Semeiognomy Basics

This discussion of basic semeiognomic principles supports the importance of a person’s exposure to a variety of sensory experiences in their development of communication and language. As those are both symbolic systems, we will begin by refining your existing definition of the term “symbol,” and establish additional vocabulary that will facilitate the subsequent discussions.

The most fundamental ideas in this section are not those of the primary author (see Sources, especially Langacker); although Mansfield (1997) is the source for research on prominence and direct iconic proportion, and in later work the clarifying use of “ymage,” and the term “semeiognomy” itself (because there was not an existing label that adequately identified this field).

Form: a Word Shape

The term form refers to the physical properties of any thing, such as

• Sensation (shape, color, sound, taste, texture, temperature, pressure…);

• Position (location, orientation, sequence, motion…);

• Complexity (componentiality, resolution…);

• Intensity (how loud, how hard, how bright…); and

• so on.

We will go into further detail about the “so on” in the section that describes sensation. (While we provide that link here, we suggest that you wait to go over that material in its turn.) Such forms cover all communication systems: signed, spoken, protactile, or emerging.

Concept: a Thought-Feeling

People use the term concept informally to refer to internal states like thoughts and feelings, and in casual conversation it means something similar to notion or idea. Anything that you might potentially be able to think and/or feel is a concept, such as: ‘pleasure’, ‘bees’, and ‘laughing’. The dynamic process of actually thinking and feeling concepts is conceptualization. This is another spectrum: from relatively static concepts that are more like “things,” to comparatively dynamic conceptualizations that are more “processual.” Everything along that continuum (i.e., from concepts to conceptualizations) is referred to with the term conception.

In this section, we are only talking about conceptions, which are internal, and not about any forms (whether those word shapes are signed, spoken, orthographic, or otherwise rendered) that get associated with those conceptual contents. Those forms are all external. You are a container, and we are currently addressing your contents. (We will talk later about any internal language, or similar, that you might experience as you are thinking.)

Conceptions are not like compact dictionary listings, but rather are encyclopedic in nature; that is to say, they are inclusive of everything that you might think or feel about a topic. This vastness would make them pragmatically useless for communication if they always had to be approached in their entirety as overwhelming entities; however, hope is not lost, because various kinds of internal organization and focus come to the rescue.

To begin with, conceptions are ultimately grounded in sensorimotor experience, such as the sensory modalities of proprioception, vision, and so on (which will be elaborated in detail later). Each of these modes of experience aligns with a conceptual space; for example, in the space determined by visual experience, some areas will typically be defined by events involving ‘brightness’ and others by occurrences of ‘color’. There are higher-order, analogous spaces defined by more abstract areas of experience as well (e.g., ‘freedom,’ ‘intuition,’ and so on). Naturally, a person’s encyclopedic knowledge will be affected by their real-world exposure (e.g., whether they can actually see color, or have experienced freedom).

Conceptions vary in the same ways that forms do, namely in their content, organization, and ties to other concepts. Fit together like multidimensional pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (or an Escher-like mosaic), these concepts define your personal model of objective reality (which we suggest you wait to read about until later in this tutorial). Some complex concepts (e.g., ‘what happens in an intensely special education classroom’) can draw upon many different areas within this model.

One fundamental part of AAC is determining how a given user organizes their conceptions, because that informs the design of the bridge between (a) that particular student’s existing individual patterns and (b) the shared conventions with which their communication partners already tend to be familiar. It is this shared organization that drives the default designs of the comm matrices that come preloaded on many AAC devices, with their specifically nested folders of categorized vocabulary items. The differences between (a) and (b) can be intense enough that a reliance on these conventional designs can create a barrier to learning, which is one primary reason why commercial systems are never actually ready to be used “right out of the box” (despite such advertised claims by the vendors).

Radial categorization is just one of the many ways in which conceptions tend to “self organize.” Imagine a structure whose center is occupied by your generic version of a dog (for example), such as one that has the following features: four legs, protruding snout, smooth coat, social behavior, loves to go bye-bye, snack obsessed, domesticated, and so on. While certain features might not be centrally specified for some people, for others that same hub can be very specific indeed (where a person of our acquaintance insists that all dogs’ footpads necessarily taste like salty cornflakes when licked). From this hub, spokes radiate outward towards the periphery, identifying feature variations on this generic prototype, such as: fewer than four legs, extreme size, cartoon existence, particular species, wild, and the like. Such categories are not absolute, because a member is not strictly either in or out; instead, the boundary of the set is fuzzy, where “better” members exist closer to the center, and “worse” members reside closer to the periphery.

