More than words: Why does language have meaning?

| Words, reference, and the emergence of meaning |

The complex use of language is one of the things that makes human beings unique. It may even be the secret ingredient in the recipe for higher level cognitive function. Although there is still a question of whether language is a cause, a byproduct, or an iteratively designed tool of cognition (or perhaps all of the above), we do know that language is integral to human cognition. Understanding language – how it evolved, how we learn to use it, how it gets processed in the brain – helps us understand cognition.

Reframing work by Charles Peirce and Terrence Deacon gives us a way to describe how words function as three different types or levels of reference.

Iconic Reference

  • Definition: Icons physically resemble the thing they represent. An example of this is how a photograph resembles a person.
  • Relationship: The reference (the photograph) is perceived to be the same as or similar to its referent (the person).
  • Proximity: Icons share a physical likeness with whatever they represent, so in a way they occupy a shared conceptual space. Since the photograph of a person resembles that person, it can be used as a substitute for or alternative to that person’s presence.
  • Words as icons: At a physical / perceptual level, we learn that similar sounds / images / movements are versions of the same thing.  For example, “toe-MEY-toe” and “toe-MAH-toe” are both variations of the sound of “tomato.” This is what enables us to recognize various instances of a single word.

Indexical Reference

  • Definition: Indices point to or correlate with the thing they represent. An example would be a handprint as an indication of a person’s presence sometime in the past.
  • Relationship: The reference (the handprint) is perceived to be different from but directly related to its referent (the person).
  • Proximity: Indices naturally co-occur with whatever they represent, so they occupy a kind of shared conceptual time. For example, both the person and her handprint coincided with the time at which the handprint was made.
  • Words as indices: At a feeling / associative level, we learn that a word can correspond to something else, the way that the sound of a firm alarm or the image of smoke corresponds to a fire. This is what enables us to associate a word with specific things in the world.

Symbolic Reference

  • Definition: Symbols are assigned to physically replace the thing they represent while simultaneously correlating with other symbols. As an example, a name represents a specific person as well as the types of relationships specific to nouns.
  • Relationship: The reference (the name) is different from but perceived as a substitute for its referent (the person). It is also directly related to other references and their referents (words).
  • Proximity: Symbols are not physically similar to whatever they represent. However, during the initial process of learning a language, a symbol co-occurs with its referent (through directed attention) and with other symbols (through experiences of speech, writing, gesture, etc.). Later in the learning process, a symbol is treated as being the same as its referent while maintaining its correlations with other symbols. That is, a fully functional symbol exists in a shared conceptual space with its referent and a shared conceptual time with other symbols.
  • Words as symbols: At this mental / conceptual level, a word is a sound / image / movement that we have learned to substitute for its referent, and which corresponds to other words and their referents. This is what enables us to use a word as the embodiment of a network of multi-level reference from which we can derive a sense of meaning.


Peirce’s Theory of Signs | Stanford Encyclopedia
The symbolic species: Symbols aren’t simple | Terrence Deacon