Iconicity and Productivity in Sign Language Discourse: An Analysis of Three LIS Discourse Registers

Article excerpt

IN THIS ARTICLE I focus on the linguistic features of three Italian Sign Language (Lingua Italiana dei Segni; LIS) registers to show to what extent iconic features of signs are relevant to the level of signed language discourse. This work is intended as a contribution to the understanding of iconic phenomena in signed languages through the analysis of different sign language registers.

Before defining broad concepts such as "iconic" and "iconicity," I would like to discuss the relevance of iconicity for an understanding of sign language linguistic structure.

Recent literature presents at least two main perspectives on iconicity in signed languages: One of these maintains that, although iconic features of signs play a significant psychological role in the storing and memorizing of signs, they are not linguistically relevant. Proponents of this position disagree with the idea that signed languages are similar to pantomimes or other nonlinguistic iconic forms of communication. Klima and Bellugi, for example, in their influential work (The Signs of Language 1979), discuss the "insignificance of iconicity in processing signs" (27), and a large number of well-known studies of signed language (SL) grammars (e.g., Supalla 1982; Wilbur 1987) draw similar conclusions. This point of view has recently been reiterated by Baker, Dye, and Woll (2001).

On the other hand, a second position has recently demonstrated the relevance of iconic features of signs at different levels of the grammatical and lexical structure of signed languages (Taub 1998; Wilcox 2000). This position is influenced by works in the functionalist and cognitivist frameworks, which stress the role of iconicity as a central feature in the study of human language (Haiman 1983, 1985; Givon 1979, 1989; Dressler 1995; Du Bois 1987; Waugh 1993; Fonagy 1983). Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox (1995), for example, in their study of the role that sign languages might have played in the origin of human language, underline the role of the iconic features of sign language phonology in their "semantic phonology" proposal. Recently, in a different framework, Crasborn, van der Hulst, and van de Kooij (2000) also stress the relevance of iconic features at the interface between phonology and morphology.

I suggest that, by determining optional choices regarding the connection of signs in a particular utterance, iconicity is a relevant linguistic feature of signed languages not only at the morphophonological and lexical levels but also at the level of discourse. From this point of view the different role that iconicity plays in vocal and signed languages cannot lead, in any sense, to questioning the linguistic status of signed languages; on the contrary that role can help us extend our knowledge of the similarities and differences between two different language types, spoken and signed, both of which iconic features affect to some extent.

Iconicity in Spoken and Signed Languages

The current literature on spoken and signed languages offers many contrasting definitions of the term iconicity. In the philosophical tradition (at least from Plato's Cratylus [1995, p. 422e]) the term iconic primarily indicates a relation of similarity between the expressive form and the referent of a sign, regardless of whether linguistic or nonlinguistic. The linguistic tradition generally distinguishes between two different kinds of iconic signs: (1) onomatopoeic/ phonosymbolic signs of different types and (2) motivated signs. Onomatopoeic signs, such as the English word meow, which refers to a cat's cry, refer to a concrete perceptual object that is evoked via the acoustical image suggested by the expression of the sign. Motivated signs, on the other hand, are generally considered iconic only in a much more mediated way.

Motivated signs are signs whose expressive form mirrors the existence of semantic associations that are active either in the language system or in the grammar. …