In addition, those peripheral areas (e.g., the ‘wild dog’ node) are central to their own conceptions (e.g., ‘wolf’), which then have their own peripheral members (e.g., ‘dire wolf’, ‘tame wolf’, and so forth). Similarly, domestic cats are linked to the class of big cats (i.e., the set containing ‘tiger’, ‘lion’, ‘jaguar’, ‘leopard’, and ‘snow leopard’), and someplace in between the big cats and the wolves might be an area categorizing cheetahs (as they are similar to the predatory big cats, but like canines they do not have retractile claws). Note that a person’s categorization does not necessarily match natural categories; for example, although the cheetah is genetically a member of the Puma lineage, and is most closely related to the cougar and jaguarundi, many people still tend to associate cheetahs with the African big cats (based on a concept that goes something like, ‘stuff that is genetically related tends to be geographically co-located’).

Conceptions include in their organization any advanced conceptual relationships (ACRs) that they share, which is one factor that can influence radial categorization. The following table displays some types of ACRs:

Note that these relationships describe a structural organization that is like a conceptual lattice or network. The use of written labels in this table is potentially misleading (e.g., using the spelled word shape ‘lemon’), because these sorts of conceptions occur in animals that do not use signed or spoken language equivalents; for example, species that organize themselves according to social hierarchies have the concepts in place without having word shapes (i.e., forms) for the components. So all we are really discussing right now are conceptions, and not any specific verbal representation. That material will come later.

Focal alignment is another kind of organization. Imagine a Venn diagram representing the exclusive intersection of the following categories (as if colored spotlights were overlapping their ovals on a stage), where set members:

• can be identified by a speaker/signer as a unique individual relative to the context of the expressive act

• are in a stative relation with pinkish skin color space

• can be a replicate mass unit, which implies individuals that can be genericized for replication

• can be domesticated or wild (and is therefore animate)

• have a short-ish anatomical tail of tapering shape, which suggests having a body

• have at least one anatomical eye, which implies having a body

• can understand human expectations well enough to learn to perform specified tasks at a level worthy of eliciting human praise

• typically ingests an over-sufficiency at a given meal, which implies eating, which implies biological living

• can be misrepresented as having a value that is too high (therefore it typically has a non-trivial value, but some members do not meet that standard)

• prefer at least one environment enough that it elicits positive emotions (which implies an ability to feel emotions), and it happens to be excrementally self-enveloping, which implies defecating, which implies biological living

• can be attributed unspecified but contemptible characteristics

• cannot fly in objective reality, but could in remote fantasy

Note the involvement of some of types of ACRs. All of these many conceptual areas intersect at certain canonical conceptions of ‘pig’, defining the hub of another radial category (i.e., where a prototypical pig would figuratively be standing on stage in the circle of white spotlight where all of the colored ovals overlapped). Conceptualizers will vary as to which of these features are a matter of reality, or are applicable at all.

Conceptualization can shift the overlap of these component sets, along with the focus that defines their conceptual core (e.g., the emphasis would shift as you thought about a specific pig, then a pig in a movie, then a singing pig, then hot dogs, and so on).

The availability of such a core brings conceptions much closer to being useful for communication. This core can include and bound a subset of conceptual content that could furnish a schematization (the opposite of an elaboration or specification), which is a simplified, less detailed version of a structure that is (a) intended to retain access to the extraneous details, without (b) getting bogged down in paying all of those details equal amounts of attention.

Therefore, a core is most efficient when it is both:

a. schematic enough to allow for efficient processing, and

b. specific enough that we can indicate not only what parts are important, but where they fit into the big picture.

As we proceed, we will talk about communication and language leveraging this kind of existing organization to keep from being swamped by encyclopedic overwhelm.

When it comes to intensely special education, some of our students face multiple challenges with conceptions and their organization. Most people who work in this field understand (in one way or another) that impaired cognition will, just to begin with, impoverish a student’s encyclopedic model of reality. It is less commonly understood that limited sensorimotor experience creates a serious bottleneck in developing conceptions in the first place, and that sensorimotor augmentation and alternatives should be made available to help improve a student’s access to their environment. What is least commonly understood is that our students might not tend to coalesce classes (and crystallize relationships) simply from exposure to multiple instances of a type (i.e., they do not tend to associate and categorize freely), and that has a profound effect on communication.

For example, their experiences with multiple instances of the same type of animal might not categorize into a conception about the class of those animals in general (e.g., that a family pet and a classroom therapy animal are both dogs), or they might fail to distinguish significant subtypes (e.g., a dog showing signs of play versus aggression). Or, just because they have a lot of experience with a particular sink faucet at home, plus a particular sink faucet at school, doesn’t mean that they will know what to do with a sink faucet in a bathroom at the public library. Similarly, they might not deal well with the many varieties of signs for ‘bathroom’ that exist in the community (or with changes to such pictures or captions in their AAC system).

