Chapter 10 – Language and Symbols

Wikis > Chapter 10 - Language and Symbols

2019: Koh Cai Ni, Lam Ka Yan Emma, and Shaun Lim Tyan Gin

1. Introduction

Symbols are all around us. Hungry in school at night, you decide to walk to North Spine and the familiar “Golden Arches” greets you. In fact, the McDonald’s logo is one of the best-known company symbols worldwide! The life-breathing sun and mysterious moon we see every day and night are also highly symbolic! Have you ever wondered how symbols came about and what their functions are, especially in the language we speak today?

Symbols are key to language. Harley (2001) defines language as “a system of symbols and rules that enable us to communicate”, while psychologist David Premack, in his 2004 article, Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence, asks if language, the symbol system that “evolved only in humans”, makes us the most special (Premack, 2004).

Figure 1. Packets of tissue paper being used to chope a table at a hawker centre. From The Straits Times. Retrieved from Copyright 2017 by The Straits Times.

Language and symbols are the most crucial aspects of human communication (Epure and Mihăeş, 2019). Symbols convey linguistic and social meanings. Linguistic meaning is expressed through linguistic units like words; Aristotle once said that “spoken words are the symbols of experiences in the psyche while written words are symbols of the spoken” (Sowa, 2007). The social meanings of symbols can be best illustrated by the ubiquitous tissue paper and its relations to choping in Singapore. Just like how a packet of tissue paper left on a table in hawker centers or food courts informs Singaporeans that the table is already choped “taken” (see Figure 1), symbols denote specific ideas or notions which have been agreed upon by members of the community (Balla, 2012). These meanings are learnt and reinforced by interactions among community members. Therefore, symbols share a convention-based relationship with their objects.

In short, symbols are vital due to the communicative and cultural role they play in human social life. In this chapter, we will go back in time to look at the beginning of symbols. We will define what symbols are and trace their evolution over time, before determining how symbols contributed to the birth of languages for communication.

2. What are symbols?

In this section, we will understand the world of symbols through two prominent theories.

2.1 Icons, indexes, and symbols

The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, known as the “father of pragmatics”, developed comprehensive theories on signs, or a stimulus pattern that has meaning. Central to these theories was that signs could be classified into icons, indexes, and symbols (Atkin, 2010).

An icon is a sign which has a physical resemblance to the object it signifies. An example of an icon is a photograph. If you take a picture of a tree, as seen in Figure 2, the image you see is a tree. The photograph an icon because the picture is that of the tree.

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Figure 2. A photograph of a rain tree in Singapore. From National Parks Board (NParks). Retrieved from Copyright by NParks.

Icons are also found in computers. Whenever we want to print a particular document, we are greeted with a little square with a picture of the printer. This is an icon of the print function (Larson, 2012)!

An index is a sign which has a causal relationship with its object. For instance, smoke shares an indexical relationship with fire; smoke is directly produced when there is fire. As another example, the level of mercury in the thermometer is an index of the temperature; the higher the mercury level, the greater the temperature (Garrod et al., 2007).

Lastly, a symbol is a sign linked to its object by virtue of conventions, agreements, or rules. Symbols are arbitrary and the meaning of symbols needs to be acquired. Take a look at the logo of Google Chrome shown in Figure 3. Is there anything that resembles the intended meaning of a search engine? No! The logo gets its meaning by convention – web users have accepted that the logo symbolises a search engine to surf the web and they must know that it is a Chrome logo to know its meaning (Winter, n.d.)!

Google Chrome icon (September 2014).svg

Figure 3. The Google Chrome logo. From Wikipedia. Retrieved from

The orthography of languages, or the writing system of languages are also symbols. Individually, symbols like alphabets and letters carry minimal or no meaning. For example, the letter “d” on its own has no significant meaning. However, when strung together with other letters, it forms a word like “dog”.

2.2 The Referential approach to meaning

The Referential approach to meaning, illustrated in Figure 4, consists of three parts: (1) sound-form (a symbol or linguistic unit), (2) referent (the entity or concrete object which the symbol refers to), and (3) concept (the corresponding relationship connecting the symbol and the referent) (Abbassi and Sirmon-Taylor, 2019). Going back to the example in Section 2.1, the concept, or link between the word “dog” and the animal is arbitrary; the word “dog” has no features of “canineness” or “dogginess” and is related to the animal only because human society says so!

Figure 4. The referential approach to meaning. The dotted line indicates that there is no direct relationship between the sound-form and referent; it has to be learnt by convention.

