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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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TABLE I. Characteristics of Signed Language That Likely Influence Contact in the Visual-Gestural Modality

The prevalence of iconicity
The utilization of gestural (i.e., nonlinguistic) resources
The interlingual structural similarity of sign languages


Based on various themes that repeatedly surface in writings about signed language contact, I propose that at least three prominent characteristics of signed languages influence the outcomes of contact in that modality. The characteristics are listed in Table I, and each is addressed in the following section. The three characteristics are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and they may interact to various degrees. Whether or not these characteristics result in contact phenomena — over the long term — that are different from what is observed with spoken languages is unclear. However, they are important points to consider when addressing signed language contact.

The Prevalence of Iconicity

One of the most commonly discussed topics in the field of sign linguistics is the iconic characteristics of sign languages and the various implications of that iconicity (e.g., the effect on language structure, language acquisition, language learning, language processing, language change). In various cases, the fact that signed language contains much visual iconicity does not seem to alter the way in which it is acquired (e.g., Meier 1982; Newport and Meier 1985) or how it is processed and remembered (Poizner, Bellugi, and Tweney 1981). Despite the fact that iconicity is a prominent feature of sign languages, such languages also develop noniconic ways of communicating information (e.g., Frishberg 1975; Klima and Bellugi 1979; Cormier 2002). However, for the areas of inquiry that deal with signed language contact (either with another sign language or with users of spoken language), iconicity is particularly important because it likely allows people who do not use the same language to comprehend each other more easily than if they relied exclusively on spoken and/or written language. This could have a huge effect on the outcome of such contact.

Iconicity is present in various signed language devices. It is evident in the signs of so-called classifier constructions, which resemble some part of the referent (e.g., Klima and Bellugi 1979; Taub 2001; Liddell 2002; Quinto-Pozos 2007), and it is also present in metaphorical constructions (Taub 2001; Wilcox 2002). Aspects of iconicity are also evident in the ways in which signers use their entire upper bodies to portray postures and movements of an animate referent (Metzger 1995; Liddell and Metzger 1998; Taub 2001; Quinto-Pozos 2007).

Because visual iconicity is so prevalent in sign languages, its role in cross-linguistic signed communication should be carefully examined. The degree of iconicity in signed language can be considered a true modality difference between sign and speech: Both have iconicity, but signed languages are much more characterized by visual iconicity than spoken languages are by auditory iconicity (Liddell 2002). In some cases, iconicity can make certain signs and gestures transparent (to varying degrees) to a nonsigner of a particular sign language. As a result, investigators of signed language contact have to take into account the efficiency gained by having visual iconicity assist in the creation of meaning.

Visual iconicity perhaps allows deaf people to communicate with each other across the globe more easily than hearing people who speak different languages. Pizzuto and Volterra (2000) certainly found that to be the case when they compared the performance of deaf signing versus hearing nonsigning participants from throughout Europe in a test of their ability to comprehend transparent and nontransparent Italian Sign Language (LIS) signs. In general, some LIS signs are transparent to deaf and hearing people alike, whereas others are more difficult to decipher. However, deaf signers consistently guessed the meanings of signs even though they were not LIS signers. As a result, the authors suggest that the data point to “the existence potential universals across sign languages” (283). The “universals” that they refer to are mostly due to the prevalence of iconicity in the visual-gestural modality. The Pizzuto and Volterra study seems to echo some of the comments made by early writers on the topic of the interlinguistic intelligibility of sign languages (Battison and Jordan 1976; Jordan and Battison 1976; Mayberry 1978); specifically, it suggests that there are ways in which the viewer of an unknown sign language can understand a portion of what is being communicated. However, this certainly does not mean that sign languages are universal and easily understood by all. Rather, the use of iconic and mimetic forms — interspersed with linguistic material that is more abstract in nature — may allow the nonuser of a sign language to understand at least part of the message.

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