Organized conception, then, has a profound effect on the development of communication, the design of therapy, and the selection of an appropriate AAC system.

Consider that to be a takeaway.

Semantics: a Conception’s Evoked Contents

Conceptual structure is a more technical term than “conception,” referring to a:

a. formal representation of

b. an electrochemical event that is

c. processed in a body

d. as that body thinks and feels.

In other words, this term refers to a real product of an actual process of conceptualization… albeit the various arts, sciences, philosophies, histories, and so on, are still trying to figure out what that product might actually be. In this tutorial, we represent conceptual structures with the familiar orthographic convention of small caps in square brackets, as in [EXAMPLE]. If there are no caps, as in [example], then we are referring to a form instead (whether signed, spoken, or otherwise), and not to a conceptual structure. We use small caps instead of all-caps, because we might need to distinguish the likes of [FRANK] the person from [FRANK] the personality trait (or wiener).

When a signer/speaker expresses such a communicative form as [pig], then lookers/listeners who receive that information will be prompted to evoke conceptions related to a pig (such as those listed in the previous section, give and take). They will each engage the individual conceptual structure with which they manage information about a pig (i.e., [PIG]); in other words, they will bring that conception to mind to serve a communicative purpose.

There are ways to bring conceptions to mind other than for signed or spoken communication; for example, the physical experience of wind can communicate information that makes you think and feel [WIND], even though the wind has no communicative intent.

In these examples, then, while [WIND] and [PIG] are both conceptual structures, only [PIG] is also a semantic structure. Here’s why: unlike [WIND], we said explicitly that [PIG] had been evoked by a communicative expression (i.e., that it was brought to mind specifically because someone signed or spoke the form ‘[pig]’).

We can represent that pairing of a form with a conceptual structure as [[pig]/[PIG]], where that very act of pairing specifically identifies the latter as a semantic structure (i.e., that act of pairing is associated with a communicative purpose). Some conventions prefer to list the semantic structure first in the pair, but we are so used to talking about “form-meaning pairings” (which we will get to in just a bit) that we prefer it this way around.

A semantic structure, then, is specifically the conceptual pole (e.g., [PIG]) of a symbolic link (e.g., [[pig]/[PIG]]), where the other pole is defined by a form that is a signed or spoken phonological structure (e.g., [pig]). Note that the phonological structure is internally complex (whether signed or spoken), having been composed from a set of phonological units. Note that terms such as ‘chereme’ and ‘cherology’ are no longer used to segregate signed from spoken forms.

Only those conceptual structures that are evoked by communicative forms are processed specifically as semantic structures; therefore, semantic analysis is a subset of conceptual analysis (i.e., semantics necessarily addresses the effect of the phonological pole on the conceptual pole, in a context of communication).

When some properties of a form are associated with information for the purpose of communication (i.e., essentially the process of semeiosis or semiosis), then that linked form-information structure is at least a sign, and perhaps also a symbol. (We will explain the difference later.) While we will often refer to signed and spoken forms, we will not tend to include orthographic forms because writing is a permanent (i.e., not transient), complementary representation (or form-to-form encoding) of a signed or spoken language… albeit we sit ready to eradicate this distinction should a natural language emerge whose primary modality were orthographic.

(And don’t even get us started on the topic of specific spelling impairments, or we will link you to a very thorough and sleep-inducing research paper on the topic.)

In a process that is similar to repeatedly pouring water down a hillside, cognitive entities (including motor and other routine structures) become more firmly familiar with use. This fundamental cognitive function is known as automatization. At the “individual” end of a continuum (i.e., when an individual person does this), the process is called entrenchment, and at the “community” end it is referred to as conventionality (i.e., when a group of communication partners all get used to the same pattern). Such automatic units are referred to as relatively fixed (i.e., they do not tend to vary), and they are more easily accessed with increasing degrees of automaticity (i.e., you learn to do things without having to put so much thought and other effort into them… but if your mind wanders, then you can end up driving to the wrong place, saying the wrong name, writing the wrong year on a check, and so on). An expression such as, “Turn left right here” is so common that it can be accessed with trivial need for an active process of composition. Such a phrase is likely to be evoked as a conventionalized unit (i.e., without having to be created out of its parts). And while novel expressions are likely to require more cognitive effort than fixed ones, they not only tend to be composed of fixed units, but can both (a) conventionalize rapidly (e.g., “Just do it”), and (b) fall out of favor with equal velocity (e.g., “Reach out and touch someone”).

Foundation: A Diagrammatic Semantic Structure

Because conceptions are encyclopedic in nature (i.e., inclusive of everything that you might think or feel about a topic), a semantic structure is likewise encyclopedic in its underlying complexity (because part of it is a conceptual structure). To be useful for communication, then, we need to use the semantic structure’s associated form to leverage and refine the internal organization that exists in the conception; that is to say, our choice of form conveniently narrows things down for our partners.

