In TT 54, research on sociolinguistic
aspects of sign languages was briefly summarized. This
second article on SLs looks at studies of some of the
linguistics resources of SLs, American Sign Language (ASL)
While sign languages (SLs) have long been
recognized as being highly iconic, with signs bearing some
kind of resemblance to the concepts they refer to, it is
only within the last 5-10 years that the nature and
interplay of iconic and metaphorical signs have been
systematically examined. This article reviews some of the
recent work, particularly that of
Up to the middle of the 20th century, SLs
of the Deaf were widely believed to be unordered gestures
and pantomime, lacking a structure or communicative
capability comparable to spoken languages. Signs could only
mime concrete objects in the immediate world of the signer,
and could not represent abstractions. Unless deaf people
learned a real, i.e., spoken, language, they would not
develop intellectually nor be able to communicate beyond a
very superficial level.
While nobody tried to deny that iconicity
played a crucial role in the creation of the signs of SLs,
linguistic work on SLs from the 60s to the 80s tended to
downplay its significance, not only because of entrenched
negative attitudes about signs as pantomime, but also
because the structuralist principles of the arbitrariness of
the sign and the autonomy of the language system were
fundamental in the formal linguistics of the time.
With the advent of functional and
cognitive linguistics, sign linguists found a more congenial
framework to work in--one that allowed unapologetic
exploration of all aspects of the languages they studied and
in particular the relationship between form and meaning.
Functionalists were beginning to look seriously at the role
of iconicity in languages in general (e.g., Haiman, Givón),
and cognitive linguistics viewed "form and meaning as
integrated on every level of linguistic structure" making it
"well suited for treating issues of linguistic motivation" (Taub,
230). At the same time (early 80s), Lakoff and Johnson's
work on conceptual metaphor introduced a way of thinking
about metaphor that dovetailed with issues of iconicity.
These developments contributed to the
intense and productive attention to iconicity and metaphor
in SLs in the 90s. The list of references shows work in
Japanese Sign Language (Ogawa,
British Sign Language (Brennan,
Italian Sign Language (Pietrandrea,
Pizzuto, et al.,
and ASL (S. Wilcox,
The focus of this survey is the work of
two authors whose aim is to clarify the relationship of
iconicity and metaphor in ASL: Phyllis Wilcox's Metaphor
in American Sign Language (2000) and Sarah Taub's
Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American
Sign Language (2001). Both ground their approach in
cognitive linguistics and Lakoff & Johnson's ideas about
experientially based metaphorical mapping; and most
important, both authors demonstrate how gestural languages,
through metaphorical use of iconic signs, communicate
abstract concepts, a capability that had been disputed for
at least the last century.
Taub--Taub devotes the first part of her book to
describing types of iconicity in both signed and spoken
modalities. She sketches a three-step analogue-building
model for the creation of linguistic iconic forms: the first
step is the selection of a mental image that is associated
with the original concept. The mental image is then
schematized--essential features are picked out and
unnecessary ones dropped. Finally, the schema is encoded,
using the appropriate and available resources of the
Naturally, a visual modality will be able
to encode iconically many more visual and kinesthetic images
than an oral modality will sound images. Turning the tables
on the traditional view of iconicity in language, Taub,
along with quite a few others by now, suggests that "languages
are as iconic as possible, given the constraints of
their modality" (61).
In other words, when it comes to the
reasons that a SL produces so many iconic forms, the first
simple answer is, "because it can!" (Fischer,
206). Another reason mentioned by
Fischer & Müller (3) is that SLs may not grammaticalize
as rapidly as spoken languages--most signers do not have
signing parents--so the language must be recreolized in
every generation. Thus, it may be that the persistent
iconicity of sign languages is due in part to
sociolinguistic factors (see TT 54), counteracting
the kind of tendencies noted by
The particular instance of
structure-preserving mapping of meaning onto form shown in
the model above is a shape-for-shape encoding. The shape of
the branching leafy part of the tree schema corresponds to
the shape of the hand and fingers, the shape of the trunk to
the vertical forearm, and the ground to the horizontal
forearm. But SLs can encode schemata iconically in a variety
of ways. Taub (67-90) identifies nine types of such encoding
1. Physical entities can represent
themselves (e.g., direct deixis, where the referent is
present and indicated in a conventional way).
2. The shape of the articulators
represents the shape of the referent (e.g., TREE in ASL).
3. The movement of the articulators
represents the movement of the referent, or path-for-path
iconicity (e.g., signing the person classifier and moving
it upward in a zigzag path represents the movement of a
person going up a winding path)
The shape of the articulators' path
represents the shape of the referent, or path-for-shape
(e.g., in Danish SL the shape of the tree is outlined for
the sign TREE).
5. Locations in signing space represent
locations in mental space, or space-for-space. Although
there is much discussion about the uses of signing
space-for example, the problem of distinguishing between
gesture and linguistic sign--there are clear examples,
such as the description of a room, where the use of
signing space maps spatial relationships in the mental
6. The size of articulation represents
the size of the referent, whether relative or absolute.
7. The number of articulators represents
the number of referents--number-for-number. For example,
the sign in #3 for winding one's way up a hill might be
signed with the classifier person (fist with index finger
extended vertically) for one person, but with the addition
of the middle finger to indicate two people. In this case
the second finger is both classifier and number.
8. The temporal ordering of signing
represents temporal ordering of events. This is a type of
iconicity that is shared with spoken languages. In
narrative, for example, events are typically recounted in
the order that they occurred.
9. Signing represents signing, or
"quoted signing." This might occasion a series of mappings
as the signer shifts roles from one person in a reported
dialogue to another, assuming the relative spatial
locations of each, creating a different mapping of the
imagined space onto the signing space.