3. How have symbols changed across time?

In this section, we study the evolution of symbols. In particular, we will look at one of the earliest forms of writing, the Sumerian cuneiform script, before introducing emojis, a modern-day symbol system. In doing so, we hope to compare and contrast the characteristics of symbol systems over time.

3.1 Sumerian cuneiform

The Sumerian cuneiform is one of the earliest systems of writing. It was invented by the Sumerians who lived in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) around 3200 BC. The word cuneiform comes from the Latin word cuneus “wedge” and thus means “wedge shaped” (Krill, 1990).

Figure 5. An early cuneiform writing tablet recording the allocation of beer believed to be from Southern Iraq, 3100 to 3000 BC. From Brewminate. Retrieved from . Copyright by Trustees of the British Museum.

The first cuneiforms were based on pictographs, or picture signs representing an animal or object. These pictograms were used for trading goods and livestock. What do they look like? As seen in Figure 6, the pictograph of a fish was produced by the wedge-shaped marks of a stylus before being dried under the sun (Avrin, 1991). Over time, the wedge-shaped marks became more abstract as they were rotated 90 degrees. In Figure 7, the later cuneiform no longer resembles the fish (Nardo, 2007). We can see changes in the cuneiform script; it begins as an icon with a physical similarity to the animal and gradually becomes symbolic. There is thus an arbitrary relationship to the animal it is supposed to represent.

Figure 6. Earliest pictograph of a fish. From Science Photo Library. Retrieved from Copyright by Science Photo Library.

Figure 7. Evolution of the fish pictograph over time. From Science Photo Library. Retrieved from Copyright by Science Photo Library.

The cuneiform script also had phonetic signs, or phonograms (see Figure 8), which were created around 3000 BC. Consequently, there was a shift from the visual to the aural world as phonograms represented syllables. This development mirrors the modern alphabet system. Putting together alphabets, just as in the case of phonograms, produces a word – a symbol having a sound and denoting a physical object – similar to how the sound-form maps onto the referent.

Figure 8. An example of a phonogram in the cuneiform script. From Ancient Scripts. Retrieved from Copyright by Lawrence Lo.

The cuneiform script inspired other alphabet systems such as the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets (Valdez, 2014). Many great Mesopotamian civilizations like the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians, and Hurrians made use of cuneiform (Mark, 2011). Therefore, studying how the cuneiform script changed over time, particularly its shift from iconicity to symbolism, and the formation of phonetic signs, are helpful in determining in the role of symbols in language creation and evolution.

For more information on the cuneiform script, please refer to

3.2 Emojis

Your phone beeps. You receive an SMS from your friend asking “what’s happening tonight?” You have no time to curate a lengthy text message so you pluck a string of emojis that best expresses yourself (see Figure 9).

Figure 9. An example of an SMS.

Emojis are small digital images or icons used to express an idea or emotion (Oxford Living Dictionaries, n.d.). Emojis were created in 1999 by Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita and featured in telecommunication giant NTT DoCoMo’s mobile internet system, known as i-mode. Figure 10 shows the first set of emojis created by NTT DoCoMo. The i-mode hit 20 million subscribers after debuting in Japan, making emojis a huge success (Evans, 2017a).

Figure 10. The first emoji set created by NTT DoCoMo. From CNN. Retrieved from Copyright 2018 by CNN.

The digitalised world we live in has led to the prevalence of emojis as a modern-day symbol system. 6 billion emojis are sent worldwide every day (E-Marketer, 2015), of which 60% are face emojis (DeFabio, 2015). In fact, emojis are so commonly used that the emoji (or the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji) was the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015 (Wang, 2015)!

So, are emojis iconic, indexical, or symbolic? Emojis are highly iconic with the range of happy, sad, and winking emojis being the most iconic. This iconicity also extends to flag emojis that represent different countries as the emoji of the particular country is represented by its national flag (Evans, 2017b). Notwithstanding, there are indexical emojis, like pointing arrows, and some symbolic ones (Danesi, 2018).

Similar to how cuneiform scripts facilitated communication among the Sumerian people, emojis serve a modern communicative function. Virtual communication lacks cues like eye contact, facial expression, gestures, posture, and tone. These communicative tools indicate how the speaker and listener feel. In its absence, emojis express emotions and also create solidarity in human relationships online; emoji users are seen as more friendly, outgoing, and sincere (Tang and Hew, 2018). As such, emojis form a pictographic language that is used to complement written language.

