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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 19, Issue 1 (Feb 2008)


Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries

Martin Haspelmath
  • Corresponding author
  • Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany.
  • Email:
Published Online: 2008-03-12 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COG.2008.001


This paper argues that three widely accepted motivating factors subsumed under the broad heading of iconicity, namely iconicity of quantity, iconicity of complexity and iconicity of cohesion, in fact have no role in explaining grammatical asymmetries and should be discarded. The iconicity accounts of the relevant phenomena have been proposed by authorities like Jakobson, Haiman and Givón, but I argue that these linguists did not sufficiently consider alternative usage-based explanations in terms of frequency of use. A closer look shows that the well-known Zipfian effects of frequency of use (leading to shortness and fusion) can be made responsible for all of the alleged iconicity effects, and initial corpus data for a range of phenomena confirm the correctness of the approach.

Keywords: frequency; iconicity; markedness; economic motivation

About the article

*Contact address: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

Received: 2006-12-04

Revised: 2007-04-05

Published Online: 2008-03-12

Published in Print: 2008-02-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COG.2008.001. Export Citation

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