Iconicity in sign languages

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Sign languages are visual-gestural communication systems with a great potential for iconic structures and indeed, in sign languages iconicity is pervasive, both on the lexical and the grammical levels. However, in early sign language research the role of iconicity was downplayed in order to stress the similarities in structure between sign languages and spoken languages. For some authors, on the other hand, iconicity has been a reason for claiming that sign languages are organised in a fundamentally different way from spoken languages. Looking at sign languages from a phonological perspective, important questions remain unanswered in both these approaches. In this paper we try to provide answers to two questions. First, does iconicity play a part in the linguistic structure of sign languages and are sign language users aware of it? Second, what is the status of the sublexical elements in sign languages, and more specifically, should they be considered as phonemes or as morphemes? In the first section of the paper we shall explore the various forms of iconicity in sign languages, using the framework of Taub’s Analogue Building Model (2001). In the second and third sections we shall confront two approaches of sign language phonology, Cuxac’s sign language differential view with a focus on iconicity as the fundamental organising principle (1996, 2000) and the more spoken language compatible concepts of phonetic and semantic implementation by Van der Kooij (2002). These two accounts are the point of departure for the fourth section in which we shall put forward a proposal of an iconic superstructure which addresses iconicity in both the spoken and signed modalities and which offers an answer to both above-mentioned questions.


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