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Dr Gerardo Ortega, University of Birmingham

Project summary:

One of the most influential views in linguistic theory is that the words we use in our language are arbitrary in nature. That is, there is no evident link between the structure of a word and the concept it represents. However, recent research gives a more nuanced view and suggest that Iconic labels, those that have a direct relationship between form and meaning, co-exist with and complement arbitrary form-meaning relationships. Traditional views of language have confined iconicity to the margins of language because they can only refer to concrete concepts and thus have a limited capacity to refer to abstract terms. For instance, the word meow could be used to refer to cats because it is the sound typically produced by felines. An iconic word could not be used to represent abstract concepts like love because this concept is not grounded in physical reality.

In this project, we will challenge the claim that iconicity cannot be used to refer to abstract concepts by looking at sign languages, the manual-visual languages of deaf communities. Sign languages excel from spoken languages because their lexicons include a large number of iconic signs. The high prevalence of iconicity in sign languages does not deter their capacity to express abstract concepts and in fact iconicity is typically used to refer to both concrete and abstract concepts. For example, in German Sign Language (DGS) the iconic sign TO-WRITE depicts a person writing with a pen. Interestingly, the same sign also represents the abstract concept SCHOOL. This is not the case  in British Sign Language (BSL) where the sign SCHOOL has a completely arbitrary form. In this project, Prof. Pamela Perniss (University of Cologne) and Dr. Gerardo Ortega (English Language and Linguistics, UoB) will compare the form and meaning of the lexicons of two unrelated sign languages (DGS and BSL) and determine how iconicity or arbitrariness interact with different semantic domains to refer to concrete and abstract concepts.

This is one of the 19 projects funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG) in the first round of a new bilateral funding call between Germany and the UK.