At a schematic extreme (i.e., where a form narrows down a conception most simply), we might reasonably suppose that:

a. the form of a hawk’s shadow would

b. quickly and efficiently focus a ground squirrel’s attention down to

c. a very narrow band of hawk-shadow related concepts (i.e., all and only [THREAT]) within

d. the larger set of everything else that the ground squirrel might “understand” about the likes of:

• shadows (e.g., [SOME MOVE]),

•  hawk-shadows (e.g., [DOES MOVE]),

• goose-shadows (e.g., [SAFE] or [NIL]),

• moonshadows (e.g., [NIL]), and

• other shadow-related stuff.

This is a survival efficiency; that is to say, there is an excellent reason that the conventional model of acute stress response (or hyperarousal) is not defined as:

1. fight or

2. flight or

3. fancy (i.e., some short ‘f’-word-or-other that means “exhaustive, distracting, time-consuming contemplation”).

A conceptual component like [THREAT] is such a key [HAWK-SHADOW] attribute that it is designated some sort of chronic prominence in the broader conceptual structure for a hawk’s typical prey; in fact, this priming function is wetware in some cases, as in the hawk/goose effect. What we’re saying is that there would be no squirrels left if they didn’t have an effective (likely hard-wired) means of associating a hawk shadow with a threat, without the distraction of encyclopedic conceptual processing.

In the case of semeiosis in specific, one such efficiency exists as follows: our conceptions are organized by our experience of attention as we interact with our reality. (We will define “reality” in due time.) This salience (or likelihood of automatized attentional focus) organizes our semantic structures, which reduces the effort with which they are retrieved; therefore, the more often that we need to access a conception, the greater the likelihood that it will be organized according to the prominent reason that it is so much in demand. In the case of a complex concept such as [CAT], the typical sound made by a prototypical domestic cat will have greater conceptual prominence (and be a more easily accessible component) than the fact that their collarbones are vestigial.

When a prominent feature is used more frequently for a conception’s retrieval, the probability is greater that the associated semantic structure will be a conventionalized unit (in any given language); that is to say, [[meow]/[CAT SOUND]] is retrieved automatically, whereas it usually takes most communicators at least some amount of effort to compose the semantic structure [[turkey-leg position]/[TURKEY-LEG POSITION]] if they have need to refer to the pose adopted by a cat while it is licking its butt clean. The main point here is that the structure of a conception is defined in part by the relative salience of its subcomponents. A subsidiary point is that the phonological pole lets a communication partner know which part of that structure you want them to access, which we will get to in more detail shortly.

Many of these useful types of salience imbalance exist, including all of the ACRs (see the table above); for example, when hierarchic categorization is important, the basic level member will tend to be the most readily available for access (e.g., [LIME] will be more prominent than either [CITRUS FRUIT] or [KEY LIME]). In fact, when this skill is not reliable, it is identified as a sign of dysfunction; that is to say, when asked for a list of animals, a person does not tend to say, “duck, cow, triceratops, felines, butterflies, lesser bird of paradise, and cat.” This is a hallmark, however, of Williams syndrome, and conventional categorization is often still in development for students in our Life Skills classrooms. You can understand how a lack of access to typical ACRs (and the like) would impact communication.

Similarly, in a conception that includes some sort of figure/ground structure, the figure will be the most easily accessible part; for example, in [RUN], the running trajector tends to be more prominent than the landmark surface on which the activity occurs, where that asymmetry is even more evident in the likes of [RUNNER] or [RUNNING]. But again, the most important part of this notion is that you can focus attention on parts of a more internally complex conception.

Crucially, there is a sense in which multiple semantic structures can sometimes be understood to share a schematic conceptual structure as a foundation (or base); in other words, in a stage play, a set is made up of a collection of items in common, and a spotlight can be cast on different subsets of those items to emphasize shifts in the focus of attention. When the spotlight or other emphasizer is turned off, then the entire structure remains generic or schematic; in contrast, assigning a specific phonological pole (i.e., choosing a specific spoken or signed phrase) emphasizes the attention on a specific subset of components in that foundation. That base then is made  more specific or elaborate. Before providing an illustrative example, we are going to motivate the introduction of diagrammatic representation.

When it comes to the representation of such structures, writing is a convenience (as in our use of [PIG]); however, the restricted dimensionality and modality of such written words limits their usefulness, particularly when we want our portrayal of such structures to reflect some worthwhile degree of cognitive plausibility (i.e., what might really be going on inside of you). We gain a valuable amount of freedom, then, by introducing diagrammatic representation instead, where cognition is not strictly constrained by linearity, sequence, and specific word-ness. With appropriate guidelines, diagramming also naturally helps to ensure that our analyses do not miss out on important details that are not apparent with the orthographic versions. Diagrams drive a powerful heuristic that balances functional flexibility and formalist rigor.

