Abstract: The present paper reviews major avenues of research into linguistic iconism, revealing key problems and establishing the degree to which this sphere of academic studies is represented online. To solve these problems, a universal information environment (an international website) for academic, educational, and innovative efforts in studying linguistic iconism is proposed. The number of academic centres and schools devoted to the problem already established in Russia (in St. Petersburg, Pyatigorsk, Biysk, Perm, Saratov, and Ufa), the paper argues, makes the country the optimal base for launching the project. Contemporary Russian academic theories of linguistic iconism contend that the linguistic sign is non-arbitrary and motivated, reinvigorating the iconic theory of the origin of the language, modelling the proto-conceptual iconic language space, and fuelling software developments aimed at phonosemantic and colour and graphical analysis of language (Russian, English, Tatar, and Bashkir).

Keywords: linguistic iconism, phonosemantics, Internet project, organising international academic cooperation and exchange of information, onomatopoeia, interjections, vocal gestures, ideophones


1. Introduction
The goal of the present study is to analyse key problems in linguistic iconism studies, review the available online resources dealing with these problems (phonosemantics, sound symbolisms, ideophones, onomatopoeia, vocal gestures, interjections, zaum, auditory-graphemic synaesthesia, auditory-chromatic associativity, etc.), and also to try to solve these problems by creating a specialised Internet project.

Currently, this branch of knowledge has no single universal designation: phonosemantics (М. Magnus, R.W.Wescott, S.V.Voronin), phonosemics (R.W.Wescott), linguistic iconism, sound symbolism (in the USA, А.Abelin), mimologique (in France), mimology (turkology), expressive symbolism, and phonetic symbolism (E.Sapir), etc.

But its main problem is the critical view the Academia has towards the concept of linguistic iconism, and, most of all, its primary motivation (non-arbitrariness) of the linguistic sign thesis, the iconic theory of the origin of language, and the notion of the link between the sound-form and the meaning of the linguistic unit. As, for example, demonstrated in the recent International Journal of Linguistics (Macrothink Institute, USA) article by P.K.Agrawal [Agrawal 2014].

The main argument aimed against the subject is Ferdinand de Saussure’s principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign: ‘No-one disputes the principle of arbitrariness… It dominates the whole of linguistics; its corollaries are infinite.’ [Saussure 1977:101]

Nevertheless, there are numerous proponents of linguistic iconism in Russia and internationally, autonomous and isolated (despite one of the main principles of phonosemantics being the principle of linguistic universals that are impossible to uncover without coordinating the efforts of as many researchers in as many languages as possible).

2. Methodology
The analysis of the current state of research into linguistic iconism was done in three stages: first, conducting a conceptual analysis of the available research into the subject; then performing a qualitative analysis of how well the relevant ideas, schools, and avenues of research are represented and promoted online; and then drawing up plans for an academic project to solve the issues uncovered.

3. Prior studies
The idea of linguistic iconism spans millennia. Among the most frequently quoted examples are the Ancient Greek concepts of θέσις (Aristotle, Hermogenes) and φύσις (stoics), works by French classicists (Charles de Brosses, Antoine Court de Gébelin, Charles Nodier), English empiricists (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke), the world-renowned philosophers of the language (Giambattista Vico, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Johann Gottfried Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Heymann Steinthal, Wilhelm Wundt, Hermann Paul), etc.

There are numerous definitive Russian-language works detailing the history of phonosemantics in Russia and internationally [Журавлев 1974; Воронин 1990; Genette 1976; Михалёв 1995; Левицкий 1998; Magnus 2001; Шляхова 2003, 2005; Прокофьева 2007; Колева-Златева 2008, etc.].

In the most general terms, the history of linguistic iconism studies comprise several major trends (see Appendix 3 for references):

