This article presents an analysis of the relationship between sign structure and iconicity in American Sign Language. Historically, linguists have been pressured to downplay the role of form-meaning relationships (iconicity) in signed languages. However, recent inquiries into the role of traditional phonological parameters of signs (handshape, location, and movement) in the development of metaphor, event telicity, and c-selection have invited a reanalysis of the role of iconicity in signed language structure. We present an analysis of the distribution of handshape, location, and movement parameters in signs and examine which of these parameters are most often used to encode iconic properties. We examine both iconic and visual-metaphorical relationships to the referents of 767 signs of American Sign Language. The findings suggest that body location is salient in conveying iconic information both for signs with concrete referents (iconic) and for signs with abstract referents (visual-metaphorical). We discuss the implications of these findings for structural and processing models of naturally occurring signed languages.


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pp. 433-461
Launched on MUSE
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