Similar to cuneiform script, emojis, too, have evolved over time. Developers push out regular updates that changes how some of the emojis look like, as seen with the “dancing lady” emoji in Figure 11. However, the meaning behind the emoji remains relatively unchanged.

Figure 11. Evolution of the “dancing lady” emoji over time. From Emojipedia. Retrieved from Copyright 2018 by Emojipedia.

4. How do symbols aid language? A Case Study of Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL)

4.1 How do symbols aid language? In…

To reiterate, symbols represent objects through convention which must be learnt. As seen in Section 1, symbols are necessary in human language and communication. Specifically, symbols are important in language evolution and language acquisition.

4.1.1 Language evolution

Symbols are a precursor to language. Some scholars argue that the ability to use symbols – defined as the capability of connecting sounds or gestures to a particular concept, especially to communicate with others – was a necessary first step towards language. Additionally, the capacity to relate these symbols to each other is postulated to be a further pre-adaptation for language (Christiansen and Kirkby, 2009). This ability to use symbols may be uniquely human; non-human primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, as well as animals with seemingly complex communication forms like dolphins and grey parrots, have limited capacity in doing so. These animals can use symbols, but only to refer to the objects they want to. Ultimately, their repertoire of and ability to use symbols fall short of human standards (Köck, 2010).

4.1.2 Language acquisition

In this section, we note how gestures, a form of symbols, aid language acquisition. What are some common gestures that we see and use? Watch this video to find out!

Gestures are defined as spontaneous or rehearsed body and facial movements used during speech (Cartmill, Demir, and Goldin-Meadow, 2012). Speakers in all cultures utilise gestures for conversations as simple as board games or deeper topics like kinship ties. Why do we use gestures? Gestures are utilised for three main reasons: (1) to communicate with someone a distance away, (2) to emphasise what we say, and (3) reflect our feelings (Carysforth, 1998).

Gestures are integral in acquiring language, especially among children. In fact, children develop their gestural abilities before they can use language (Iverson and Goldin-Meadow, 2005)! Children normally produce their first gestures to indicate objects in their environment when they are between 9 and 12 months old, before they can speak (Bates, 1976). After children begin to talk at around 12 months, they combine gestures with words. Children may point at a cup while saying the word “cup” (Greenfield and Smith, 1976). Again, this gesture-plus-word combination precedes the two-word stage in children – where the child produces sentences of mainly two words (Goldin-Meadow and Morford, 1998).

Gestures are a good predictor of children’s future language abilities. The age where children start to produce this gesture-plus-word combination can accurately predict the age when they first produce two-word utterances (Goldin-Meadow and Butcher, 2003; Iverson and Goldin-Meadow, 2005; Iverson, Capirci, Volterra and Goldin-Meadow, 2008)! Moreover, early gestures also indicate a child’s “global communication skill”. A child who conveys numerous meanings through gestures is expected to be articulate in his/her speech, have a bigger vocabulary as he/ she grows up, and produce relatively more complex sentences (Chandler and Birch, 2010)!

Evidently, gesture enables children to communicate meanings for things they cannot say and provide a glimpse of their language abilities later in life. This allows us to conclude that gesture facilitates language learning and forecasts language ability.

4.2 A brief history of the NSL

Prior to the 1980s, Nicaragua had no sign language of its own. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, deaf Nicaraguan children in the capital, Managua, generated a new sign language. For the first time in history, scholars witnessed and documented the birth of a new language, shedding light on how languages emerge and evolve over time.

How did NSL come about? Look at the following interactive infographic to find out!

4.3 What does NSL teach us about…

4.3.1 Language evolution

NSL was formed by deaf people who came together for the first time in the late 1970s after they started attending a new vocational school catered for deaf individuals. These people, termed as the first-generation cohort, passed the language to the next generation of deaf individuals, known as the second-generation cohort. Analysing the differences in linguistic structures among these cohorts can provide us with useful insights into how language evolves over time and how new learners shape language (Goldin-Meadow, 2010).

Deaf individuals in the first-generation cohort were neither exposed to nor schooled in a spoken, written, or signed language. As a result, they invented gestures to communicate with their hearing family members. These gestures are known as homesigns. When they were first brought together in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they developed a pidgin (a grammatically simplified form of a language used to communicate among two groups of people lacking a common language) called Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense (LSN). Young deaf children (some as young as four years old) of the second-generation cohort were exposed to the pidgin LSN used by the older children during their interactions. From this, they produced the NSL – a full-fledged language. Hence, it can be said that language has its origins in gestures, a symbolic communication.

