Sign languages help us understand the nature of metaphors

Dec 10, 2010

A recent study of the use of metaphors in spoken language and various sign languages shows that certain types of metaphors are difficult to convey in sign language. The study, "Iconicity and metaphor: Constraints on metaphorical extension of iconic forms," to be published in the December 2010 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Irit Meir of the University of Haifa.

Dr. Meir's research sheds new light on the interrelations between two notions that play an important role in language and communication, iconicity and metaphor. This study shows that the iconicity of a form may constrain the possible metaphorical extensions that the form might take. Put another way, certain metaphorical expressions in cannot be "translated directly" into sign language if their form is iconic.

Sign languages are natural languages, with rich and complex grammatical structures and lexicons. Sign languages have rich use of metaphors. But quite often, when trying to translate metaphors from a spoken language to a sign language, we find that it is impossible to use the same words. For example, it is impossible to use the sign FLY (in Israeli Sign Language and American ) in the expression "time flies" or "the day just flew by". The metaphorical uses of a word such as FLY are impossible because of the form of this sign, in particular, its iconicity. The sign for FLY is produced by moving the arms as if flapping one's wings. But in the expression "time flies", we do not mean that time is flapping its wings. Rather, the metaphor is built on an implication of the action of flying, namely that it is a very fast way of motion. So there is a clash between what the form of the sign encodes (wing flapping) and the aspect of meaning on which the metaphor is built (fast movement).

When such a clash occurs, the metaphorical use is not possible. The meaning components reflected by the form of the (iconic) verb and the meaning component which serves as the basis for its metaphorical use should be congruent. If they are not, then the sign cannot be used for the specific metaphorical use in question. Iconic signs, then, are more restricted in the metaphorical extensions they can undergo than non-iconic signs, because their form is not arbitrary. The effects of iconicity on metaphors are much more salient in signed languages, because of their better ability to express many concepts in an iconic way. Sign languages, then, are instrumental in getting better understanding of metaphors and the forces that shape them.

Explore further: Rosetta comet-landing is Science's 2014 breakthrough

More information: A preprint version is available on line at:
http://lsadc.org/info/documents/2010/press-releases/meir.pdf.

Provided by Linguistic Society of America

4.4 /5 (5 votes)

Related Stories

Deaf children use hands to invent own way of communicating

Feb 15, 2009

Deaf children are able to develop a language-like gesture system by making up hand signs and using homemade systems to increase their communication as they grow, just as children with conventional spoken language, research ...

Sign language puzzle solved

Dec 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have known for 40 years that even though it takes longer to use sign language to sign individual words, sentences can be signed, on average, in the same time it takes to say them, ...

Sign language speakers' hands, mouths operate separately

Aug 23, 2010

When people are communicating in sign languages, they also move their mouths. But scientists have debated whether mouth movements resembling spoken language are part of the sign itself or are connected directly to English. ...

Sign language cell phone service created

Mar 06, 2007

The world's first sign language dictionary available from a mobile phone has been launched by the University of Bristol's Centre for Deaf Studies.

Visual system interprets sign languages

Jun 02, 2010

Spanish sign language is used by over 100,000 people with hearing impairments and is made up of hundreds of signs. CVC-UAB researchers Sergio Escalera, Petia Radeva and Jordi Vitria selected over twenty of these signs to ...

Recommended for you

Study: Alcatraz inmates could have survived escape

Dec 17, 2014

The three prisoners who escaped from Alcatraz in one of the most famous and elaborate prison breaks in U.S. history could have survived and made it to land, scientists concluded in a recent study.

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gwrede
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2010
As a speaker of five European languages, I can tell you that this same problem exist whenever you translate between any two languages.

The frequency of metaphors also varies enormously between languages, and also between individuals. It also seems, on average, that the more formal education one has, the less he uses metaphors in casual speech.
MarkDavidson
5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2010
I've always thought of the expression 'time flies' as being taken from the Latin 'tempus fugit', so that 'flies' means flees, runs away.

Both understandings seem to be in use.

In the past tense 'time fled' and 'time flew' are both common. Fled seems to be more common in older English and flew in modern English.

Yogaman
not rated yet Dec 12, 2010
So, is the FLY sign used for airplanes, helicopters or arrows in flight (fixed wing, rotating wing, no wing)?

Where does the "conceptual block" arise that the FLY icon creates? Is it in the interpretation by the researcher, or in the social use of the icon, or elsewhere?

Where is the boundary between metaphor and "homonym" (or whatever it's called sign language)?
RobertKarlStonjek
1 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2010
On a relaxing holiday, one can clip time's wings...
(ie the author of this piece is taking metaphors too literally)
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Dec 17, 2010
It also seems, on average, that the more formal education one has, the less he uses metaphors in casual speech
In my experience one avoids the use of metaphors in non-native languages when the education was formal only and not supplemented by a period of informal learning. If, however, one has been immersed into that language (by living abroad, for example) then one actually learns to love metaphors as they considerably widen one's ability to communicate.
We are not really at home in a language if we master it only formally.
IMHO, the best method to gain access to another language is a happy marriage. Which is a valid argument for polygamy.
Bear
not rated yet Dec 29, 2010
As an ASL interpreter of over 30 years experience, I would never sign FLY by flapping my arms. How primitive. Additionally, meanings are interpreted and not just words. There is an ASL sign for 'time go quick' that removes any ambiguity. The languages we all use are full of these examples. Any first year student can tell you that icons and metaphors are not the same, but even icons have meaning, meaning is what is interpreted. Remember too, that Deaf folks have NEVER overheard any of this. They have NEVER overheard anything. How much information, in your skull, right now, did you learn from overhearing it?
Hard to make connections between words if the only time you are ever presented with it is thru direct, 1on1 communication. Even harder if you have nothing to reference it to in your internal database of experiences.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.