is indexical of a speech community at one time and place can be indexical of a different community at a different time and/or place.

Since Ochs’ work, it has been demonstrated that linguistic and paralinguistic features can be indices for far more than just gender. Alexandra Jaffe, for example, has done work demonstrating that a speaker’s nonstandard orthography can serve as an index for that person’s nonstandard speech. Beyond orthography, even the choice of writing system in itself can be indexical. To quote Robert King in his book Nehru and the Language Politics of India: “The Urdu script means Muslim, the Devanagari script means Hindu. The Urdu script as seen by an angry, inflamed Hindu mob summons up talismanic images from the present and the past.” Yet evidently the Urdu script does not stir up anger in everyone who reads it; the connections implicit in its iconicity depend on the culture, background and values of every particular interlocutor. To offer another example, Gothic script might indicate Germanness to some readers, Medievalness to others—and to others still, Nazism. As in speech pragmatics, the context in which a piece of writing is created (and read) is of vital importance to its meaning.

Still, it may be true that the majority of readers do not appreciate the differences between, for instance, Times and Garamond. As any typographer would assert, the use of one over the other plays a large role in the reader’s interpretation of the text, whether they notice it or not. In other words, indexicality may be subtle or even subconscious. Sometimes, though, we do confront salient paragraphemic features—such as the repeated used of italics—that we cannot help but notice. Nina Nørgaard examined a few examples of this phenomenon in novels and concluded that the use of marked typography (that is, when portions are clearly different from the majority of the text) can be indexical. For example, the inclusion of a handwritten excerpt in the middle of a novel functions as an index of the real-life existence of the character that wrote it.

Though this is a relatively understudied subject, sitting at the intersection of linguistics and information studies, it has seen renewed interest with respect to how writing systems are used in electronic communication. If you’re interested in the subject, I highly recommend checking out The Multilingual Internet, a brilliant book edited by Brenda Danet and Susan Herring.

Do complicated writing systems make smarter citizens?

The Japanese language probably has the most complicated writing system  in the world. (If you know of a more complicated one, I want to hear about it!)

Japanese uses three scripts in concert. The first system is called kanji, and is comprised of the logographic characters borrowed from Chinese.

The other two systems are syllabaries (like alphabets, but instead of representing single sounds, each character represents a syllable) that were independently derived from the Chinese characters in order to spell out Japanese words for which there was no dedicated symbol. Katakana, the first syllabary, was derived from the classic characters, and hiragana, the second syllabary, was derived from the cursive characters.

Each of these systems is capable of representing the Japanese language on its own (except kanji, which would admittedly have a few gaps if the syllabaries didn’t exist). Even so, the three systems are used together, according to particular rules:

  • Kanji is used for vocabulary when there is a dedicated character available and known by the writer. Many (most?) kanji characters have multiple pronunciations, depending on the words they appear in. For example, the character 人 means person. Sometimes it is pronounced hito, sometimes it’s nin and sometimes jin. 一人 (one person) is pronounced hitori, but 三人 (three people) is pronounced san-nin, and 外人 (foreigner) is pronounced gaijin.
  • Hiragana is used for vocabulary items that have no kanji or when the writer does not know the kanji. This syllabary is also used for inflection and particles. These show what part a word plays in a sentence. For example, the English ending -ology means the word refers to a field of study, and -ing means that the word refers to an ongoing action.
  • Katakana is used for foreign words or when the pronunciation is to be emphasized.

All in all, a literate Japanese speaker must be competent in all three writing systems. A tall order!

Given all this craziness, it is surprising that Japan boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and that it excels in IT, math and science. Does the dominance of a complicated symbolic system contribute to higher intellect in other areas? 


David Crystal writes in Internet Linguistics:

Strong positive links have been found between the use of textisms and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. Interestingly, the more they used abbreviations, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. (2011, p. 5)

That is, children with stronger knowledge of the written standard were better able to modulate written language to their liking in environments that allowed creativity. If we can understand “textisms” as a separate writing system that is used in concert with the standard English writing system, we have a situation not so unlike that of Japanese. And we see that students who can manipulate two writing systems do better on some standardized tests. Perhaps these creative thinking skills bleed into competencies in other areas on an even grander scale.