What Do You Think? Metaphor in Thought and Communication Domains in American Sign Language

By Wilcox, Phyllis Perrin | Sign Language Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

What Do You Think? Metaphor in Thought and Communication Domains in American Sign Language


Wilcox, Phyllis Perrin, Sign Language Studies


COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS EMBRACES a powerful notion of conceptual embodiment that reveals metaphoric creativity in spoken and signed languages. Since Aristotle's time and until fairly recently, metaphors have been thought of as flowery frills that emerge as colorful expressions in our daily language. Traditionally, metaphors were considered to be tropes or figures of speech and were to be avoided for argumentation purposes since they were "nonliteral" (Centner and Jeziorski 1993, 448).

More recently, however, metaphor has been recognized as a systematic conceptual thought process, or, as Lakoff and Johnson view it, "metaphor means metaphorical concept" (2003, 6). Their research has helped to generate a body of work showing that metaphor is "shaped to a significant extent by the common nature of our bodies and the shared ways that we all function in the everyday world" (ibid., 245). Although there are fundamental differences in defining metaphor (Stern 2000; Dirven and Pörings 2002; Kittay 1987), LakofTand Johnson's contemporary experiential theory provides a strong basis for understanding the cross-domain mappings discussed in this article.

Jäkel argues for the metaphorical concept of mind in a cognitive model by asserting that "most of the structure of our model of mental activity is supplied by two extremely productive image schemata: the 'container' schema and the 'manipulation' schema'" (1995, 219). Two metaphors entrenched in spoken English as well as American Sign Language (ASL) are MIND is A CONTAINER and IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. Metaphorical mapping operates on these two conceptual metaphors in a way that permits us to conceive of our brains as containers filled with mental items. We cannot literally move thoughts or ideas, but we can visualize them as objects, and physical objects in our surroundings can be manipulated and moved. Conversely, ideas take on a metaphorical frame by being moved conceptually in our minds.

Ordinary language behavior in ASL reveals parallel cognitive structures that are both similar to and different from spoken-language behavior. This article focuses on the metaphorical similarities between English and ASL that are found in the metaphors MIND is A CONTAINER and IDEAS ARE OBJECTS. We also look at the differences in metaphor conceptualization that can be demonstrated through UNDERSTANDING is GRASPING, a countervailing metaphor that is commonly mapped in English but is not prevalently found in ASL. Several other languages that evoke UNDERSTANDING is GRASPING are discussed, including British Sign Language (BSL), Catalan Sign Language (LSC), Italian Sign Language (LIS), and, to a certain extent, French Sign Language (LSF).1

Iconic Brain and Metaphorical Brain

In ASL, handshapes lend themselves to metaphorical constructs through their phonological forms and productive morphemes. The handshape icons not only reveal iconicity that is prevalent in spoken languages (Armstrong 1983; Bybee 1985; Fauconnier 1985; Langacker 1991; Givon 1991; Haiman 1985) but also use the corresponding movements to add visual images to the linguistic spectrum. ASL phonemes and morphemes are isomorphic, with corresponding handshapes having the same appearance of form.2 However, it is important to distinguish between iconic and metaphoric conceptual relationships. For example, an isomorphic use of two cupped hands can show, through mimetic behavior, the brain of a person who was killed in a car accident. The cupped hands indicate the approximate size of the victim's brain and skull. The purely isomorphic imitation of the skull that is flapped up and off of a victim's brain represents the approximation between the size and shape of the hands and the skull in question.

On the other hand, a metaphorical skull shows the physical source and abstract target schema that are evoked when using the same handshape combination just described. This second case of iconicity is identified in a situation that occurred when a consultant described seeing a few deaf friends teasing each other at a party. …

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