Conceptual and semantic structures, then, are not only voluminous, but internally complex and organized as well, which can be much easier to depict in a diagram than in a spelled-out word. Diagrams also provide a reminder that we are not pursuing a formalist program here (i.e., a grammar of logical primitives), but rather a functionalist one. Again, just to remain clear: despite our use of diagrams, cognitive processing is not specifically visual in nature, and using them in our analysis does not mean that people think in pictures.

And now for the promised illustrative example.

Suppose that we have two phonological forms, namely: [head over shoulders] and [shoulders under head]. The conceptual structures that they would share in common would be the following set: [HEAD], [SHOULDERS], and [VERTICAL RELATION]. To the degree that these are automatic, familiar, or “fixed” components, we enclose them in square brackets (as opposed to rounded parentheses, which would indicate greater novelty). To diagram their shared conceptual foundation (based on those three components), we might do well with a schematized representation of the two “things” in their default orientation, with none of those three being identified with relative prominence yet:

A vertically-oriented oval represents a head. Shoulders are depicted as a horizontal rectangle with an open bottom and rounded corners. The oval is above the rectangle. They are connected by a line that represents the fact that their relationship with one another is part of the structure.


The full conceptual structure is vastly more complex, but a schematic foundation depicts the relevant amount of detail necessary to the effective conveying of the potential relationships between the salient components. This diagram does not yet represent either of the semantic structures that shares this base, as nothing in it has been profiled for specific communicative attention (i.e., all of the lines share the same weight).

Once again, to the degree that this represents a familiar, fixed composition, we have bound it in a square frame (as opposed to a rounded rectangle to indicate a more novel structure).

A foundation is intended to represent the result of some sort of actual electrochemical event that takes place when activating a conceptual structure. Although diagrams like these are visual in nature (because they are presented for reading), there are other ways to conceptualize than pictorially, and people vary in their balance of actual modes: some rely more heavily on audition-grounded structures (such as music… which some people also visualize, tactualize, and similar); some people process propositionally; and so on. Still others think rather purely in language.

Meaning: the Construal of a Conception

Now here is the important part: the same foundation can be used to depict different meanings; for example, the following diagrams represent the semantic structures evoked by two similar phrases, respectively “head over shoulders” and “shoulders under head” (where we will treat the latter as somewhat less familiar by using rounded delimiters, and a rounded frame):

Meaning is the Construal of Content

We are looking at two different semantic structures:

[[head over shoulders]/[HEAD VERTICAL_RELATION SHOULDERS]]

((shoulders under head)/[HEAD VERTICAL_RELATION SHOULDERS])

These semantic structures have identical conceptual content components (i.e.: [HEAD]; [SHOULDERS]; and [VERTICAL RELATION]), but the contents differ in how they are construed (i.e., a profiled or emphasized ‘head’ in the first, versus profiled ‘shoulders’ in the second). Meaning, therefore, is not content, but rather the conceptualized construal of content (as indicated in the diagram by the heavier line weight identifying the selected profile).

Please allow us the luxury of the repetition of that assertion for emphasis, as pared down to its most important core: meaning is the construal of content. This idea is not that of the primary author of this tutorial; it is Langacker’s (and his credited predecessors).

Ymage: a Construed Conception Shape

Such a diagram is intended to represent a cognitive image, or more simply just an ymage, spelled with a ‘y’ to avoid narrow associations with visual imagery while preserving the sensorimotor anchoring of the experience. Every ymage has a schematic foundation, and an ymage is completed when that base diagram is assigned a profile (as above), where that emphasis is evoked by the linked phonological form. Thus completed, it represents the meaning (i.e., the construed conceptual content) of its associated phrase. A communicative expression, then, evokes profiled conceptual content as part of a semantic structure; that is to say, a phrase makes a person think and feel something. That imposes a construal.

Here is the takeaway: a phrase makes a person think/feel something in a particular way.

Symbol: a Form-Ymage Pairing

Ymages depict meaning (i.e., construed content).

A communicative symbol is (a type of sign that is) a form-ymage pairing, such as:

• a stop sign (a red octagon paired with [STOP]);

• the written English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of characters paired with [STOP]);

• the written Japanese word ‘’ (a sequence of strokes paired with [STOP]);

• the spoken English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of sounds paired with [STOP]);

• the signed English word ‘stop’ (a sequence of hand shapes paired with [STOP]);

• and so on.