The variety of devices for encoding a
schema accounts in part for the fact that iconic items,
while motivated, are language-specific. The method of
encoding "tree" in DSL is very different from that of ASL,
yet both are recognizably iconic.
With this inventory for creating iconic
linguistic items and the notion of mapping to build
analogues of concepts, Taub has a basis for modeling the
creation of metaphor in ASL. Her focus is on conceptual
metaphors, which, as described by Lakoff & Johnson, involve
a schematic mapping from a source experientially-based
domain to a target abstract conceptual domain. She combines
the model for mapping iconic items and the cognitive model
for mapping metaphors to produce what she describes as a
"double-mapping." There is the metaphorical mapping from a
concrete to an abstract domain, and the iconic mapping from
the concrete source domain to its linguistic form.
Taub's treatment of mapping stands out for
its attention to the identification of all its elements. She
provides tables of mappings for all the metaphors discussed
in detail, and describes a well-constructed table of a
mapping as follows:
The essential elements of a mapping include
a list of entities (people, things, concepts),
relationships, and actions or scenarios from the source
domain; a similar list from the target domain; a statement
of how the elements in each list correspond to each other;
and ... metaphorical expressions that exemplify (and thus
justify) each correspondence. (95)
Taub gives numerous examples of signs that
incorporate one or more conceptual metaphors. For example,
the sign SAD draws on the metaphor GOOD IS UP (the sign
has a downward movement), while the sign for HAPPY
incorporates two metaphors: GOOD IS UP (upward movement),
and THE LOCUS OF EMOTION IS THE CHEST (place of
articulation is the chest).
Wilcox--In her review of the literature on metaphor
in SLs (ch. 2), Wilcox's primary purpose is to show how
notions of iconicity and metaphor have been confused. At
times metaphorical signs have been identified as
metonymic, and at others iconic signs have been labeled
metaphorical. For example, as a result of a vague use of
terminology, the relation between the fingers and
branching in the sign TREE has been called metaphorical.
The fingers were described as "symbolically representing"
branching, and this symbolic representation was deemed
metaphorical. Wilcox emphasizes the importance of defining
a source domain and a target domain, as well as
unidirectionality from source to target, in order to
identify metaphor. In this, she paves the way for Taub's
Another, related, way in which Wilcox
has laid the groundwork for Taub's analysis is her
exploration of the distinctions between other tropes in
ASL and metaphor. She devotes a chapter to simile and
metonymy, analyzing simple examples of each and also
complex examples that incorporate metaphor. One of the
latter is the use that is made of the basic sign SPEAK.
Wilcox analyzes the sign as follows (94-95): The small
circling movements made by the index finger indicate the
breath coming from the speaker's mouth. It is a metonym
for the speech produced by a person. The same sign can
also be glossed as HEARING-PERSON, where the act of
speaking has come to represent metonymically the person
doing the speaking. Wilcox continues, "in turn, another
metonym is derived when the word representing the hearing
person is also used to represent the thoughts and culture
of such a person." When the sign is moved to the forehead,
it takes on a metaphorical value. HEARING-PERSON becomes
THINK-HEARING, or "think and act like a hearing person" (a
derogatory expression). The sign does not refer to speech,
or a hearing person, or the culture and values of a
hearing person. It refers to the behavior and values of a
Examining the basic conceptual metaphor
ideas are objects, Wilcox demonstrates how ASL fleshes out
the metaphor in specific metaphorical expressions. "When
ASL informants articulate expressions from the same
general class of metaphor, they use different classifier
handshape morphemes, depending on the similarities between
the source and target domains that a particular
instantiation is highlighting or hiding" (110). Previous
research had identified 18 distinct "handle" classifiers (handshapes
that relate to the way objects are moved and handled).
Three such classifiers play an important part in the
nuanced conceptualizations of the ideas are objects
manipulation of a flat, thin object. While the size and
shape of the object handled is an important feature, with
this basic metaphor, "the key semantic referent in the
function--manipulation--rather than the shape..."
(112) This handshape is used in the sign TEACH: take
objects from the head and pass them to a recipient.
1. IDEAS ARE OBJECTS TO MANIPULATED OR
PLACED: The flat O handle classifier
2. IDEAS ARE OBJECTS TO BE GRASPED: The
A classifier (fist) is an iconic sign, mapping the concept
of holding on to a material substance. Metaphorically, it
is used for holding onto abstract ideas or memories, as in
the sign MEMORIZE.
3. IDEAS ARE OBJECTS TO BE CAREFULLY
DISCRIMINATED/SELECTED: The F classifier is used
metaphorically in the sign SELECT, and other similar
signs. The concept of the exertion of fine motor control
maps onto the concept of careful selection of thoughts.
a f g
An understanding of how metaphors work
in SLs is "vital to the analysis of iconicity in sign
languages in that they allow for the scope of iconic signs
to be extended beyond the concrete to abstract concepts" (Herlofsky
42), and in turn, SLs provide us with an excellent
visualization of conceptual metaphors, many of which are
shared with spoken languages. In these two books, Taub and
Wilcox bring out the richness and complexity of metaphor
in ASL, and at the same time make a valuable
to the discussion of iconicity and metaphor generally.
In his TTW presentation on the Auslan
Bible translation project, John Harris noted the
importance of having found outstanding signers for the
work. Just as spoken language projects need translators
with an excellent command of the resources of their
language, sign language projects need signers who interact
creatively with the iconic and metaphorical resources of
Bellugi, Ursula, and Edward Klima.
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Credits: Diagram based on
Taub; ASL and DSL TREE sketches from Klima & Bellugi; ASL
sketch and handshapes photos from Wilcox. Fingerspelling
font is Gallaudet.