Lecture: When iconicity diverges
Evidence from the lexicon of two sign languages
Sign languages, the manual-visual languages of deaf communities, exhibit a high degree of iconicity in their vocabularies due to the affordances of the modality for creating visually motivated form-meaning mappings (1). The potential for iconicity creates cross-linguistic similarity between sign languages based on shared associations and properties. For instance, many sign languages represent the concept EAT by bringing the hand to the mouth (2). At the same time, sign languages consist of formational components (hand configuration, movement, location) that combine to form conventionalised signs (3), and that are a source for language-specific differences in form, including in signs that share an iconic base. For instance, the German Sign Language (DGS) and British Sign Language (BSL) signs for EAT differ in their hand configuration.
Past studies have explored how iconicity influences the lexicon in the visual modality, typically paying limited attention to signs’ formational components and their cross-linguistic differences (4–9). Other studies have conducted lexical comparisons across sign languages to establish cross-linguistic similarity, typically discarding iconic signs from the analysis (10–14). Yet, a deeper understanding of the factors that shape a manual lexicon must include how these two forces interact in sign language lexica: iconicity driving cross-linguistic similarity and language-specific conventions driving differences. In the present study, we investigate this interaction, by analysing types of iconicity (i.e., strategies to realise form-meaning mappings) and degree of form overlap in BSL and DGS.
We selected up to 10 concepts (N = 234) (concrete and abstract) elicited from deaf signers in a semantic fluency task in DGS and BSL for analysis. We classified all signs by iconic strategy (enactment, acting on, representing, personification, entity, tracing, moulding), are collecting iconicity and concreteness ratings, and establishing edit-distance, based on the formational components, for each concept.
We find that proportions of different iconic strategies in DGS and BSL are substantially similar across the languages for concrete concepts, but that interesting differences emerge for abstract concepts. These results suggest that iconicity supports similar mappings in concrete referents across sign languages, supporting the view that it is grounded in sensory-motor experience (15). However, in abstract concepts, cultural and linguistic conventions may drive variation, leading to divergence across sign languages. Phonological analysis is predicted to reveal substantive overlap for iconic signs, though granular analysis is likely to reveal subtle differences.
This investigation sheds light on how iconicity shapes the lexicon of a sign language, given language-specific constraints. This furthers our understanding of the similarities and differences between sign language lexica, giving a systematic account of pressures driving similarity and differences.
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