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Iconicity in Sign Language:

Erin Tate

Iconicity in Sign Language

Iconicity in language means that the form of the word or sign conveys the meaning of the word or sign. In the 70's, iconicity was considered sub-standard and a language that was considered highly iconic was not a real language (Lidell, 2003). Now, it is realized that iconicity is a characteristic of all languages, spoken and signed. In spoken languages, an example of iconicity is the sound [i], which is found in the English word ‘feet,' occurs more frequently in words that mean small or tiny, such as English ‘itty bitty teeny weenie.' In American Sign Language, emotion signs, such as HAPPY, ANGRY and FEEL, occur on the chest, while cognitive signs, such as THINK, KNOW and UNDERSTAND, occur on or near the temple (Kyle, 1985).  Iconicity occurs in every language, spoken and signed.

In general, sign languages have more in common with each other than spoken languages have with each other. This could be due to the fact that grammatical structures in sign language relate more clearly to locations and objects in the real world, such as with verb agreement and classifiers (Marschark, 2006). So, since visual imagery in sign languages is more readily recognizable than sound imagery in spoken languages, signers take active advantage of their language's iconic nature, while speakers rely more on fixed grammar, making sign languages closer together in form. This is not to say that sign languages are any less grammatical than spoken languages, just that sign languages are more open to the symbolic part of their language.

One good example of this is a skilled signer's discussion about culture and language. The signer was discussing the link between culture and language and that the two entities were married for life and they could not divorce. Then, she wanted to say that, if they did divorce, first one would fall and die and then the other would. So, first she signed DIVORCE. Now, divorce can easily be considered iconic. It shows two handshapes, similar to the handshape for the classifier of a person, separate. Taking advantage of this, the signer then drops one of her hands, has it bounce, and then roll over dead, incorporating the sign DIE. Then, the other hand follows in the same motion (Lidell, 2003). Whether or not divorce started out as an iconic sign, skilled signers recognize the potential and use it to enhance their signing.

Classifiers, common to all sign languages, are highly iconic by nature, not true signs in that they are defined solely by a handshape and movement is determined almost solely by meaning and circumstance. There are three general categories of classifiers: entity (represents agent, patient, or theme participant role: A handshape), handle (reflects what is being handled and how the hand handles it: C handshape), and SASS (selected based on salient visual-geometric features of referent: B handshape). All classifier handshapes are based on at least to some degree iconicity and this allows them the freedom they are given in sign languages to express a wide range of ideas and events (Marschark, 2006).

Iconicity occurs in all languages. However, in sign languages, it is more readily recognized and, therefore, commonly exploited for its potential, as in the use of classifiers or the modification of existing signs.  



Coulter, Geoffrey R. (1993). Phonetics and Phonology: Volume 3: Current Issues in ASL Phonology. San Diego: Academic Press.


Kyle, J.G. and B. Woll. (1985). Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Liddell, Scott K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture and Meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Marschark, Marc, Brenda Schick and Patricia Elizabeth Spencer. (2006). Advances in the Sign Language Development of Deaf Children. New York: Oxford University Press.



Comments from Dr. Bill:

An "icon" is a symbol that looks like what it represents.
Which is to say, on some computer desktops there is a "garbage can" icon that represents a way to throw away computer files and folders.
The signs for "HOUSE" is iconic. It sort of looks like a house.

There are many iconic signs.
But there are also many signs that are not iconic or only vaguely iconic. For example, it is difficult for a sign to "look like" non-concrete concepts such as "why," "for," or "how."  


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