The Interactive Origin of Iconicity

Mónica Tamariz, Seán G. Roberts*, J. Isidro Martínez, Julio Santiago

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
229 Downloads (Pure)


We investigate the emergence of iconicity, specifically a bouba-kiki effect in miniature artificial languages under different functional constraints: when the languages are reproduced and when they are used communicatively. We ran transmission chains of (a) participant dyads who played an interactive communicative game and (b) individual participants who played a matched learning game. An analysis of the languages over six generations in an iterated learning experiment revealed that in the Communication condition, but not in the Reproduction condition, words for spiky shapes tend to be rated by naive judges as more spiky than the words for round shapes. This suggests that iconicity may not only be the outcome of innovations introduced by individuals, but, crucially, the result of interlocutor negotiation of new communicative conventions. We interpret our results as an illustration of cultural evolution by random mutation and selection (as opposed to by guided variation).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)334-349
Number of pages16
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number1
Early online date15 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • Cultural evolution
  • Iconicity
  • Iterated learning


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