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The seven-shaped movement path: 


A student writes:
 After recently viewing a few videos where it has come up, I've been puzzling over a question that I hope I can state clearly.  When signing certain cities, states, or countries, I've noticed the sign incorporates the dominant hand in some form or fashion appearing to draw what appears to be the shape of the number 7 (for example: China, Texas, Indianapolis).  Is there a significance to this 7 shaped movement (or perhaps better stated, does the movement itself have a meaning)? Is it just a classifier? Or is it just a coincidence that the same motion is used in so many of these signs for locations.

The "seven-shaped-movement-path" used for many signs for cities in American Sign Language is common enough that we could consider it a visual form of phonaesthesia.
The frequency of occurrence of the seven-shaped-movement-path in city signs is common enough that I would suggest that in the combination of:
[context] + [seven-shaped-movement-path] + [an initial of a city]
-- we could indeed consider the seven-shaped-movement to be a "bound morpheme" commonly associated (in the minds of a majority of ASL signers) with the meaning of "city or specific geographical location." Which is to say, if a native signer sees another native signer discussing travel and doing a sign that consists of a letter-handshape moving in a seven-shaped path -- the viewer will likely assume that the signer is referring to a city the name of which begins with or contains that letter.


A morpheme is a "minimal meaningful language unit; it can't be divided into smaller meaningful units." Source:
A "bound morpheme" is a morpheme that occurs only as part of a larger construction; for example, an "-s" at the end of plural nouns"  (Source: )

phonaesthesia: In linguistics, sound symbolism, phonesthesia [also spelled as phonaesthesia], or phonosemantics is the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves.
Also quoted here:

The term "morphemic" basically means a small unit of language creating meaning.
A morpheme is a small, meaningful unit of language.

Also see: CITY
Also see: CHINA

The seven-shaped-movement is "not" (currently)* a classifier nor (currently)* what we would consider "depictive" signing. Rather it is a form of phonaesthesia.  It is a bound-morpheme that tends to convey the meaning of "this is a city name."

*However there is a strong likelihood that at some point in time the seven-shaped-movement path was depictive (or what has been referred to as a size-and-shape specifier type of classifier) and depicted the shape of the type of buildings that are common in cities (flat tops and vertical sides). Such being the (likely) case -- we could consider the seven-shaped-movement path to be a "fossilized classifier" (which is not a classifier but used to be).

Question:  Does the sign for CHINA (that moves in a seven shaped movement path) belong in the same phonaesthesia group as other location signs that move in a seven shape such as CHICAGO, DETROIT, and TEXAS?  The sign for CHINA is generally believed to be based on the angular clothing style (for example the traditional changshan shirt) common in China.

There are certainly those who will inform you that CHINA has some significant differences from signs such as CHICAGO, DETROIT, and TEXAS.  The question needs to be, "Do those differences preclude CHINA from being considered as a member of the seven-shaped-movement-path location signs phonaesthesia group?

Possibly of interest to consider is the idea that even with the divergent etymology of the CHINA (loan) sign -- if the sign CHINA becomes associated in the minds of ASL signers with the seven-shaped-movement-path of cities/locations it might (eventually) be considered part of the "seven-shaped movement path" example of phonaesthesia.
Also, in the "for what it is worth" category -- apparently the seven shaped movement path (of many American city name signs) may trace back to the shape of the type of buildings commonly seen in cities -- flat on top, straight down on the sides.

So thus we have:
1. A number of location signs with a seven shaped movement path based on high-rise buildings (an origin that has generally faded from community consciousness to the point that now we simply do those signs the way we do because "everybody else in the community does them that way").
2. A location sign with a seven shaped movement path based on a clothing style

The palm orientation of CHINA is of course different but the question to ask when determining phonaesthesia is:
"Has this sign become associated (in the minds of the community of language users) with a certain meaning due to its similarity to other signs that share that same characteristic and meaning?"

Or in other words, has the seven-shaped movement path of CHINA become associated in the minds of signers as being part of the tendency to do location signs using a seven-shaped path?

Those (like you and I) who have "prior knowledge" of the etymology of CHINA and who have a solid familiarity with how palm orientation can function as a morphemic parameter will be resistant to that mental association. (In other words we will resist the tendency to lump the sign for China in with the signs for Chicago, Detroit, Stockton, Texas, Philadelphia, and so forth.) The original poster of the question does not currently have that same resistance and formed the "these signs are similar" association in his/her/their mind. It is quite possible that future generations of Deaf signers will also not make the association. To them the sign CHINA may lose its iconicity the same way Chicago has lost its iconicity. Which is to say if we ask 10 Deaf folks "Why do you sign Chicago using a 7 movement path?" -- If we don't get a bunch of replies to the effect of "because it looks like a big building" -- we can be assured that the sign has indeed become non-iconic and merely phonaesthetic.

So next to consider is:
Can a sign with a particular production parameter (such as a seven-shaped movement path) have an iconic etymology that is different from other signs with that same production parameter and still be considered phonaesthetic (or an example of phonaesthesia)?

I think the answer becomes (a bit more) evident when we look at definition of phonaesthesia.

phonaesthesia: In linguistics, sound symbolism, phonesthesia [also spelled as phonaesthesia], or phonosemantics is the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves.
Also quoted here:

In ASL we could use the label "iconosemantic" but for now let's just stick with phonaesthesia and expand it to apply to languages in general and include visual languages.

The definition of phonaesthesia doesn't include a stipulation that all members of a phonaesthesia grouping be of similar etymology.

The definition also doesn't stipulate a certain percentage of phonemes that must be similar for each member of the group.
The English phonaesthesia example of "glare, gleam, glimmer, glint, glisten, glitter, glow..." only share two main phonemes (namely "gl" which then becomes the phonaesthetic morpheme of emitting a signal on the visual spectrum). The other phonemes in the English example (the other letters in the word) can differ significantly and yet we still consider the words an example of phonaesthesia (based on the parameter they share (the "gl") and ignoring the parameters they do not share--as well as ignoring their etymology and any aspect of onomatopoeia (they all don't have to sound exactly the same, just be similar in the phonaesthetic attribute).

So, I would propose that if we can ignore etymology, onomatopoeia, and non-relevant phoneme variances in English phonaesthesia it would seem reasonable (or I daresay "fair") to allow for the ignorance of etymology, iconicity, and phoneme variances in considering what is and/or isn't an example of ASL phonaesthesia.

Regardless, the sign CHINA is an "odd duck" in the group of seven-shaped-movement-path location signs. (It is palm back and shirt based.)
But that odd duck still walks like a duck. (It has a seven shaped movement path.)
And quacks like a duck. (It is a location sign.)
Thus even if it isn't a blood relative, many folks might consider it a member of the same phonethesic flock.

Or not.



Examples of city, place, or building signs using the seven-shaped-movement-path:

PHOENIX-[Oregon] (*Not Phoenix, Arizona!)


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