Iconicity within the GUI of Microsoft Office and the online-help of Microsoft Office

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 2.0 (B)


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Linguistic background
2.1 Semiotics
2.2 Arbitrariness
2.3 Threefold of signs

3 Analysis
3.1 Visual iconic representation within the GUI
3.2 Linguistic iconic representation in the Microsoft online-help
3.2.1 Iconicity in phonology
3.2.2 Iconicity in morphology
3.2.3 Iconicity in syntax
3.2.4 Iconicity in semantics

4 Conclusion

5 References

6 Appendix

1 Introduction

In this paper, I will analyze the appearance of iconicity in the Graphical User Interface (GUI) of Microsoft Office and the online–help for Microsoft Office. Icons are the core element of the concept called GUI, but often the icons themselves are not sufficient to transfer their meaning and function to the user. The language that is used in the online-help supports the understanding of the icons and their different functions used within the GUI. I will show that the iconicity underlying the linguistic information in the online-help is helpful in order to understand the text more easily.

Iconicity is a phenomenon that seems to be omnipresent in language and can be discovered in many fields of our everyday life. One is often not conscious of its existence because it is taken for granted.

Iconicity is of considerable importance within language. As Crystal (1992:179) puts it: "It is a close physical relationship between a linguistic sign and the entity or process in the world to which it refers." As Sebeok (1986:305) explains it: "Iconicity is a relation between a sign and its designatum. It holds if the sign assigns a property to the designatum by virtue of having a similar property itself." Iconicity can be analyzed by combining its graphical use along with its appearance in language.

2 Linguistic background

2.1 Semiotics

Iconicity belongs to the linguistic field of semiotics, which is "the study of signs and their use, focusing on the mechanism and patterns of human communication and on the nature and acquisition of knowledge" (Crystal 1992:384).

Language is a communication system based on signs. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, developed a two-part sign system. For Saussure a sign consists of two parts: the signifier (fr. signifiant) and the signified (fr. signifié). They are inseparable, but at the same time there is no physical correspondence between the sign and the entity to which it refers in reality. This leads to one of the main features in Saussure’s theory: The Arbitrariness of a sign, which is explained in the following section.

2.2 Arbitrariness

"The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary" (Saussure 1959:69). In other words, the connection between signifier and signified is not natural but based on conventions within a language community. The sign "is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified" (Saussure 1959: 69). This theory is supported by the fact that the same object has different signifiers in different languages, for example: abor (Latin), tree (English) and Baum (German).

Saussure (1959:131) admits though that a "sign may be relatively motivated". He gives some examples of onomatopoeia, like whip or interjections like ouch (English) or aie (French), which at least resemble reality (Saussure 1959:69). But at no stage in his comments he gives a clear definition of motivation.

2.3 Threefold of signs

The American Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce offers a triadic sign model. This model consists of the representamen, the object and the interpretant. The representamen is the sign vehicle, for example a word or traffic sign. The object is part of the real world that the sign refers to and the interpretant is the sense or the meaning a sign causes in the conciousness of the interpreter. The interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to by Peirce as semiosis (Peirce 1931-53:5.484).

In contrast to Saussure Pierce’s model includes the object of the real world to which the sign refers, whereas Saussure only talks about the concept of the object. Moreover Pierce is not convinced that all signs should be exclusively arbitrary. He pleads for a "threefold of signs according to the relation between the signal carrying the sign and the object" (Mattheus 1997:270). Three different types of signs are distinguished: symbols, indices and icons.

According to Chandler (2000:no page) the relationship is symbolic if it is "a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional - so that the relationship must be learned."

Language in general, national flags and the morse code are examples for symbols.

An index is according to Chandler (2000:no page) "a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified - this link can be observed or inferred". For example natural signs like smoke, thunder, echoes, medical symptoms (pain, pulse-rate), measuring instruments (thermometer) and pointers (a pointing index finger, a directional signpost) are indices.

An icon is "a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified ... being similar in possessing some of its qualities" (Chandler 2000:no page). Some examples for this are portraits, cartoons or onomatopoeia.