Note that in each case, the core meaning remains the same (i.e., the construed content in [STOP]) even when the form changes. The ymage representing this imperative is also the same in each case:

This is a diagram of the conception ‘stop’. The remainder of this alt text provides details.  The letters L (on the left) and S (on the right) are horizontally aligned, with each depicted in its own small circle. Both of them are enclosed in an oval labeled ‘G’. A double-headed arrow runs from S to L. A solid arrow (with a non-uniform body) runs upward from L’s circle, at a length of three multiples of that circle. The circled L and its arrow are enclosed in a long, narrow rectangular box that overlaps part of the ground oval. A copy of that box and is placed over to the right of the figure (beyond S), but without an arrow, and with L-prime rather than L. A profiled, dotted arrow leads from the left box to the right one. A dotted arrow leads upward from S’s circle to the profiled arrow between the boxes.


This diagram is somewhat simplified because there are ideas that we have not covered yet (such as mental spaces, and the representation of processes over time); however, the notion goes like this:

• The letters S (for signer/speaker) and L (for listener/looker) are enclosed in an oval labeled ‘G’ for ground (i.e., the communicative act and its components, where those parts of the process are all readily available to its participants for mutual reference).

• The double-headed arrow represents the imperative force that runs from S to L.

• L is depicted as engaging in some sort of unspecified process, with a solid arrow (with a non-uniform body), all enclosed in a rectangular box to suggest the bounds of the activity in reality.

• The ground oval overlaps L in that box, because L is part of both the ground and the objective scene (which is sort of like being in the spotlight on a stage).

• The copy of that box (with L-prime instead of L) indicates an alternative reality in which L’s original process is missing (because it has stopped in that new reality).

• The profiled, dotted arrow leading to the alternative reality is the focus of attention, namely the stopping of the process in which L is engaged. (There are better ways to represent that change, but this will do for now.)

• The dotted arrow leading from S to that profiled change indicates what S is ordering L to do.

So the overall meaning of the [STOP] imperative is simply that some second-person entity should cease engaging in some unspecified process (that is presumably understood in context). Again, we use square frames because this is a fixed semantic structure.

So it turns out that understanding a seemingly simple conception, such as [STOP], is often not so very simple after all. Some of the simplest forms associate with the most complex ymages, and we absolutely rely on mutual efficiencies in our cognition to make communication at all possible. Sufficiently diagram [LOVE] and you win a prize.

In any event, the focus within the semantic pole always gets narrowed down by its evoking expression (i.e., by the linked form); in other words, what gets said or signed affects the way that the base concepts are thought about. This expectation helps a communication partner to explicitly establish the scope and location of the core and its hub; for example, signing or speaking any of the following forms will emphasize different things that are known about pigs (where we approximated their associated conceptions in an earlier list):

• “that pig”

• “pink pig”

• “herd of pigs”

• “sounder of wild pigs”

• “pigtail”

• “in a pig’s eye”

• “That’ll do, pig.” (King-Smith, Dick; Miller, George; and Noonan, Chris. 1995. Babe. Universal Pictures.)

• “pig out”

• “pig in a poke”

• “happy as a pig in shit”

• “you swine”

• “when pigs fly”

Communication is a symbolic process, then, as studied by semeiognomists. As a subset of communication, language is also a symbolic process, as studied by cognitive linguists.

This is a good place to emphasize the following principle about this pairing of form and ymage:

“There can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference elsewhere…” — William James, Pragmatism (Lecture II)

“It is a safer working hypothesis that linguistic economy requires all differences in form to be correlated with differences in meaning.” — Dwight Bolinger, Meaning and Form (1974: 218)

Or, put more simply by Bolinger...

“[W]hen we say two things that are different [in form] we mean two different things by them.” (1974: 233)

Yet another takeaway: There is no change in form without a change in meaning; that is to say, there are no perfect synonyms.

So you can understand how the ability to ignore some differences in form would support the development of search engines, universal translators, automated essay scorers, readability measures and measurers, and the like: you can miss things when you’re being too picky.

Iconicity: When Form is Ymage

A symbol is iconic (i.e., more like a straightforward sign) when the qualities of its formal part tell you about its ymage; for example, a powerful font for a word like BANG evokes a meaning of a more powerful sensation, so you are increasing the symbol’s iconicity. The ASL sign for ‘stop’ happens to use a vertical chopping motion of the edge of one hand on the upraised, horizontal palm of the other, which is iconic because of the ‘cutting off’ shape of the motion; however, the street stop sign is not iconic, because there is nothing in the nature of an octagonoid, or in the color red, or in their coincidence, that naturally evokes the notion of ‘stopping’. The street stop sign is not an iconic symbol then, but rather it is an arbitrary one.