With sequential cohorts of learners, NSL speakers systemised its grammar. This systematicity is witnessed in one of NSL’s key grammatical features, spatial modulation (Senghas, Senghas, and Pyers, 2005). Spatial modulations are the building blocks in the grammars of sign language (Supalla, 1995), fulfilling grammatical functions like indicating person and number, providing deictic (context), locative (location), or temporal (time) information, and expressing grammatical relationships like a verb’s subject and object (Senghas and Coppola, 2001). Like all other developed sign languages, spatial modulations feature in the NSL. However, early-exposed signers of the second cohort sign spatial modulations more frequently than those of the first cohort (Senghas and Coppola, 2001). This proves that the second-generation cohort of NSL signers modified the NSL across time. Linking back to language evolution, we can see that successive generations of language learners reshape language instead of reproducing it entirely.

It is also worth noting that iconic signs usually emerge at an earlier stage in newer sign languages like the NSL before decreasing over time (Delkamiller, 2013). This has some similarities to the shift from iconicity to symbolism in languages and writing systems as seen in Section 3. Iconic signs display different facets of the object it refers to, such as how it is handled or its shape (Taub, 2001). However, studies have shown that signers of different cohorts used roughly the same amount of iconic signs, even across time (Senghas, Pyers, and Zola, 2018). Therefore, the NSL, unlike most other languages and writing systems, retains a high degree of iconicity across time.

For more information on the NSL, please refer to:

4.3.2 Language acquisition

Children are the most creative and fluent users of the NSL; they developed particular grammatical structures like an inflectional verb morphology system and a noun classifier system that make the NSL a full and natural language (Senghas, 1995). These findings support the hypothesis that children have the natural ability to learn languages.

The NSL also illustrates how both young and old signers shape language. Young children lend order and structure to the grammar because of their sensitivity to language. However, as they grow older, they stabilise these grammatical features whilst creating social mechanisms for them to pass the language to a newer cohort of children. Here, we see language as a product of innate abilities and environmental conditions – an intersection between bio-psychological and socio-cultural factors. Children’s brains are wired to acquire, improve, and in the case of NSL, invent languages. Yet, the socio-cultural environment, which only adults have the power to influence and shape, must be conducive to acquire and use these languages, or risk language death.

5. Conclusion and Future Application(s)

In sum, this chapter introduces readers to the world of symbols which have vital communicative and cultural purposes.

The authors used theories in Peircean semantics and the Referential approach to meaning to understand symbols.

Next, we looked at how symbols have evolved over time – from the ancient cuneiform script to the modern-day emojis we dole out in our text messages. In the cuneiform script, symbols shifted from iconic representations to their arbitrary forms. There were also phonograms – symbols representing oral sounds, just like our words today. In the emoji symbol system, most emojis are iconic, although there are some indexes and symbols. Unlike the cuneiform script, it is too early to tell if these emojis will evolve from iconic to symbolic signs. However, the common denominator tying these two symbol systems together is their communicative functions – the cuneiform script was used for trade and commerce while emojis enhance written textual language, ultimately proving that symbols are critical to communication and language.

In the second part of this chapter, we look at the case study of NSL, one of the few modern languages to be recorded since birth. We traced some of the key milestones of NSL’s history and noted that NSL originated from homesigns, a form of (symbolic) gestural communication – supporting the argument that symbols predate language. Moreover, unlike many other sign languages, NSL retains a high degree of iconicity in its signs – an anomaly since many languages (and even writing systems like the cuneiform script) gradually shift from iconicity to arbitrariness. Interestingly, NSL also highlights that children are adept at learning and creating languages as they acquired the NSL with ease and lent NSL its grammatical structures. In NSL, the role of successive generations in shaping language is noteworthy. NSL is never “fully complete” but always evolves as the next generation of signers systemise its grammar, while older signers provide the socio-cultural environments to use and learn NSL, thus ensuring its continued usage.

Going forward, we can apply the same methodology to explore how symbols originate. Through implementing a similar methodology and identifying patterns, we will also extend this knowledge to the field of historical linguistics in terms of understanding ancient writing systems and evolution over time. At the same time, further research can be done on new sign languages like the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ASBL), a local language found in an isolated corner of Israel’s Negev desert. In studying the factors accounting for ASBL’s rise, the role of (iconic) gestures in the ASBL, its changes over time, observing patterns in child language acquisition, and the functions that young and old signers play in shaping the language, we can ascertain if there are any common trends in new languages.

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