Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Symbolic Properties of Graphical Actions

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Symbolic Properties of Graphical Actions

Article excerpt

This study aims to determine whether graphical actions used in a military planning task with a map have symbolic properties that are similar to those of symbols of sign languages. Specifically, this article identifies (1) a lexicon of the graphical actions that military planners use to refer to significants on a map during a planning assessment; (2) the set of significants (objects, concepts, attributes, and relations) that the graphical actions designate or represent on the map; and (3) the analogical properties of graphical actions. The results suggest that graphical actions are manual symbols whose properties are similar to the symbols of sign languages.

IN DIALOGUES involving spatial content, such as maps, humans employ both speech and graphical (hand) actions. Despite the fact that speech alone might suffice to convey a complete meaning, these dialogues are multimodal. Why do humans use graphical actions in these situations? One could argue that graphical actions simply provide redundancy or emphasis to dialogue, as do batonic gestures (Dull 1987) and beats (McNeill 1987, 1992). However, when dialogue involves spatial content, hand gestures play a role in communicating that content (Kendon 1994; Oviatt 1997).

In narratives, hand gestures enhance a speaker's ability to convey spatial content (Krauss 1998; McNeill 1992; Rauscher et al. 1996). The hand gestures relate in form to the semantic content of speech. In a military planning task with a map, graphical actions would depict and represent spatial referents and their spatial properties, such as geometrical form (Boudreau and McCann 1994). In this context the actions would have symbolic properties, that is, lexical, semantic, and analogical properties. The symbolic properties of graphical actions would also suggest that they might be similar to symbols of sign languages (Charlier 1992; Cuxac 2000; Liddell 2000). This study aims to determine whether graphical actions are symbols whose properties are similar to those of sign languages. I base my analysis on the symbolic properties of the graphical actions that military planners use to refer to entities on a map and on the orders of iconicity of sign languages (Cuxac 2000).

Humans communicate through the exchange of signifiers, which are symbolic tokens that designate or represent significants and their categories. Significants refer to the semantic content of a dialogue. A significant can be an object, a concept, an attribute of an object or concept, or a relationship between objects or concepts. Objects or concepts that have common attributes relate semantically in memory as categories of significants. Various authors have shown that significants and their categories form a hierarchical structure of semantic knowledge (Anderson 199$; Ellis and Hunt 1989; Osherson et al. 1990). Thus, signifiers can refer to significants at any level of that hierarchy, although symbols can be purely individual.

The symbolic function of signifiers is to allow humans to represent significants that they do not actually perceive or have in view at the time they are conveyed (McNeill 1992; Paivio 1986; Piaget and Inhelder 1963). In natural languages, symbols and signs carry out this function (Ellis and Hunt 1989; McNeill 1992; Piaget 1983; Saussure 1959). Symbols are signifiers that are differentiated from their significants but that maintain similarity in form with them. For example, the drawing of a landscape depicts a real object. Signs are also differentiated from their signifiers but are relatively arbitrary. Signs and symbols are shared in their form and meaning by a community of individuals. Signs include spoken and written words, Braille signs, and arbitrary signs in sign languages. Symbols comprise the following:

* imitation in a broad sense (e.g., pantomimes, gestural imitation, and phonic imitation)

* drawings (Lee 1991; Piaget and Inhelder 1963)

* visual imagery (Jeannerod 1994; Paivio 1986; Piaget and Inhelder 1963)

* Chinese numerical classifiers (see Taylor and Taylor 1996)

* symbols in French Sign Language (Charlier 1992; Cuxac 2000; Sero-Guillaume 1997) and in American Sign Language (Kendon 1996; McArthur 1992; Stokoe 1995)

Signifiers have various degrees of codification. …

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