When you vary the force used in the expression of a symbol’s form, you vary the power or precision of the meaning that the form evokes; for example: a bigger font indicates a bigger noise; a more frenetic gesture indicates a more energetic meaning; and when a word is pronounced with greater stress or volume, it can indicate a meaning that is more powerful or precise than normal. In the phrase, “That tree? I was expecting a TREE,” the expected TREE is probably bigger, but it might also more precisely approximate the person’s idea of the typical or perfect tree for the occasion. The form and the ymage are thus said to be in direct iconic proportion to one another. Even arbitrary symbols (e.g., the written word “tree”) are subject to this proportion.

Synaesthesia and Ideasthesia

Perhaps you have heard of people (synaesthetes) who live a cross-modal sensory life, smelling colors, feeling sounds, and so on. Those stories are densely simplified depictions of people who experience a broad range of highly complex sensations, but the most basic notion is that a stimulus in a primary sensory modality can be associated with sensations, perceptions, and awareness in a different modality.

Sometimes what is getting crossed are meanings rather than sensations, and the phenomenon is then referred to as ideasthesia. One common form occurs when a person strongly associates a sensory experience, such as a color, with an idea, like a number or letter. Such ideasthetes often have entire consistent symbolic systems of such associations (such as calendars surrounding their body). Most people experience this to some degree in their relatively iconic association of phonemes with ideas (as in the Kiki-Bouba effect), which is one reason that communication was ever able to develop in the first place. This effect is more like ideasthesia, then, when it is less iconic and more arbitrary.

Sometimes these effects are subtle enough, or a person’s life experience has been sheltered or just outright unusual enough, that it can take years for them to learn that others don’t feel and think and believe the way that they do about their respective bodies and worlds. Naturally, the same awareness issue can apply to other types of variation as well, such as color vision deficiency, facial agnosia, lack of relative pitch, and the range of pain thresholds and tolerances experienced by people who live on the likes of the autism, traumatic stress, or schizotypal spectrums. Life can feel isolating if you have no conventional, shared words with which to describe your experience to anyone else. But, just to keep things in perspective, that’s not always a bad thing. The ideasthetes of our acquaintance tend to like it that way; it can just take longer to create an effective description.

As one extreme example of that diversity in sharing, we will point out that women and men (to resort to a biological assignment binary that matches particular research) do not tend to perceive temperature the same way. Put simply, women tend to feel cold more easily than men do (or men tend to feel cold less easily than women do). But it is more difficult to feel isolated on either side of such an equation when nearly half of the users of your language have also been working on ways to describe that dichotomy forever.

In contrast, some people live a long lifetime without even realizing that their reality is so different.

Grammar: Symbolic Assembly

Before wrapping up this section on semeiognomy, we are going to give you a very simple demonstration of how this approach supports cognitive grammatical construction. Let’s take a straightforward, concrete concept that we have been using in our examples, namely ‘pig’, and see what happens when someone pluralizes it by speaking or signing the word “pigs.”

We start with a symbol of a type that tends to be categorized as more grammatical because its typical use is not as independent or “unpredictable by rule” (as it is for other members on the continuum); that is to say, when compared to the frequency and independence of a more lexical item like “pig,” there are very few reasons why someone would say just “z” by itself to refer to plural marking (albeit it does happen):

This is a circle that contains several smaller circles.


This diagram is just specific enough to get across the notion of plurality, and the encompassing circle is profiled with a heavier stroke to represent the focus of attention on the plurality (and not on its component units).

Now let’s add the pig that we intend to pluralize, where this sort of symbol is referred to as “lexical” essentially because it can stand alone (i.e., without any additional grammatical marking):

The diagram can remain pretty schematic, because we don’t need to emphasize much internal detail when the intent is just to turn unspecified number into plurality. The pig is profiled for attention as a silhouette (instead of appearing as an outline).

Combine these structures as follows: [[[pig]-[z]]/[[PIG]-[PLURAL]]]. Then reduce them for convenience:


What you are witnessing is a functionalist, meaning-driven (i.e., “semeiocentric”) grammatical process, where two schematic semantic structures combine to form a more specific expression. Out of convention, the two component structures are aligned at the bottom of the figure. The “plural” part of the diagram (bottom right) is like a function waiting to be activated, where the dotted line indicates a simple correspondence between (a) the pig, and (b) one of the otherwise identical circles out of the replicate mass. We bold the frame of the plural diagram to emphasize the pluralizing function being performed, where the small arrow from the plurality to the pig indicates the direction of that instantiation (i.e., this prototypical pig provides a more specific instance of the replicate mass member type). The converging lines from the lower to upper levels indicate the composition of two diagrams into one. In the composite, the replicate mass members are pig outlines, with a profile on the encompassing circle because all together they represent a plurality of pigs. Throughout, we use square (rather than rounded) framing components because the structures are fairly automatic or fixed (as opposed to novel).

