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Why are sign languages iconic?

Carol Padden, University of California, San Diego

October 14, 2020 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · via Zoom

Program in Linguistics

The standard answer to this question is that sign languages are iconic because they can be, as visual-manual systems. But knowing that sign languages are iconic does not explain how iconicity works in human languages. In this talk, I compare iconicity in sign languages to other visual-manual systems that have been described in the research literature. Manual alphabetic systems, or fingerspelling, are found in many but not all sign languages, such as in ASL and sign languages of Europe and Asia. They too are iconic, but of the written characters themselves, not of their referents. Enga Sign is described as an example of “alternate sign languages” because they are used by speakers of a spoken language among each other and are found in in communities that practice speech taboos and avoidance of speech, notably in Central Australia. Its iconicity is of a yet different type. I argue that the differences in type demonstrate that iconicity is co-constitutive of the systems it appears in, and as such sheds additional light on the ways that iconicity and grammar are co-constitutive in the different sign languages of the world.

CAROL PADDEN is Sanford I. Berman Endowed Professor of Communication at University of California, San Diego, and Dean of Social Sciences at UCSD. She is co-author of two books with Tom Humphries of Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (Harvard University Press, 1988), Inside Deaf Culture (Harvard University Press, 2005) and two sign language textbooks. She has published in areas relating to language evolution, culture and genes, comparative sign language structure, reading in deaf children and deaf community history.

She has been the recipient of a number of awards including the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a UCSD Faculty Research Lecture award and a Laurent Clerc Cultural Award for distinguished contributions to the field of deafness. In 2010, she was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.  She was elected Fellow both by the Linguistic Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. She has also received research support from the US Department of Education and the Spencer Foundation.

This lecture will be held via Zoom: https://princeton.zoom.us/j/94424035078

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