  1. The idea of the loss of phonetic motivation over the course of the evolution of language (W.Wundt, W.Oehl, E.Cassirer, R.Paget, H.Paul, J.van Ginneken, G.Revesz, H.Werner, H.Bayley, G.Fano, М.Jousse, G.W.Hewes, A.A.Leontyev, I.N.Gorelov, A.M.Shakhnarovitch, G.E.Kornilov);
  2. A cautious view of unconditional Saussurean arbitrariness of the linguistic sign and the promotion of the concept of phonetic iconism (O.Jespersen, E.Sapir, G.Bonfante, F.Kainz, E.Coseriu, M.Wandruszka, R.Jakobson, S.Ullmann, A.Martinet, M.Grammont, M.Chastaing, I.Fonagy, B.Malmberg, G.Genette, В.В.Левицкий, R.Wescott, P.K.Aggarwal);
  3. Experimental psycholinguistic research into synaesthesia of graphemes and sounds in various languages (E.Sapir, D.Uznadze, S.Newmen, W.Kohler, I.K.Taylor, J.H.Weiss, J.-M.Peterfalvi, L.E.Marks, A.P.Zhuravlev, L.P.Prokofyeva);
  4. Experimental research into grapheme-colour synaesthesia (H.L.Hollingworth, V.Weischer, М.Asano, К.Yokosawa, G.Beeli, М.Esslen, L.Jäncke, C.D.Blair, M.E.Berryhill, D.Brang, R.Rouw, V.S.Ramachandran, S.Coulson, S.Day, C.B.Mills, S.R.Metzger, C.A.Foster, M.N.Valentine-Gresko, S.Ricketts, M. R.Watson, K.A.Akins, J.T.Enns);
  5. Biolinguistics (D.J. Linden, A.H.Chisholm, W.H.Thorpe, P.J.B.Slater, Th.A.Sebeok, J.P.Scanlan, I.M.Pepperberg, D.K.Patterson, I.M.Pepperberg, P.Marler, P.Lieberman, V.D.Ilyitchev, Y.A.Soprokin, E.N.Panov, O.L.Silayeva, V.P.Morozov, V.S.Shevyakov) – the study of human-animal communication, justifying the onomatopoeic theory of the origin of language [Силаева 1998];
  6. The problem of the origin and evolution of language (A.Carstairs-McCarthy, J.L.Dessalles, J.R.Hurford, P.MacNeilage, Oudeyer Pierre-Yves, Ruhlen Merritt);
  7. Phonosemantic lexicography (X.Amanuma, R.D’Elia, Т.Fujita, Т.Gomi, Н.Kakehi, М.Leiris, М.Magnus, Р.Miles, H.Newman, М.Sadasivam, N.Thun, M.Dewson, C.Whissel) etc.

The avenues of research most actively pursued by Russian linguists are:

  1. Justifying phonosemantics as a separate discipline, defining its categories, laws, and characteristics [Воронин 1982];
  2. Uncovering phonosemantic universals in sound symbolism and onomatopoeia across different language families (V.M. Illitch-Svitytch, A.M.Gazov-Ginzberg, S.V.Voronin, A.B.Mikhalev, S.S.Shlyakhova, O.V.Shestakova, N.V.Drozhaschikh, L.P.Prokofyeva, Y.B.Trofimova, T.M.Rogozhnikova);
  3. Justifying the iconic theory of the origin of language (A.M.Gazov-Ginzberg, S.V.Voronin, A.B.Mikhalyov, N.V.Drozhaschikh, S.S.Shlyakhova);
  4. Justifying the proto-conceptual iconic sphere of language: the phonosemantic field theory [Михалёв 1995, 2009], the iconic sphere of language [Дрожащих 2006], the phonosematic world-image [Шляхова 2005];
  5. The occasional phonologisation of noises in multi-structural languages and the manifestations of iconism in psycholinguistic experiments [Трофимова 2009, 2011];
  6. The consistency of onomatopoeia, interjections, vocal gestures, zaum, (delirium- or trance-induced texts, transrational languages of Russian Futurist, OBERIU, and Post-Modernist poets, children’s quasi-languages, etc.), and its basic role in the origin and evolution of language [Шляхова 2005; Кустова 2010; Шаронов 2008];
  7. Lexicographic recording of phonosemantic words [Шляхова 2004, 2011; Шаронов 2005, 2008; Шестакова 2012];
    Auditory-chromatic associativity (grapheme-colour synaesthesia) [Журавлев 1974; Прокофьева 2007; Шляхова 2014; Рогожникова 2011, 2012, 2013];
  8. Developing the software for phonosemantic analysis of the English, Russian (V.Shalak, L.P.Prokofyeva, T.M.Rogozhnikova), Tatar and Bashkir (T.M.Rogozhnikova) and other languages.

Currently there are established scientific schools and academic centres in Russia and internationally that have no scientific links. In Russia there are several centres of research into linguistic iconism (see Appendix 2), but the Academia does not view them as proper scientific schools, despite the continuity, systemacity, and multiplicity of research into linguistic iconism conducted there.

