Sign languages help us understand the nature of metaphors

December 10, 2010, Linguistic Society of America

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.

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More information: A preprint version is available on line at:

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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.
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.

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)?
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)
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.

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