language means that the form of the word or sign conveys the meaning of
the word or sign. In the 70’s, iconicity was considered sub-standard and
a language that was considered highly iconic was not a real language (Lidell,
2003). 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 frequently in words that mean small or tiny, such as English
‘itty bitty 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
(Kyle, 1985). Iconicity occurs in every language, spoken and
sign languages have more in common with each other than spoken languages
have with each other. This could be due to the fact that grammatical
structures in sign language relate more clearly to locations and objects
in the real world, such as with verb agreement and classifiers (Marschark,
2006). So, since visual imagery in sign languages is more readily
recognizable 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.
example of this is a skilled signer’s discussion about culture and
language. The signer was discussing the link between culture and
language and that the two entities were married for life and they could
not divorce. Then, she wanted to say that, if they did divorce, first
one would fall and die and then the other would. So, first she signed
DIVORCE. Now, divorce can easily be considered iconic. It shows two
handshapes, similar to the handshape for the classifier of a person,
separate. Taking advantage of this, the signer then drops one of her
hands, has it bounce, and then roll over dead, incorporating the sign
DIE. Then, the other hand follows in the same motion (Lidell, 2003).
Whether or not divorce started out as an iconic sign, skilled signers
recognize the potential and use it to enhance their signing.
common to all sign languages, are highly iconic by nature, not true
signs in that they are defined solely by a handshape and movement is
determined almost solely by meaning and circumstance. There are three
general categories of classifiers: entity (represents agent, patient, or
theme participant role: A handshape), handle (reflects what is being
handled and how the hand handles it: C handshape), and SASS (selected
based on salient visual-geometric features of referent: B handshape).
All classifier handshapes are based on at least to some degree iconicity
and this allows them the freedom they are given in sign languages to
express a wide range of ideas and events (Marschark, 2006).
occurs in all languages. However, in sign languages, it is more readily
recognized and, therefore, commonly exploited for its potential, as in
the use of classifiers or the modification of existing signs.
Geoffrey R. (1993). Phonetics and Phonology: Volume 3: Current Issues
in ASL Phonology. San Diego: Academic Press.
Kyle, J.G. and
B. Woll. (1985). Sign Language: The Study of Deaf People and Their
Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.
K. (2003). Grammar, Gesture and Meaning in American Sign Language.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marc, Brenda Schick and Patricia Elizabeth Spencer. (2006). Advances
in the Sign Language Development of Deaf Children. New York: Oxford
Comments from Dr. Bill:
An "icon" is a symbol that looks like what it represents.
Which is to say, on some computer desktops there is a "garbage
can" icon that represents a way to throw away computer files and
The signs for "HOUSE" is iconic. It sort of looks like a
There are many iconic signs.
But there are also many signs that are not iconic or
only vaguely iconic. For example, it is difficult for a sign to "look
like" non-concrete concepts such as "why,"
"for," or "how."