Iconicity in BSL

Iconicity in BSL

Iconicity in BSL

Iconicity in sign language means that the form of the word or sign conveys

the meaning of the word or sign. In the 1970’s, iconicity was considered sub-standard and a language that was considered to be highly iconic was not a real language. Now, it is realized that iconicity is a characteristic of all languages, spoken and signed. In spoken languages, an example of iconicity is the sound (i), which is found in the English word ‘feet’, occurs more in words that mean small or tiny, such as English ‘itsy bitsy teeny weenie’. In American Sign Language, emotion signs, such as HAPPY, ANGRY and FEEL, occur on the chest, while cognitive signs such as THINK, KNOW and UNDERSTAND, occur on or near the temple. Iconicity occurs in every language, spoken and signed.

Since visual imagery in sign language is more readily recognisable than sound imagery in spoken languages, signers take active advantage of their language’s iconic nature, while speakers rely more on fixed grammar, making sign languages closer together in form. This is not to say that sign languages are any less grammatical than spoken languages, just that sign languages are more open to the symbolic part of their language.

An ‘icon’ is a symbol that looks like what it represents; for example, on some computer desktops there is a ‘trash can’ icon that represents a way to throw away computer files and folders. Similarly, the sign for ‘HOUSE’ is iconic…it sort of looks like a house.

There are many iconic signs. But there are also many signs that are not iconic or only vaguely iconic. For example, it is difficult to sign ‘look like’ or non-concrete concepts such as ‘why’, ‘for’, or ‘how’.


The gestural theory states that human language developed from gestures that were used for simple communication.

Two types of evidence support this theory:

Gestural language and vocal language depend on similar neural systems.

The regions on the cortex that are responsible for mouth and hand movements border each other. Non-human primates can use gestures or symbols for at least primitive communication, and some of their gestures resemble those of humans, such as the ‘’begging posture’’, with the hand stretched out, which humans share with chimpanzees.

Research found strong support for the idea that verbal language and sign language depend on similar neural structure. Patients who used sign language, and who suffered from a left hemisphere legion, showed the same disorders with their sign language as vocal patients did with their spoken language. Other researchers found that the same left-hemisphere brain regions were active during sign language as during the use of vocal or written language.

The important question for gestural theories is why there was a shift to vocalization. There are three likely explanations:

Our ancestors started to use more and more tools, meaning that their hands were occupied and could not be used for gesturing.

Gesturing requires that the communicating individuals can see each other.

There are many situations in which individuals need to communicate even without visual contact, for instance when a predator is closing in on somebody who is up in a tree picking fruit.

The need to co-operate effectively with others in order to survive. A command issued by a tribal leader to find stoes to repel attacking wolves would create teamwork and much more powerful, co-ordinated response.

Humans still use hand and facial gestures when they speak, especially when people meet who have no language in common.

Critics of gestural theory note, that it is difficult to name serious reason why the initial pitch-based vocal communication (which is present in primates) would be abandoned and change into the non-vocal, gestural communication, which was much less effective for the communication, than vocal communication.

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