In western Academia, numerous bibliographic lists (see Appendix 3) have been compiled without any Slavic-language input, indicating that Slavic-language phonosemantics is isolated from the context of international scholarship, and that Russian scientific schools suffer from inadequate presentation and promotion, including on the Internet.

The most complete bibliographic list of available works and websites on phonosemanticity S.V.Voronin, V.V.Levitskiy, A.P.Zhuravlev, B.M.Galeyev, S.V.Klimova, A.B.Mikhalyov, S.S.Shlyakhova, L.P.Prokofyeva et al.) that are hard-to-access yet clearly in demand by Western scholars.

4. Problems in linguistic iconism studies

Reviewing the available literature on the subject reveals many works on phonosemanticity and allows one to single out the following problems in linguistic iconism studies:

  1. Many linguists reject the idea of motivation of the linguistic sign and the significance of primary motivation in the origin, evolution, and present-day functioning of language;
  2. Lack of definitive works on phonosemanticity in different languages;
  3. Absence of terminological coordination and societies and websites involved in summing up the findings, which makes it impossible to correlate identical pieces of research and their findings;
  4. The Russian-language studies are carried out without taking into account Western achievements in the sphere; Russian and international researchers oblivious of each other’s works (similarly owing to the lack of dedicated Internet resource);
  5. Lexicographic challenges: absence or lack of specialised dictionaries of different languages; insufficient and unsystematic recording and etymological analysis of phonosemantic words; fuzzy labelling; absence of criteria for comparison in bilingual dictionaries;
  6. Bias towards research in various forms of synaesthesia, including its interpretation in language (sound symbolism), and lack of research in onomatopoeia, interjections, vocal gestures, etc.

In terms of organisation and supply of information, one should stress the following key problems:

  1. Lack of Russian-language professional associations;
  2. Small circulation of specialised literature on the subject, which is hard to obtain even for Russian researchers, not to mention their Western colleagues;
  3. Illegal distribution of Russian-language studies bypassing the authors and violating their rights;
  4. Weak scientific ties between researchers in linguistic iconism both domestically and internationally (see Appendix 1).


5. Online scholarly resources

There are numerous specialised websites in the West, presenting the findings of local scholars
(see Appendix 4). The analysis of their content helped identity the following challenges:

  1. There are no websites in Russia that offer research citing a wide range of other specialised resources. For example, there are at least three websites on synaesthesia hosted in Russia: one by A.Sidorova-Dorso, one by the Prometey Joint Scientific Research Institute, and one by L.P.Prokofyeva. Each project features the original avenue of research and methodology adopted by that particular researcher or a group, sometimes failing to provide horizontal links. It would be better to coordinate these efforts within a single website that could offer the most complete picture of the state of research on each particular problem.
  2. Russian and international websites on linguistic iconism are presenting individual aspects and avenues of research into the subject, mainly in synaesthesia and phonosemantics, whereas researchers worldwide should focus their efforts on creating a single website that would reference other resources.
  3. Most websites are user-, not researcher-oriented. Some are visibly heavy on the marketing side. For example, the American Synaesthesia Association website offers membership to individuals aged above 18 who are willing to fill out the form and pay an annual fee of at least $50, with life membership costing $5 000. Also, member organisations enjoy tax rebates on distribution and popularisation of materials on synaesthesia.
  4. Western-based scholars also have no consolidated websites even within their countries, and are running websites representing individual researchers or university centres instead. Enjoying the greatest degree of consolidation are the centres of research into synaesthesia: the American (S. Day), Australian (P.Higgs), British (S. Baron-Cohen), Belgian(H. Heyrman), Chinese (J. Simner), French (V. Burela, I. Schönenberger), Italian (C. Santoli), Dutch (C. van Campan), Japanese (Nobuyosi N.), German (H.M. Emrich) and other synaesthesia associations.
  5. A substantial amount of consolidated information on research into linguistic motivation is available on M.Magnus’s personal website that offers an extensive list of books, websites, and email addresses of association members, as well as unabridged versions of many of the English-language works, etc. However, following the death of the owner, the website is no longer maintained, with many of the links no longer working.

6. Problems of online representation
Analysing websites dedicated to the problems of linguistic iconism reveals the following problem areas:

  1. Absence of Russian- and Slavic-language professional communities and their representation online;
  2. Absence of consolidated specialised websites in Russia and internationally;
  3. Illegal distribution of Russian-language studies bypassing the authors and violating their rights.

