Symbolic, Indexical, and Iconic Representation of Space

Karin Wenz, Assistant Professor of English, University of Kassel

Following Peirce, the relation between the signs of spatial descriptions and their object of reference is symbolic, indexical, or iconic. According to this semiotic typology, symbols are conventional, arbitrary, and general signs. Lexemes such as room, hall, attic, or corner are symbols in this sense. There seems to be no natural relation between these words and their object of reference.

An index is a sign which stands in a relation of contiguity or causality to a particular object in a specific situation. In language, such indexical signs occur in the interactional situations in which utterances are used. They include indicators of the identity of speech participants, their location and orientation in space, and the time of the utterance. Deictic spatial and temporal expressions in language and many nonverbal expressions are examples of indexical signs.

The iconic sign is related to its referent by similarity or analogy. Following the hypotheses of Enquist (1986) and Ehrich (1989), texts are structured by principles of discourse organization and not by rules. What is the nature of these principles?According to Ehrich, the principles of textual organisation are more communicative, aesthetic, and psychological than grammatical. The most basic principleof discourse organization is a principle of iconicity. Among other things it privileges a natural ordering which the ancients have called ordo naturalis. The principle, however, cannot be followed in texts which describe simultaneity of events and in particular the simultaneous perception of spatial configurations. In the light of Charles Sanders Peirce's theory of iconicity, the verbal patterns of spatial descriptions evince imaginal, diagrammatic, and metaphoric iconicity. These categories of iconicity represent their object with an increasing degree of abstraction.

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