In general indices and icons are understood before symbols, because symbols have to be learned. "Babies recognize the touch of their mother and her face, long before they understand the concept of mothers" (Callahan 1995:no page).

In addition, iconicity is not an absolute phenomenon but a relative phenomenon, which means different degrees of iconicity exist. A photograph for example is more iconic than a drawn picture of a person because a photograph is the exact image of something.

This section's definitions should give a basis for the following analysis.

3 Analysis

3.1 Visual iconic representation within the GUI

From the triad of signs (symbol, index, icon), the icon is currently the most misunderstood, but at the same time the most used term in the area of computing.

So called icons are the core elements of the concept called GUI. The Graphical User Interface is

"a program interface that takes advantage of the computer's graphic capabilities to make the program easier to use. Well-designed graphical user interfaces can free the user from learning complex command languages" (webopedia).

This concept has been the computer industry’s most successful attempt to make the use of computers possible for everyone. Computers were once the domain only of computer specialists who could handle the complex symbolic systems used to program them. UNIX and MS-DOS at least gave the possibility to type in commands and gave way to a broader user community (Callahan 1994:no page). But the breakthrough started, when they began to incorporate more indexical and iconic elements into their design. The GUI enables the user to point at objects on the screen and move them around with the mouse, both indexical actions. The pictures on the screen are in most cases easy to understand, because they look like the miniature pictures of the real entity. That is why they are called icons.

These new elements of GUI-design opened the computer world for a wide range of users. The virtual environment of the GUI provides pictures that are supposed to be known by the user and at the same time allows them to interact with them using the mouse. This way of interacting with the PC has proven to be much more satisfying and concrete for most users instead of having to memorize and type verbal (symbolic) computer commands (Neumüller 2001:no page). The icons used in the GUI are supposed to resemble real objects. As Colon (1995:no page) comments,

"The success of an icon on communicating the right meaning to the user depends on the accuracy of the representation and of course, the user’s ability to recognize the relationship".

All signs used within the GUI are called icons. The name icon has been adopted as a generic term used for all signs on the GUI desktop. However, not all of them are in fact icons in a semiotic sense. Some of them are truly symbols, for example, the "e" (see appendix 6.1) stands for the Internet Explorer which is a commercial symbol of Microsoft Windows as well as the "w" in front of a blank sheet, standing for Microsoft Word (see appendix 6.2), which leads to a combination of symbol and icon. In the book "Human-Computer Interaction" Dix et al. (1998:125) comment on this:

"Icons can take many forms: they can be realistic representations of the object that they stand for, or they can be highly stylized. They can even be arbitrary symbols, but these can be difficult for the user to interpret".

Additionally, the computer informs a user via indices. When a system is turned on, a light indicating the status of the system is an index. Indices are all signs that appear by the movement of the mouse, for example an arrow, a hand etc. But not only visual indices are used. If the computer has a serious hardware problem e.g. overheating, an audible index alerts the user.

Some icons of Microsoft Office will be discussed in the following. The icon for new document (see appendix 6.3) is a real icon. It shows a miniature white piece of paper, just as someone would take a new piece of paper in reality. By clicking on this icon they can start a new document. The printer icon is also a perfect icon (see appendix 6.4). It shows a little gray printer containing a white piece of paper with some lines on it. The exclamation mark (see appendix 6.5) in Microsoft Office represents a typical symbol. It indicates the high importance of a message. The chosen color red supports this meaning. Red is known as a signal color for stop or warning. If we take the example of road signs, most of the regulatory signs include the color red, for example stop and yield (Rules of the Road Illinois 1995:51).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Iconicity within the GUI of Microsoft Office and the online-help of Microsoft Office
Saarland University  (Institute for Anglistics, American Studies and Anglophone Cultures)
Cognitive Linguistics
2.0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
375 KB
double spaced.
Iconicity, Microsoft, Office, Microsoft, Office, Cognitive, Linguistics
Quote paper
Nicole Horenburg (Author), 2002, Iconicity within the GUI of Microsoft Office and the online-help of Microsoft Office, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/22165


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