7. Possible solutions
The most effective way of solving the aforementioned problems is to create a specialised website. There is a project, complete with the concept and the content, developed by a group of researchers from Perm aiming to organise long-term international cooperation in the field of information and scientific activities
(see Appendix 5).

Its main goal is to unite the efforts in studying linguistic iconism in different languages and to disseminate reliable scientific knowledge in phonosemantics and related sciences in Russia and internationally.

Its methodology is based on the principle of genetic non-arbitrariness, motivation of the linguistic sign: ‘Saussure’s unitary principle that “the linguistic sign is arbitrary” has exhausted its potential as a universal basic principle… superseded by a new, binary principle that “the linguistic sign is both non-arbitrary and arbitrary” at the same time.’ [Воронин 1999: 130]

The link between the sound-form and the meaning of a word is lost in the process of semantic and phonetic evolution: the linguistic sign is no longer motivated, it acquires new meanings unrelated to its sound-form. Originally non-arbitrary, the motivated sign becomes arbitrary, non-motivated.

The project’s principles state that it must be

  1. Scientifically competent,
  2. Open to the public free of charge,
  3. Used only for personal, informational, scientific, educational, or cultural non-profit purposes,
  4. Upholding its contributors’ copyright, hosting their works strictly with their permission, free of charge,
  5. Consistent in publishing the materials in accordance with its editorial classification and the system of horizontal links,
  6. Up-to-date, interactive, and open to feedback.

The project is timely as it:

  1. Organises and widens international contacts, organises information and scientific activities in linguistic iconism studies;
  2. Disseminates reliable scientific knowledge in phonosemantics;
  3. Creates the most comprehensive, accurate and accessible permanent scholarly resource on phonosemantics;
  4. Creates a joined multinational scientific product;
  5. Integrates Russian-language research into the international scientific context,
  6. Can increase citation index figures.

The project is novel as it

  1. Presents an original scientific and informational online resource on linguistic iconism;
  2. Results in a joined international scientific product, basic multi-aspect phonosemantic electronic dictionaries;
  3. Lays the foundation for a breakthrough large-scale electronic database of phonosemantic means in various world languages;
  4. Establishes a dedicated scientific journal.

This Linguistic Motivation Forum website will consist of two modules:

I. The information module, comprising the following sections: History of Phonosemantics, Faces of Phonosemantics, Library, Phonosemantic schools and centres, Bibliography, Reviews, Photos, Conferences, Affiliated websites, Links, ‘Folk Phonosemantics’, etc.
1. The Library

2. The Bibliography will include reference lists grouped by: the language of the study; the subject language; the problems and aspects of the study; author’s name.

II. The research module will comprise a specialised scientific journal and an online laboratory.

1. The online vocabulary lab will

2. The online terminology lab will

3. The online phonosemantic experimental lab will

4. The dedicated scientific online journal:

To facilitate access by international users the website’s main materials will also be available in English, with the rest of the authors providing English-language abstracts.

The future website openness to the public will to some extent solve the problem of illegal commercial distribution of copyrighted works.

So far, about 50 scholars from eight countries have expressed their willingness to participate in the project: Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. They are leading specialists in linguistic iconism (30 doctoral and 15 post-doctoral level) from 45 universities and 5 institution of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Developing the contents of the future website is 90% complete; the project team is currently looking for funding to commence website construction. For more details and to offer cooperation, please contact us at

8. Conclusions

Reviewing the main problems of linguistic iconism studies, analysing the existing online resources on the subject, and analysing the degree of online presence and promotion of this sphere of academic studies, revealed that

  1. Many linguists reject the idea of motivation of the linguistic sign and the significance of primary motivation in the origin, evolution, and present-day functioning of language, leading to a scarcity of basic research in linguistic iconism;
  2. In Russia there are several established scientific schools and centres (in St. Petersburg, Pyatigorsk, Biysk, Perm, Saratov, and Ufa) devoted to the problems of linguistic iconism;
  3. Modern linguistic iconism theories in the Russian scholarship contend that the linguistic sign is non-arbitrary and motivated, reinvigorating the iconic theory of the origin of the language, modelling the proto-conceptual iconic language space, and fuelling software developments aimed at phonosemantic and colour and graphical analysis of language;
  4. Absence of professional Russian-language communities and specialised websites, weak horizontal links between Russian and international researchers, small circulation of specialised literature and its poor availability are impeding the research into linguistic iconism, including its comparative studies aspect.

