Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Location, Location, Location

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Location, Location, Location

Article excerpt


This article presents an analysis of the relationship between sign structure and iconicity in American Sign Language. Historically, linguists have been pressured to downplay the role of form-meaning relationships (iconicity) in signed languages. However, recent inquiries into the role of traditional phonological parameters of signs (handshape, location, and movement) in the development of metaphor, event telicity, and c-selection have invited a reanalysis of the role of iconicity in signed language structure. We present an analysis of the distribution of handshape, location, and movement parameters in signs and examine which of these parameters are most often used to encode iconic properties. We examine both iconic and visual-metaphorical relationships to the referents of 767 signs of American Sign Language. The findings suggest that body location is salient in conveying iconic information both for signs with concrete referents (iconic) and for signs with abstract referents (visual-metaphorical).We discuss the implications of these findings for structural and processing models of naturally occurring signed languages.

THE GOAL of this article is to understand the role of body location in iconicity and its contribution to the structure of sign language. In the background section we discuss the prevalence of iconicity at all levels of signed language structure and review both historical and recent treatments of iconicity in language theory and processing. In the section on methods, we detail the methods we used in an analysis of 767 signs of American Sign Language (ASL), looking at the relationship between iconicity and the phonological parameters of the language. In the remaining sections, we quantify our results and present our findings, discussing them in light of the results of several previous studies on iconicity and signed language processing. We highlight a relatively understudied structural parameter for sign form-location-to show how it is used productively both iconically and in metaphorical extension of meaning, as well as to illustrate the way in which body locations in ASL are used productively to refer to real-world semantic forms and categories. Finally, we point to new findings that suggest that body locations deserve a special status in the neurobiology of signed languages.


Saussure s notion of an arbitrary link between words (signifiers) and their referents (signified) has been widely accepted in modern linguistic theories and is taken to be one of the design principles of human language (Hockett i960). However, there is a growing realization that this central tenet of linguistics might be challenged by a full accounting of naturally occurring signed languages of deaf people. The visual properties of signed languages provide rich ground for the development of iconic relationships. One popular definition of iconicity in the literature comes from Stein (1973, 706): "a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it." This definition has been adopted by signed language researchers and applied to signs that bear a close resemblance to the signified object, action, or characteristic (Frishberg 1975; Klima and Bellugi 1979; Supalla 1978).

Early work on sign structure established that signed languages are naturally occurring, full-fledged human languages with recurring compositional elements (e.g., handshape, location, movement) that combine in language-specific and rule-governed ways to systematically impart lexical meaning.This research included the use of formal linguistic devices largely borrowed from spoken language research (see Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006 for a recent review). One outcome of this focus was a lack of inquiry into the presence of iconicity in signed languages, possibly from a desire to refute the popular belief at the time that signed languages were somehow primitive forms of communication. While most of this work admits that signed languages have iconic elements, it suppresses in-depth treatments of iconicity. …

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