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Sign Language Studies 2.4 (2002) 441-451

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Book Review Essay

Signing Metaphorically

David F. Armstrong


Language from the Body: Iconicity and Metaphor in American Sign Language by Sarah F. Taub (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 256 pp., $55.00)
Metaphor in American Sign Language by Phyllis Perrin Wilcox (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2000, 213 pp., $55.00)

ARE LANGUAGES best understood as closed, formal systems designed primarily for the mental manipulation of arbitrary symbols, or are they best understood as embodied, as inextricably intertwined with the social and physical environments that provide the matrices within which we use them? Something like this question has been at the heart of much recent debate in linguistics. It seems fitting in many ways that sign languages should provide the test case for the proposition that languages can be described strictly as formal symbolic systems. Beginning with Stokoe's publication of Sign Language Structure in 1960, it has been an uphill struggle for several generations of linguists, increasingly deaf linguists and hearing linguists with native or near-native signing ability, to convince the intellectual establishment, the general public, and the educational establishment (perhaps in that order) that the sign languages of deaf people are real languages that we can use effectively in the education of deaf children. The route usually taken in this quest has been to show that sign languages are like spoken languages in the terms of traditional structural/formalist linguistics. If the energy focused on [End Page 441] showing that sign languages are just like spoken languages has borne such important fruit, then why should it be cause for celebration when two exceptional books appearing almost simultaneously exploit the fact that they are also different from speech in important ways? The good news in this happy coincidence is that the field of sign language linguistics has come of age. Linguists now are confident that they do not have to be preoccupied with rear guard actions against reactionary educators and that they can focus on immensely more intellectually interesting questions concerning exactly what sign languages have to tell us about the nature of language itself.

If sign languages are really languages and the human capacity for language depends upon the unfolding of a genetically determined bioprogram, then we should find that the structural elements and the way they are assembled should be identical regardless of the medium, visual or acoustic, that the language user employs. On the other hand, if we believe that what makes a language a language is its fulfillment of a human need to communicate and think about certain kinds of socially important information, that is, if it is identified by its function, then we might expect that the obvious differences in medium between sign and spoken languages would be reflected in different structural arrangements. On the surface, it would seem that questions like these should be easily resolvable by empirical observation. However, in this as in many other fields of human behavior, there is a good deal of room for interpretation, and the debate has only intensified in recent years. Facts concerning and interpretations of the nature of sign languages have also reemerged as pivotal points in investigations of where linguistic signs, including words, come from ultimately in both phylogenetic and ontogenetic terms.

A principal fact about sign languages and the interpretation of that fact provide the focus for the two books under review here. That fact is iconicity, or as one of the authors puts it, the "shroud of iconicity" (Wilcox 2000, 36), because iconicity has been perhaps the fact that needed explaining if sign languages were to be accepted as bona fide languages. The fact that many signs of sign languages appeared to imitate in some way, by shape or movement, the things that they were intended to represent was taken as a mark of primitiveness or inferiority to speech. According to Taub (2001, 2), "For a [End Page 442] long time, the doctrine of the 'arbitrariness of the sign,' attributed to de Saussure has held sway in linguistics.... [S]ymbolic forms, no longer restricted by...


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