Patterned iconicity in sign language lexicons

Carol Padden, Irit Meir, So One Hwang, Ryan Lepic, Sharon Seegers, Tory Sampson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Iconicity is an acknowledged property of both gesture and sign language. In contrast to the familiar definition of iconicity as a correspondence between individual forms and their referents, we explore iconicity as a shared property among groups of signs, in what we call patterned iconicity. In this paper, we focus on iconic strategies used by hearing silent gesturers and by signers of three unrelated sign languages in an elicitation task featuring pictures of hand-held manufactured tools. As in previous gesture literature, we find that silent gesturers largely prefer a handling strategy, though some use an instrument strategy, in which the handshape represents the shape of the tool. There are additional differences in use of handling and instrument strategies for hand-held tools across the different sign languages, suggesting typological differences in iconic patterning. Iconic patterning in each of the three sign languages demonstrates how gestural iconic resources are organized in the grammars of sign languages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-308
Number of pages22
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by funding from NIH R01 DC 6473. We thank Adam Stone and Matt Hall for assistance with pilot testing. We also thank David McKee for gathering data on New Zealand Sign Language, and Calle Börstell and Ismail Abu Freh for data on hearing Bedouins.


  • Established sign languages
  • Iconicity
  • New sign languages
  • Sign language typology
  • Silent gesture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Communication
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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