I've just encountered this term in the context of a study about sound symbolism, I suppose it is a factor that might play role in how are the new words being formed. What is meant by this factor?

  • 1
    Could you provide some more context (e.g. a quote from the study where this word occurs)? Dec 5, 2016 at 16:07
  • It sounds like handwaving, which is not uncommon in studying sound symbolism. That's why source and context are so important. Terms mean nothing by themselves; source and context are part of the message.
    – jlawler
    Dec 5, 2016 at 17:36
  • Of course, it's researchgate.net/publication/…
    – Probably
    Dec 5, 2016 at 21:01

1 Answer 1


In the context of sound-symbolism and indeed the semiotic theories that are discussed in the article, a sign (linguistic or otherwise) is said to be motivated or iconic if its signifier has something in common with what the sign references.

For example, a picture of a yellow circle with lines around it is typically used to depict the sun. Because it has some visual properties in common with the sun, we can say it is motivated or iconic, whereas the word sun itself has nothing in common with the sun and is therefore said to be unmotivated or arbitrary.

Saussure argued in his seminal Cours de Linguistique Générale that linguistic signs were (mostly) arbitrary, with any apparent motivation the result of coincidences and irrelevant to linguistic theory.

Since then, there has been much debate around this issue, with so called ideophones and phonaesthemes cited as counter-examples to Saussure's views, as well as the discovery of the Bouba Kiki effect.

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    Nice answer! In addition to ideophones and Bouba-Kiki, I think it should be noted, although it's not relevant to sound symbolism, that iconicity and motivatedness are pervasive in other parts of language, despite claims to the contrary. For instance, constituency and tree structures, the classical generativist's favourite aspect of language, group related ideas together; grammatical categories that are more inherent are more likely to be affixes; and so on. Dec 6, 2016 at 17:16

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