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Author: Masha Kyuseva

Isn’t it iconic? creating signs in sign languages

Isn’t it iconic? creating signs in sign languages

If I asked you what you think of when I say the word iconic, you most probably would name David Bowie, Big Ben, or fish and chips. That is if you are not a linguist. We use this word in a different sense. It refers to elements in a language that have some sort of resemblance to the thing they refer to in the real world. The form of a word is not completely random. If you think about it, the adjective iconic is related to the noun icon, which, in its original meaning, denotes a painting that resembles a holy figure. Out of all the languages in the world, sign languages are especially famous for having a lot of iconic elements. Let’s see how it works!

Perhaps, the most often cited type of iconicity is word-level iconicity. Basically, it refers to signs that look like what they mean. Take a look at the Russian Sign Language sign CANDLE.

The sign CANDLE in Russian Sign Language.

Here, the signer ‘‘makes a picture’’ of a candle with his hands: his left hand, bent into a fist, stands for the body of a candle, and his right hand imitates flames by slightly shaking on top of it. At first glance, the idea is very simple. You might even wonder why linguists would spend time researching this phenomenon. Here is a candle, and here is an objective and logical way to depict this candle with the hands. But the process is more complex than it appears. First, note that not all candles look the same. Some of them have very thin bodies (like birthday candles), others are flat (like tealights), and don’t forget sophisticated arty candles like the ones below in the shape of Halloween characters.

Halloween candles.

This means that the Russian Sign Language sign CANDLE doesn’t depict some kind of objective candle. Instead, it portrays the picture of a candle it considers prototypical. This already can add quite a lot of variation: we can safely assume that there would be sign languages that choose a different candle to depict. Indeed, Italian Sign Language has a taller, more elegant looking candle in mind. Notice how the signer draws its tall body in the beginning.

The sign CANDLE in Italian Sign Language.

But even if two or more languages have the same picture in mind, there are still a lot of different ways to express it. For example, in German Sign Language, you are supposed to imitate lighting a match (that would in turn light the candle).

The sign CANDLE in German Sign Language.

Whereas in Greek Sign Language, you would show blowing out a candle instead.

The sign CANDLE in Greek Sign Language.

And even if you choose to express the same aspects of the same picture, you can still do it differently. For example, Brazilian Sign Language uses the same imagery as Russian Sign Language, but it shows the flames of the candle with all five fingers instead of just three.

The sign CANDLE in Brazilian Sign Language.

In order to account for this wide variability, Sarah Taub came up with a neat model of iconic signs. According to her, the creation of an iconic sign happens in three steps: (1) image selection: choosing an appropriate image; (2) schematization: choosing the important parts of the image to represent; and (3) encoding: creating the form of the sign. During the first step, one selects a prototypical image to represent; then, during the second step, one chooses what elements of this image will be expressed by the sign, and what elements will be left out. Finally, the last step is to decide how these elements will be expressed, i.e., what handshapes will be used and how they will be joined together. Sarah Taub explains this model on the example of the American Sign Language sign TREE.

The sign TREE in American Sign Language.

Here, one starts by choosing what tree species to represent and what kind of information to encode, such as tactile images of how bark and leaves feel, auditory images of leaves rustling, or visual images of a tree shape and/or colour. In case of American Sign Language, the choice fell on the shape of a tree with a tall trunk and a leafy treetop. Then one creates a mental representation of a tree to decide what pieces of it will be encoded. American Sign Language selected the trunk of a tree, the branching treetop, and the ground in which the tree grows. And finally, one needs to choose a physical form to represent each piece. In this example, a spread hand represents the branching structure, an upright forearm represents the trunk, and a horizontal forearm and palm represent a flat surface.

Sarah Taub’s model of iconic signs.

Try this yourself! Can you come up with a sign for, say, a flower? Think of the flowers you know and choose one! Will it be a dandelion, a сamomile, a rose, or maybe a funny (and slightly scary) monkey orchid?

Monkey orchids.

Then think of pieces you want to represent. Will it be just the flower itself? How many petals? How big are they? Do you want to encode the stem and the leaves as well? Or maybe your flower has thorns? And what about the soil? Finally, play with your hands or maybe even with your whole body and find a way to encode these pieces.

When you have created your masterpiece, go ahead and check how different sign languages did it! The best place to go is the spread-the-sign website. You can just type the word ‘flower’ and click on the flag of a language you are interested in. Of course, the difference between your representation and a sign of a sign language will be that you are free to choose from whatever parts and positions of your body you can come up with, whereas sign languages are limited by handshapes and movements that exist in the language. However, you’ll still get a good taste of iconicity!