At this juncture, the strategic goal is to create a universal information environment (an international interactive website) for joined academic, educational, and innovative efforts in studying linguistic iconism.

9. References

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10. Appendices

Appendix 1. Problems in coordinating linguistic iconism research

Appendix 2. Russian phonosemantics schools and centres. Main avenues of research

Biysk phonosemantics school: Anthropocentric typology of languages lab (headed by prof. Y.B.Trofimova): manifestations of iconism in psycholinguistic experiments; iconic theory of the origin of the language; research into occasional verbalisation and perception of signals of diverse nature by Russian, English, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Altaic speakers; comparative studies aimed at revealing the iconic character of onomatopoeic words and interjections in Russian, Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian.

Moscow environmental biolinguistics school (founded by prof. V.D.Ilyitchev, headed by prof. O.L.Silayeva): human-animal communication; iconic theory of the origin of the language (language is originally based on natural sounds, animal and bird signals); discovered of the global acoustic-imitative process inherent in every human and animal communications system.

St. Petersburg phonosemantics school (founded by prof. S.V.Voronin): justifying phonosemantics as a separate discipline, defined its categories, laws, and characteristics; modelled the phonosemantic system of language; researched into phonosemantic etymology, universal typology of onomatopes, iconic theory of the origin of the language; substantiated the dual arbitrary/non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign; developed the methodology of phonosemantic analysis; identified the objective criteria of a phonosemantic word; defined the basic laws of the origin and evolution of the language sign; singled out the phonotype as the basic category of phonosemantics; introduced and defined the nature of synkinaesthemia as the basis of phonosemanticity.

Pyatigorsk phonosemantics school (headed by prof. A.B.Mikhalyov): phonosemantic field theory; phonosemantic etymology; justifying the proto-conceptual iconic sphere of language; iconic theory of the origin of the language; researching phonosemanticity of morphemotypes, phonaesthemes, initials, and finals.

Perm phonosemantics circle (headed by prof. S.S.Shlyakhova): justifying the proto-conceptual iconic sphere of language (phonosemantic world-image); marginal linguistics; iconic theory of the origin of the language; researching phonosemanticity of the Komi-Permyak language; modelling the phonosemantic system of language; universal typology of onomatopes (Russian, German); phonosemantic etymology; systemacity, universality, and ideoethnicity of onomatopoeia (Russian, German, Komi-Permyak); phonosemantic lexicography (Russian, German, Komi-Permyak); phonosemantics of dialects; experimental research into phonetic meaning and grapheme-colour synaesthesia (Komi-Permyak).

Saratov psycholinguistics school (founded by prof. I.N.Gorelov, headed by prof. L.P.Prokofyeva): substantiating the primary motivation of the linguistic sign theory; experimental psycholinguistic research into phonosemanticity; grapheme-colour synaesthesia, auditory-chromatic associativity (Russian and English); developing the software for analysing auditory-chromatic associativity of prose, poetry, and theatre plays (Russian and English).

Ufa psycholinguistics school (headed by prof. T.M.Rogozhnikova): experimental psycholinguistic research into phonosemanticity; grapheme-colour synaesthesia, auditory-chromatic associativity (Russian, English, Tatar, Bashkir); developing the software for analysing auditory-chromatic associativity of texts (Russian, English, Tatar, Bashkir).

Appendix 3. Bibliography on problems of linguistic iconism

Appendix 4. Websites on linguistic iconism research

Personal websites of researchers

Websites of professional associations and university research centres:

Social network communities:

Appendix 5. Structure of the Linguistic Motivation Forum interactive information and research website

Title page

About the Forum



Usage policy

Publication policy


Site map

History of Phonosemantics


Phonosemantic schools and centres



Bibliography (grouped by)

Faces of Phonosemantics

In Memoriam



Forum members

Conferences, round tables, workshops

Vocabulary lab



Electronic Dictionary of Phonosemantic Words

Electronic Dictionary of Initials

Electronic dictionary of phonaesthemes

Electronic graphophonosemantic dictionary

Terminology lab

Phonosemantic experimental lab

Problems of Linguistic Motivation online journal


Audio and video

Folk phonosemantics

Interesting facts

Affiliated websites

Useful links


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