Iconicity in sign language

In the early time, sign language was often perceived as "iconic" and, worse in some cases, as "picture-like" because of the earliest attitude toward signed language. Iconicity came with much misconceptions. Any language in signing is not iconic, but it does have some iconic words as in onomatopoeia also found in spoken languages.

Iconicity and onomatopoeia are two different words, but they are the same concepts. Instead of pointing to sign language as "iconic", we need to look at some of "iconic" English words first.

What is onomatopoeia?

Woo woo, what a fancy word for a spoken language. Onomatopeoia is a term referring to the use of a word that resembles a sound it imitates.

For example, some English words such as buzz, bang, squeak and crack are onomatopoetic.

MacDonald points out, "in this way, according to Paget, an intimate alliance between the sound of a word and its meaning can be traced in about four-fifths of all short words in the English language. This principle also applies to other tongues." Ref

This is not different for visual-manual languages. I would like to redefine the concept of onomatopoeia to as:

"The term onomatopoeia originated from Late Latin and Greek meaning, "the making of a name or word (in imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named." The term onoma means "word, name" and the poiein "pose, make". There is no reference to sound in this word.

The equivalent of onomatopoeia for visual-manual language is known as "iconicity", which implies a metaphysically underprivileged view of sign language on the same level as "image" rather than "word".

By inspecting the etymological origin and definition of onomatopoeia, it can be theoretically applied to both spoken and signed languages. But if one desires to be specific to spoken onomatopoeia, then I am tempted to coin the terms phonomatopoeia (vocal-auditory), manumatopoeia or visonomatopoia (manual-visual), iconomatopoeia (visual-written, e.g. Chinese characters), and pictonomatopoeia (e.g. pictographs)."
Jolanta Lapiak, "and/or", 2007.

Hence, I will use these interchangeable terms onomatopoeia and iconicity for both signed and spoken languages in general. Otherwise, to be specific, I would coin the terms phonomatopoeia for vocal-auditory iconicity and visonomatopoeia (or formerly thought of manonotopoeia) for visual-spatial iconicity.

Onomatopoeia/iconicity can be found in all languages from Chinese writing to spoken and signed languages, especially in the earliest emergence and evolution of language. Many languages originated with onomatopoeia and evolved to some degree of abstraction in signed, spoken, and written forms.

Iconicity in signed language

First, like spoken languages, many signed languages do have some onomatopoeic words. Let's look at some myths.

Myth: What words (whether spoken or signed) look like or sound like are similar to the objects or sounds in real life.

In fact, onomatopoeic words (signed or spoken) for the same objects or sounds are different across languages (spoken or signed). For example, "meow" in English, "miau" in Finnish, and so on. Likewise, there are different onomatopoeic symbols for "tree" across signed languages.

If spoken or signed words were iconic (whether in sound or visue), foreigners would be able to understand without learning! That's not the case.

Fact: Iconic words in ASL are often unrecognizable by a nonsigner who is not told what their meanings are in the first place. They become iconic usually after non-signers are told what they mean. "Aha, that's what it looks like." Well, only after.

In a study, a group of hearing people, who didn't know ASL, cannot identify 10 iconic ASL words. Nil. Next, the group was provided a list of words with mulitple choices for each. They got about a small percent right. When they were given an answer, they would think they already knew before. But, the truth is that they wouldn't know in the first pleace regardless of the iconic words.

Iconic words vs manual gestures

Moreover, a brain science study shows that iconic ASL words and manual gestures are processed in different regions of the brain. "Manual gesture?" Yes, there is "vocal gesture." Anyway, back to the point.

Misconceptions in baby sign language

Myth: Many "teachers" in "baby sign language" business teach that many signs (e.g. "eat", "milk", etc) taught to hearing babies are iconic and are easy to learn (because they are iconic).

Fact: Research shows that iconicity does not play a role in the acquisition of ASL by infants and children. For example, a child learns the sign milk but she/he has no idea how milk is obtained from a cow.

Non-iconic iconicity in pronominal pointing

Furthermore, a favorite evidence linguistics is that ASL-speaking toddlers don't acquire the ASL pronouns (extremely iconic) till the same timeline as in spoken language (at about 18-20 months).

What this means is that gestural pointing in babies (regardless signing or not) emerge at about 9 months but the very same form of pointing for pronouns in ASL emerge at 18-20 months which is the same timeline for non-iconic pronouns in spoken language! What does this mean?

Remember that 1) the processing in the brain is different for gesturing from articulating (manually speaking or vocally speaking) and 2) the linguistic portion in the brain functions independently from modality (signing or speech). It only recognizes languages regardless of signing and speech. Doubt me? Ask neuroscientists and linguists.


In summary, all languages whether signed or spoken have some iconic or onomatopoeic symbols/words/morphemes that are not necessarily understood by foreigners.

[Posted, 2011, updated 2019]

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