Why Does Constructed Action Seem Obligatory? an Analysis of "Classifiers" and the Lack of Articulator-Referent Correspondence

Article excerpt

MANY PEOPLE WOULD AGREE that watching a skilled signer of American Sign Language (ASL) or any sign language narrate a story is a visual treat. The signer's hands and arms are busy articulating lexical items that are governed by the phonology of the language, and those items are sequenced in ways that adhere to the grammatical conventions of that language. Nonmanual signals such as the linguistic use of eyegaze, head tilt, and various mouth movements are also part of the vivid visual displays of body language the signer creates. Additionally, parts of the body, particularly from the waist upward, are also very involved in depicting various aspects of characters or animate entities from the narrative.

During descriptions of animate entities, the signer often provides a correspondence between parts of her own body and that which she is attempting to describe-the referent object. Correspondence between the signer and the referent is common in signed languages, and such correspondence can be seen in various communicative devices: fixed or "frozen" signs (i.e., those that do not tend to vary with the articulation of phonological parameters), more productive signs such as socalled classifiers, and uses of the upper body to depict characteristics and movements of an animate being. This article discusses various aspects of this correspondence, and data from ASL are used to illustrate points about this commonly used phenomenon in signed languages.

Correspondence between the Signer's Body and the Referent

Some signs depict correspondences between the signer's hands and arms and the referent-a characteristic of sign languages that has been called iconidty. Chuck Baird, a well-known Deaf artist in the United States, knows well that some signs are iconic, and one facet of iconicity is that the hands and arms can exist in a one-to-one relationship with the referent. Baird's work contains many examples of articulators creating shapes that mirror those of real-world objects and phenomena-examples of ASL signs. For instance, his 1978 work Sunset in Austin captures the image of a sun setting over the horizon by showing the sun with the ASL F handshape and the horizon with the horizontally oriented nondominant arm (figure 2 in the appendix).1 Further, his 1992 work, Fingershell, depicts a turtle beside two hands that are articulating the ASL sign TURTLE (see figure 3 in the appendix); presumably the thumb of the right hand, which points outward from an A handshape (with the dorsal side of the pinky facing downward), portrays the turtle's head, while the cupped left hand over the right hand (with the exception of the tip of the thumb) corresponds to the turtle's shell. Both signs are iconic, although Austin Sunset depicts an inanimate entity, whereas Fingershell represents an animate one.

Sign language researchers also know that many signs are iconic and that iconicity is multifaceted (e.g., see Taub 2001). Even in the early days of research on ASL, various authors (e.g., Mandel 1977; DeMatteo 1977; and Klima and Bellugi 1979) wrote about the pictorial quality of some signs and the various actions that a signer utilizes to create meaning. However, it is also commonly known that not all signs of sign languages are iconic-many have litde to no physical correspondence with their referents-like the current-day ASL sign SCHOOL, which is articulated by clapping the dominant hand on the nondominant hand twice. This sign bears little visual resemblance to a school or symbol that is used to refer to schools, such as those that appear on street signs in the vicinity of school buildings (e.g., students walking and carrying books, a mortarboard and tassel, or the symbolic one-room schoolhouse). Signs such as SCHOOL might be considered arbitrary-at least from a visual perspective-although, like many signs, it is likely that a folk etymology that is iconically based could be suggested (e.g., the sign might stem from the clapping that a teacher does to get the students' attention). …