Iconic bias in Italian spatial demonstratives

Ian Joo, Yu-yin Hsu, Emmanuele Chersoni

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

Abstract

An iconic pattern across spoken languages is that words for ‘this’ and ‘here’ tend to have high front vowels, whereas words for ‘that’ and ‘there’ tend to have low and/or back vowels. In Italian, there are two synonymous Italian words for ‘here’, namely qui and qua, and two synonymous words for ‘there’, lì and là. Qui ‘here’ and là ‘there’ are iconic because qui has the high front vowel /i/ and là has the low vowel /a/, whereas qua ‘here’ and lì ‘there’ are counter-iconic, since their vowels are the opposite. Based on corpus, survey and computational data, we demonstrate that (i) qui ‘here’ and là ‘there’ have been consistently used more frequently throughout history compared to qua ‘here’ and lì ‘there’, respectively; and (ii) in present-day Italian, qui ‘here’ tends to refer to a location that is closer to the speaker than qua ‘here’ does, whereas là ‘there’ tends to refer to a location that is further away from the speaker than lì ‘there’ does. In summary, the iconic demonstrative pronouns (qui and là) are used more frequently and are closer to the prototypical meanings of ‘here’ and ‘there’. We argue that their frequency and prototypicality are motivated by their iconic power. This case study shows how iconicity may work as pressure on language use and language change.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAustralian Journal of Linguistics
Publication statusPublished - May 2022

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