American Sign Language---query

Mark A. Mandel mamandel at LDC.UPENN.EDU
Thu Apr 14 22:48:48 UTC 2005

Larry has already said many of the things that I would say, and much better
than I would have said them. And then he said:
I'm not sure this is really the best site for discussing these
issues, unless there's someone here who has done research on ASL or
other sign languages, or teaches courses on the topic, or is himself
or herself a signer;

Now, how can I resist an opening like that? The title of my dissertation was
"Phonotactics and morphophonology in American Sign Language", so I am going
to weigh in here, even though I am at my office without any sign language
references available.

James Smith wrote in his second posting on the subject (up through the
compilation of yesterday's digest):
My statement about a single language, signed or
otherwise, transcending boundaries is too broad
because there are elements unique to each culture;
however, I expect basic concepts that AFAIK are common
to all cultures, i.e., mother, father, child, sun,
moon, stars, sunrise, sunset, love, hate, war, peace
and so forth would be amenable to a truly universal
sign language - to put it another way, that different
cultures would independently come up with very similar
signing for many concepts.  But maybe those common
concepts are too few and they get overwhelmed by the
mass of cultural diversity.

Certainly those basic concepts are expressed in one way or other in all
languages. But why would you expect them to be expressed in the same way in
all sign languages any more than you would expect them to be expressed in
the same way in all spoken languages?

To get more specific, how would you express 'mother' or 'love' with a
universally comprehensible sign? The ASL sign for 'mother' is: hand with all
five digits spread open, thumb tip tapped against the chin two or three
times. 'Love' is: both hands closed into fists, crossed at the wrists,
touching or in front of the chest with the palm side facing toward the
signer's body.

The 'mother' sign has a historical derivation from Old French Sign Language;
if I remember correctly, and I'm not sure I do, the location is associated
with the strap on the type of bonnet worn by girls in 18th-century France.
The 'love' sign may well be related to the heart, viewed as the seat of
emotions (I think the ancient Greeks assigned them to the liver) or to a hug
or to stereotyped stage gestures of the same period, but here I am only

Several of the concepts in your list -- child, sun, moon, stars, sunrise,
sunset -- are expressed in ASL with signs that can be seen as more or less
iconic... once you are told what they mean. It's easy to look at a sign
whose meaning you know and recognize an iconic origin, WHETHER THAT ORIGIN
IS CORRECT OR NOT. There is, or there has been, a strong cultural tendency
to look for iconic origins of signs. Many American Deaf people (the capital
letter indicates that the word is being used to refer to cultural identity
rather than audiological status) will tell you that a common American sign
for 'bread' -- hand held in a loose "C" shape, fingers not pressed together
but slightly apart, and the middle finger tapped against the thumb tip a
couple of times -- is derived iconically from squeezing bread to test its
freshness. In fact, it comes from a simplification of the fingerspelled word
b-r-e-a-d (Robbin Battison, Ph.D. dissertation, sometime before 1975, I
think). There is much more belief in the iconicity of signing, among the
Deaf as well as the Hearing, than there is actual iconicity in sign

Iconicity definitely does figure in sign languages, but nowhere near so
pervasively as many people think. It is deeply wound into morphology in
complex ways, and its presence in no way implies transparency.

Mark A. Mandel, Research Administrator
Biomedical Information Extraction, Linguistic Data Consortium
University of Pennsylvania
[This text prepared with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.]

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