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Sign languages, gestures and iconicity

The distance between gestures and iconicity
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
For those who are new to sign language, please note: this step contains advanced information. We encourage you to read the article because it will introduce you to some key concepts and improve your learning throughout the course. However, don’t worry if you do not understand everything at this point. Focus on the main ideas and then move on to the next step.
When we study spoken languages it is easy to see the division between the linguistic system and its accompanying gestures. However, making this separation in sign languages is rather more complicated since signs and gestures are produced by the same medium (Zeshan 2004).
Nevertheless, McNeill (2000) states that although making gestures requires the use of the hands, head or facial expressions, this can be distinguished from purely linguistic signs. Zeshan (2004) establishes that there is an historic relation between signs and gestures, since many of the signs used in a community, over time, are incorporated into the region’s sign language. Rathmann & Mathur (2007) define this phenomenon as linguistic innovation, a kind of grammaticalization, and propose McNeill’s (2000) scheme below in their article:
<– Gesticulation……..Pantomime……..Emblem…….. Sign language –>
Gestures // Language
Figure 1. Process for incorporating a gesture into a sign language (McNeill 2000)

Gestures v. signs

In this way, the gesture, a paralinguistic element with expressive and affective properties, is differentiated from the linguistic sign, an element with properties that are subject to the linguistic structure of the SL in which it is found.
We can explain this through the example proposed by Zeshan (2004) of the sign for MONEY in Indo-Pakistani SL. The sign is the same as the gesture: rubbing the thumb against the index and middle fingers in a circular direction. However, we know that this is a linguistic sign and not a gesture because we can turn it into the verb PAY if we add movement (from the person that pays to the person who is paid). In other words, it is subject to the rules of the language, since there are many other nouns that can become verbs in the same way.


It is also worth mentioning that all gestures can be incorporated into this language type, whether iconic or not. Iconicity is believed to arise naturally in all languages, although, due to their visual-gestural modality, sign languages have a greater potential here (Zeshan 2004). There are many signs that iconically describe a characteristic of their referent. For examples, the sign HOUSE in LSC looks like the typically triangular shape of a roof. This kind of iconicity would be the equivalent of onomatopoeia in spoken language.
Iconicity can also be abstract, that is to say, repeating movements can express plurals or continuous actions. In some spoken languages reduplication is used to the same end. Finally, iconicity may imply being metaphorical (Brennan 1990): any sign related to “cognition” is articulated on or near the head. Zeshan (2004) concludes that “iconicity is irrelevant for communication between users of sign languages […], you don’t need to be aware of a sign’s iconicity to use it”.
Figura 2
(Source: Cañas Peña, Sara (2013). Movement of interrogative elements in LSC and Catalan (BA thesis, unpublished). Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona.)


Brennan, Mary. 1990. Word-Formation in British Sign Language. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press.
Martín, Ignasi & Marisa Alvarado. 2004. Diccionari temàtic de llenguatge de signes català. Lleida.
McNeill, David. (Ed.) 2000. Language and Gesture: Window into Thought and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rathmann, Christian & Gauray Mathur. 2007. “Verb agreement as a linguistic innovation in signed languages”. In: Quer, Josep (ed.), Signs of the time: selected papers from TISLR 2004, 191-216. Hamburg: Signum Verlag.
Zeshan, Ulrike. 2004. “Interrogative Constructions in Sign Languages: Cross-linguistic Perspectives”. Language, 80(1): 7-39. New York: Linguistic Society of America.
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
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