Arbitrariness and Iconicity: Historical Change in American Sign Language
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.