Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language

Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language

Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language

Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language

Synopsis

What is the role of meaning in linguistic theory? Generative linguists have severely limited its influence while cognitivist and functionalist linguists believe that meaning pervades and motivates all levels of linguistic structure. This dispute can now be resolved conclusively by evidence from signed language. Language from the Body rebuts the generativist linguistic theories that separate form and meaning and asserts that iconicity can only be described in a cognitivist framework where meaning can influence form.

Excerpt

In this chapter, we begin to look closely at iconicity in language: After establishing a definition of iconicity, we examine examples of iconicity in signed and spoken languages in some detail. Once we have gotten a sense of how iconicity manifests itself in language, we briefly review how linguists have treated iconicity. This discussion focuses on iconicity in signed languages and traces a development of sophistication in sign linguists' theories. The next chapter presents a cognitive model of iconicity in signed and spoken languages, and the following chapter (Chapter Five) gives a survey of types of iconic items in both modalities.

Let us start by considering the results of Pizzuto, Boyes-Braem, and Volterra (1996). This study tested the ability of naïve subjects to guess the meanings of signs from Italian Sign Language (LIS). Because one simple definition of iconicity is “form—meaning resemblance, ” we might expect that we could use “guessability” (also called transparency) as a measure of a sign's iconicity. Yet Pizzuto et al. found strong culturebased variation: Some signs' meanings were easily guessed by non-Italian nonsigners; some were more transparent to non-Italian Deaf signers; and yet others were more easy for Italian nonsigners to guess. That is, some transparency seemed to be universal, some seemed linked to the experience of Deafness and signing, and some seemed to have a basis in Italian culture.

In interpreting these results, we can see the need for a definition of iconicity that takes culture and conceptualization into account. Iconicity is not an objective relationship between image and referent; rather, it is a relationship between our mental models of image and referent. These models are partially motivated by our embodied experiences common to . . .

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