From icon to abstraction: how iconicity shapes the lexicon

Thursday 20 July (09:00) - Friday 21 July 2023 (17:00)
The Exchange in Birmingham

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that iconicity is not a marginal curiosity, but rather that it co-exists and complements arbitrary labels.

An important question that is gaining interest in the language sciences is how iconicity shapes the lexicon of signed and spoken languages. On the one hand, the interest is from a diachronic and developmental perspective and explores whether lexicons start out iconic and whether iconicity helps to establish referentiality and conceptual reference. The interest comes also from a synchronic perspective and explores the scope of iconicity, the domains that favour iconicity, and the sensory-grounding of concepts that may be expressed iconically.

For the past three years, Pamela Perniss and Gerardo Ortega have led the project called From icon to abstraction: how iconicity shapes the lexion, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG), we have compared lexical iconicity across two sign languages, German Sign Language (DGS) and British Sign Language (BSL). Here we have investigated the relationship between iconicity and colexification in DGS and BSL and compared iconic mappings between sign and silent gesture. As a close to the project, and thanks to the generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (DFG), we are organizing a two-day workshop in order to discuss these issues in more theoretical depth with leading scholars in the field. The first day is devoted to discussing iconicity, how it shapes the lexicon, and the processes involved in the creation of new meanings (Day 1). The second day will focus on how iconicity and regularities in sign/word structure assist learnability (Day 2).

The workshop will take place July 20-21, 2023 at the ICC in Birmingham, UK. Please note the change in venue.


Day 1: Iconicity and how it shapes the lexicon

Day 2: Iconicity, lexicon, and learnability

Booklet of abstracts

View abstracts of invited talks and poster here 

Sign language interpretation

Attendees are requested to express their communicative needs at their earliest convenience. We are currently putting together a team of English – British Sign Language (BSL) – American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. More details coming soon. 

Poster guidelines

Pinboards are 6ft x 4ft (1.82 m x 1.20 m) and they allow for A0 paper size, which is 841 x 1189 mm (33.1 x 46.8 inches). Unfortunately, we cannot offer onsite printing.

Registration fee: This is a free event generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham.


Non-UK residents: In order to comply with governmental guidelines, the University of Birmingham will extend a letter of invitation to speakers based overseas after they have received an email of acceptance. This letter can be used to support a visa application and should also be presented to a border officer upon arrival in the UK to demonstrate the purpose of your visit. To that end, please complete the form below and send it to Please, check any additional visa requirements that may be necessary at the 'Travelling to the UK' website

UK residents: You do not need a letter of invitation but you do need to complete the registration form.

Practical information

How to get here?

1) By plane: Birmingham International Airport is only a 15-minute train ride from Birmingham City Centre. It is also possible to arrive to one of the many airports in London (Heathrow, Luton, Stansted, Gatwick) or Manchester and take a train to Birmingham.

2) By train: Birmingham New Street is the nearest train station to the conference venue. You can plan the details of your trip using the Trainline Website.


There will be coffee, biscuits, and soft drinks during the workshop but delegates are requested to get their own meals at their own expense. The Exchange is conveniently located in Birmingham City Centre where there are several restaurants from a wide range of cuisines and prices.


There are several hotels just a few minutes’ walk from the Exchange. We advise delegates to book their accommodation near the city centre so they can enjoy the vibrant life of Birmingham City Centre.

BSL – DGS team

  • Gerardo Ortega
  • Pamela Perniss
  • Nia Lazarus
  • Annika Schiefner
  • Carla Pol
  • Peggy Steinbach