Arbitrariness and Iconicity: Historical Change in American Sign Language

Bibliographic Collection: 
MOCA Reference, APE
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Nancy Frishberg
Year of Publication: 1975
Journal: Language
Volume: 51
Pagination: 696-719
Publication Language: eng
ISSN: 00978507, 15350665

Grammarians since Saussure have insisted that language symbols are arbitrary, though conventionalized, in form. Sign languages in general, however, and American Sign Language (ASL) in particular, have been noted for their pantomimic or iconic nature. This paper examines some historical processes in ASL, and shows that there is a strong tendency for signs to change in the direction of arbitrariness, rather than maintaining a level of iconicity. Changes at the formational level can be seen as contributing to language-internal consistency, at the expense of transparency.

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