Consciousness Consensus English Grammar

English Grammar

Spatial Grammar in Signed and Spoken Languages:

Modality Effects on Grammatical Structure

Irit Meir

University of Haifa

The talk focuses on iconicity and its role in affecting certain grammatical structures in signed vs. spoken languages. I argue that iconic forms are subject to specific restrictions which do not pertain to arbitrary forms. Specifically, iconic forms are constrained with respect to the metaphorical extensions they may undergo. Since metaphorical extensions lie at the heart of many grammaticalization processes, restrictions on such processes may affect grammatical structure: in a language with greater potential for iconic representation (that is, a visual language) certain structures may be blocked due to the above constraint, and the language may be channeled to prefer other constructions. Languages with more restricted iconic capabilities (vocal languages) may be affected to a much lesser extent by this constraint.

The restriction on metaphorical extensions of iconic forms is couched in Taub’s (2001) model of iconicity and metaphor in ASL. Within this model, a metaphorical extension of an iconic form is regarded as  shaped by two mappings: a metaphorical mapping from concrete to abstract conceptual domains, and an iconic mapping between the concrete source domain and the linguistic form that represents it. I argue that such double mapping is subject to the following constraint:

          ·    Double-mapping constraint: A metaphoric mapping of an iconic form should preserve the structural correspondences of the iconic mapping.

In other words, double-mapping should be structure preserving. If a specific metaphorical use of a lexeme establishes a different set of structural correspondences than that established by the iconic mapping, that metaphorical extension of the lexical item in question is blocked.

This constraint provides an explanation for some differences between signed and spoken languages.  The structure under investigation is the expression of certain spatial relations and functions, specifically the expression of the semantic functions of Source, Goal and Path in languages of the two modalities. Many spoken languages express these semantic functions by means of prepositions (e.g., from and to in English) or case markers. Signed languages, e.g., Israeli Sign Language (ISL) and American Sign Language (ASL) express these functions by morphological means: the movement of the hands from one location set in space to another. The initial location is associated with the Source argument, and the final location with the goal argument.

Though the two mechanisms (prepositions in spoken languages and a Source-Goal Path in signed languages) serve the same function, they differ in their formational properties: in signed languages, the expression of Source, Goal and Path is iconic, whereas the form of the spatial prepositions in spoken languages is arbitrary. Hence the signed spatial mechanism is subject to the Double-mapping constraint stated above, while the spoken language spatial mechanism is not.

While spoken languages such as English use spatial prepositions in a variety of semantic fields (examples 1-4), ISL uses the equivalent spatial mechanism in a more restricted manner (5-7). In particular, ISL does not use a Source-Goal Path to express change-of-state events (7.a.-b.). I argue that this is the result of the iconicity of the ISL spatial mechanism, and the Double-mapping constraint. The form of a Source-Goal Path profiles motion between two locations associated with two distinct referents. The metaphorical extension of change-of-state as motion profiles the temporal order between two states of the same referent. The structural correspondences of the iconic mapping are not preserved in the metaphorical mapping; hence this metaphorical use is blocked.

1. The messenger went from Paris toIstanbul. (Semantic field: Spatial location and motion).

2. The inheritance finally went to Fred. (Semantic field: Possession).

3. The light went/changed from green to red. (Semantic field: Ascription of Properties).

4. The meeting was changed from Tuesday to Monday. (Semantic field: scheduling events in time).

(Gruber 1965, cited in Jackendoff 2002)

5. HOMEa STOREb I aRUNb . (‘I ran from home to the store.’ Semantic field: Spatial location and motion)

6. BOOK, BOYa­   a­GIVEb  GIRLb (‘The boy gave the book to the girl.’ Semantic field: Possession)

7.a. WATER COLORLESS CHANGE RED. (‘The water changed from colorless to red.’ Semantic field: Ascription of Properties).

  b. * WATER COLORLESS­a CHANGE  aPATHb  REDb.  (Spatial mechanism is ungrammatical with change-of-state verbs).

The Double-mapping constraint and its effects on grammatical structures have some broader theoretical implications, namely that a theory of the lexicon should incorporate the notion of iconicity, and allow iconic features to interact with various grammatical processes, such as semantic shifts.





Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of Language. Oxford, OxfordUniversity Press.

Taub, Sara. F. 2001.  Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Gruber, Jeffrey. 1976. Lexical structures in syntax and semantics. North-Holland Linguistic Series 25. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.

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