Taking meaning in hand Iconic motivations in two-handed signs

Ryan Lepic, Carl Börstell, Gal Belsitzman, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traditionally in sign language research, the issue of whether a lexical sign is articulated with one hand or two has been treated as a strictly phonological matter. We argue that accounting for two-handed signs also requires considering meaning as a motivating factor. We report results from a Swadesh list comparison, an analysis of semantic patterns among two-handed signs, and a picture-naming task. Comparing four unrelated languages, we demonstrate that the two hands are recruited to encode various relationship types in sign language lexicons. We develop the general principle that inherently "plural" concepts are straightforwardly mapped onto our paired human hands, resulting in systematic use of the two hands across sign languages. In our analysis, "plurality" subsumes four primary relationship types - interaction, location, dimension, and composition - And we predict that signs with meanings that encompass these relationships - such as 'meet', 'empty', 'large', or 'machine' - will preferentially be two-handed in any sign language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-81
Number of pages45
JournalSign Language and Linguistics (Online)
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© John Benjamins Publishing Company.


  • Al-sayyid bedouin sign language (ABSL)
  • American sign language (ASL)
  • Iconicity
  • Israeli sign language (ISL)
  • Lexical patterns
  • Swedish sign language (SSL)
  • Two-handed signs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


Dive into the research topics of 'Taking meaning in hand Iconic motivations in two-handed signs'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this