A project in collaboration with Jennie Pyers at Wellesley College
Do the language learning devices that are applied in the creation of language correspond to the ones that shape a language as it is passed down through generations of learners? Or are different mechanisms active during these two critical moments in language emergence? In this project we examine this question by looking at the ways that Nicaraguan Sign Language makes use of iconic representation. A symbol is iconic if some part of its form resembles the form of the thing it represents. For example, a curved line on a map can represent a curved road in the world. In spoken language, iconicity is rare, and arbitrary symbols prevail; the word dog does not look or sound like a dog. In mature sign languages, iconicity is ubiquitous. Iconic signs can depict varied aspects of a referent object, such as how it is handled, its shape, or how it behaves, among many other referent characteristics. Does the prevalence of iconicity in mature sign languages result from its usefulness during language creation, or because it can be leveraged during learning?
We are investigating these questions by eliciting 350 everyday lexical signs from older and younger signers of Nicaraguan Sign Language. We are
noting what kinds of iconicity showed up in the earliest versions of the signs, and whether the iconicity increased or decreased as a new generation of children learned the language.
So far, most of the signs that we elicited are iconic in some way (87%), which suggests that iconicity is a useful device for getting language started. Embodied and object types of iconicity are both present, with handling forms being the most frequently occurring type (35%). The proportion of signs that are iconic has remained stable over the years, but the degree of iconicity has changed significantly – 40% of the signs became less iconic, while only 2% became more iconic. This change points to the different roles of adults and children in language emergence, and the different mechanisms applied when lexical items are coined, as opposed to when they are learned and perpetuated within a community. In the next steps of this project, we will be examining whether different types of iconicity (e.g., embodied vs. object) change at different rates. It may be that some kinds of symbolic representations are easier for child learners to grasp than others.