Sign language mythbusters

Sign language mythbusters

We have all heard of sign languages. Most of us have seen people talking to each other using their hands and body movements instead of the voice: on the street, at a train station, or in a noisy café. We probably even felt a slight jolt of envy, thinking about how much easier it must be for them to communicate, when they are surrounded by loud music, laughter, and chatter. Curiously, however, very few people know what sign languages actually are. Unless you are a sign language user and/or a linguist, you probably have a lot of misconceptions about their nature. For this reason, linguists who write about sign languages, often begin their books with a discussion of myths and misconceptions. For example, Robin Battinson wrote a section on misconceptions about ASL, Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri covered the same topic on the data of Australian Sign Language, Vadim Kimmelman and Svetlana Burkova discussed common mistakes in light of Russian Sign Language. Let us follow their example and bust a few myths!

Myth №1 There is only one sign language

Perhaps, the most mind-blowing thing about sign languages is that there is more than one. Indeed, if we never encountered sign languages in action, we most probably have a default assumption that there is one sign language, and everyone is using it. Why would you need more? Surely, at some point, someone came up with a list of signs for different objects and actions, and now all deaf and hard-of-hearing people use them.

“That Deaf Guy” comic by Matt & Kay Daigle

This is not true. Nowadays, we know about not one, not even ten, but one hundred and seventy different sign languages spread around the world. And it is very possible that there are other sign languages we are not even yet aware of. Check out the map from Glottolog, that provides a catalogue of the world’s languages:

Sign languages of the world

Each dot in this map represents a language with its own vocabulary and grammatical structure. The yellow dots are sign languages that developed in urban settings. The blue dots are so-called ‘rural’ sign languages that appeared in small village communities with a high rate of hereditary deafness. Finally, the rare red dots are ‘secondary sign languages’. These languages developed in hearing societies as a substitute for spoken languages in certain situations.

Yes, 170 sign languages is a much more modest amount than roughly 6500 spoken languages, but it is definitely more than one. Now, let’s reflect on what sign languages actually are.

Myth №2 Sign languages are a kind of pantomime

Who likes Charades? In this classic team game, you need to enact a title of a book or a movie without saying a single word. Some of these titles can be quite tricky. Have you ever tried to mime “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”? So, we put forward our best improvisation techniques and we create quite complicated sequences of body movements in order to express the idea we need.

Sign languages do the same thing, don’t they? They express different ideas with movements of the hands and other parts of the body. So, maybe sign languages and pantomime are in fact the same thing? Well, no, not really. You see, one very important feature of a pantomime is transparency. We are usually able to guess what is going on without anyone translating it for us. Sign languages are not so generous. Try to make sense of this short video in Russian Sign Language. I can even give you a hint: the title of this video is ‘Miracles of dog training’.

A short story ‘Miracles of dog training’ in Russian Sign Language

If you are not familiar with Russian Sign Language, you probably didn’t understand that an unlucky man, the main character of this tale, tried to teach his dog to bring him a stick. The dog didn’t quite grasp the concept and instead started bringing him umbrellas, which it would steal from unsuspecting passers-by.

Why is it so hard to understand a sign language? Let me answer this with a counterquestion: why we would expect it to be easy? Well, this assumption stems from the phenomenon called ‘iconicity’. A lot of signs in sign languages look like what they describe. For example, if you watch the video about the dog training again, you will easily find a sign for ‘holding a stick in a mouth’. A tricky thing about iconicity, however, is that it is evident once you know what the sign means. But can you guess a meaning of an iconic sign? Let’s give it a go! Here is a sign in Russian Sign Language. Can you guess what it means?

An iconic sign in Russian Sign Language

If you are done guessing, here is the answer. This sign means ‘empty’. Once we know this, it seems obvious that a person in this video imitates looking for something in an empty bag. But it is really hard to guess it beforehand.

Another reason for the non-transparency of sign languages is that, unlike pantomime improvised on the spot, sign languages have quite complex rules for forming sentences. Speaking of sentences, let’s bust another widespread myth that has to do with sign language structure.

Myth №3 Sign languages are spoken languages articulated with hands

Many people assume that sign languages are not independent languages, but instead are signed versions of spoken languages. For example, British, American and Australian Sign Languages are signed versions of English, French Sign Language is a version of French, Russian Sign Language is a version of Russian, and so on. From this point of view, if someone wanted to express a sentence in English with something other than their voice, they could write it down or sign in instead.

However, this is not the case. Many aspects of sign languages are completely unrelated to spoken languages that surround them. Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri provide a good illustration of this using Australian Sign Language as an example. The English word light has several meanings, such as ‘not heavy’ (as in a light bag), ‘pale’ (as in a light colour), or ‘energy from the sun or lamp that allows us to see things’ (as in turn on the light). Although in English all these meanings are expressed with the same word, they would be translated to Australian Sign Language with three different signs.

Australian Sign Language translations for the English word “light”

Of course, this is not the only kind of difference between sign and spoken languages. Grammars are different too. Sign languages do not have articles, such as a and the in English, or case marking, like Russian Genitive or Dative. They don’t mark plurality and past tense with special endings. Instead, they have their own ways to express time and quantity related information. Many of them revolve around iconicity. But this is a topic for a different post. Stay tuned!