Iconicity and Metaphor in Sign Languages: Recent Studies

Home   /   Iconicity and Metaphor in Sign Languages: Recent Studies

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) in particular.

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 Wilcox and Taub.

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, Herlofsky, Veale), British Sign Language (Brennan, Woll), Italian Sign Language (Pietrandrea, Pizzuto, et al., Cameracanna, Russo), French Sign Language (Bouvet), and ASL (S. Wilcox, Emmorey, Grushkin, Marschark, Wilbur, Okrent, O’Brien).

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 language.

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 Frishberg.

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 in ASL:

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)

4. 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 image.

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 meticulous mappings.

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 deaf individual.

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 metaphor:



1. IDEAS ARE OBJECTS TO MANIPULATED OR PLACED: The flat O handle classifier suggests the 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.

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 contribution 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 their language.



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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.


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