Spatial Cognition and Computation 2: 31–50, 2000.
© 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Iconicity in American sign language: concrete and
SARAH F. TAUB
Department of ASL, Linguistics and Interpretation, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave.,
NE Washington, DC 20002, USA (E-mail: Sarah.Taub@gallaudet.edu)
Abstract. American Sign Language (ASL) describes spatial information (e.g., shapes, conﬁg-
urations, movement and location of ﬁgures in space) through a productive system of iconic
“classiﬁer” predicates. Many lexical items denoting concrete objects or actions are derived
from the classiﬁer system; many lexical items and non-lexicalized descriptions of abstract
objects or actions are derived from the classiﬁer system as well, through metaphorical
mappings from the spatial domain to abstract domains. Starting from the ASL data, this
paper presents an “analogue-building” model of the creation of iconic forms, which can
cover spoken-language as well as sign-language iconicity, and a “double mapping” analysis
of metaphorical iconicity. The double mapping analysis is supported by the existence of signs
that share a metaphorical mapping but not an iconic mapping. The data and analyses presented
here underscore the importance of space in conceptualizing non-spatial domains.
Key words: ASL, cognitive linguistics, iconicity, metaphor, thinking for speaking
Space and the human conceptual system
A number of language researchers have suggested that spatial notions
form a partial grounding of our conceptual systems, and that many non-
spatial concepts are understood through metaphorical extension of spatial
concepts to an abstract domain (e.g., cognitive linguists such as Lakoff 1987;
Langacker 1987, 1991; Talmy 1985; Johnson 1987; Sweetser 1990; localists
such as Anderson 1971; Gruber 1976; DeLancy 1991). Evidence for this point
has come from several sources, including systematic polysemy of spatial
terms, novel metaphorical extensions of spatial terms, and parallel syntactic
patterns for spatial and nonspatial descriptions. The iconic forms of American
Sign Language (ASL) and other sign languages provide a new and perhaps
more direct form of evidence.
A large proportion of ASL signs for both concrete and abstract concepts
are iconic (that is, their forms in some way resemble their meanings). It can be
argued that this gives us a window on the conceptual processes in sign forma-