Note that if the intended pig-to-be-pluralized did not work in as generic a fashion as a truly prototypical one, and were only compatible to a lesser degree of precision — such as Babe, who would not usually pluralize — then it would be an extension of the prototype, in which case we would use a dashed-line arrow instead.

The same pattern is followed for other plurals of replicate masses:





So, grammatic structures (as a functional subset of semantic structures) impose specific images on the conceptual content supplied by comparatively lexical structures (likewise), providing a way of phonologically signaling (i.e., symbolizing) the intended meaning, which is a construal of the conceptual content.

This functional approach would handle the use of an alternative phonological pole, such as “pigses,” in a very similar fashion, albeit rounded brackets would be used to represent the relative novelty of the construction: (([pigs]-[əz])/[[PIG]-[PLURAL]]), with rounded frames in the diagram. This might occur if a speaker were to treat “pigs” as singular, and then apply a conventional pluralizing pattern to the composition (similar to “adzes” and “hoses”). This sort of improvisation happens quite a bit among users, and it all drives various types of diachronic language change, such as “peas” coming to be treated as a plural when it was originally singular.

From the perspective of developing therapy, this functionalist approach helps us to understand what is going on with a user’s language (and possibly their cognition); in contrast, a formalist approach would classify “pigses” and other sorts of novel utterances (i.e., a matter of performance or “doing”) as irrelevant to the development of the theory (which is concerned only with competence or “knowing”), so it would all be ignored as bad data (even when a client is regularly following that pattern). Again, we are not arguing that a functionalist paradigm is better than a formalist one in an absolute sense, but rather that an understanding of formalism alone is insufficient for informed therapy design.

This is a silhouette of a typical pig with a curly tail, facing left.


Summary of Terms

The information presented in this section builds up to the following hierarchy of assertions:

Forms are word shapes.

Forms have structure (i.e., spoken and signed shapes).

Conceptions (i.e., concepts and conceptualizations) are thoughts and feelings.

Conceptions have structured contents (i.e., conceptual structures).

Semantic structures are those concepts that are evoked by communicative forms (i.e., phrases make you conceive of things).

Semantics is, therefore, a subset of conceptual analysis.

A cognitive image (i.e., ymage) foundation is a schematic conceptual structure shared in common by a set of semantic structures.

Meaning resides in the construal of a conception’s contents.

Ymages are foundations profiled to represent meaning (i.e., meaning is ymagistic).

Iconicity is the amount that a form is like its associated ymage.

Symbols are (relatively arbitrary) pairings of forms and ymages.

Communication is a semiotic process (which in humans is often but not always symbolic, i.e., relatively arbitrary in form).

Language is a (mostly) symbolic subset of communication.

Communicative (and linguistic) expressions impose a specific construal on the contents that they evoke (i.e., spoken and signed phrases make you conceive of things in a particular way).

Summary: Communication versus Language

This, then, is the difference between communication and language…

It is not too horribly wrong to say that languages have grammars (i.e., rule systems… sort of) and that their form-ymage pairings are almost entirely arbitrary; that is to say, there is no iconically-motivated reason that [STOP] should be associated with the particular letters or sounds for the written/spoken English word “stop,” except perhaps that it can be produced quickly with a sense of finality; that said, some languages use much longer forms for [STOP], even when it is an exclamation of warning. (We leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out whether languages universally employ means to shorten utterances in the context of expressing urgency.)

In addition, while communication is grounded biologically, cognitively, socioculturally, and so on, language also tends to define the area that includes social interaction.

Finally, language typically enjoys meta-language, which is the use of language to affect language (and the communication domain that surrounds it). Unlike language, communication systems typically cannot use existing gestures to establish new ones that the group will share; for example, while wolves communicate with tail postures (and associate those forms with meanings), they cannot use those existing gestures to define a new one. To the degree that a communication system breaks through this barrier, it becomes more like a language.

Human languages, whether signed or spoken, share very few universals. They all represent nouns (i.e., things) and verbs (i.e., processes as temporal relations). They all broadly categorize their forms along a continuum of paradigmatic contrastive power (i.e., ‘consonants’ vs ‘vowels’, and ‘inherent’ vs ‘prosodic’ feature branches). They all have pronouns with at least three persons and two numbers. They all have terms for the following concepts: [BODY] (with an extremely rare variation that means something more along the lines of [BODY-AS-PERSON]), [HEAD], [EYES], [NOSE], [MOUTH], and [ARMS].

We have also contended the existence of very few fundamental cognitive functions: attention (focus), association, categorization, schematization, and automatization (as entrenchment for an individual, and conventionality for a community). Conceptualization emerges from these.

Now that you have these basics in place, we can usefully discuss communication and language as (primarily) symbolic processes in which participants engage.

Head to the next stage of the tutorial.

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