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Cognitive Iconicity can best be understood by considering each of the individual words separately. Cognition is the process of recognizing the meanings and implications of objects, symbols or signs in one’s environment. Iconicity is derived from the term icon which refers to a symbol, an object that has a meaning beyond itself, New Oxford English Dictionary, (2002). Cognitive iconicity is ability to understand the meaning of different signs used in the process of communication.

Ronald Langacker’s theory of language was based on three basic assumptions. First, is that language is symbolic in nature. This means that it is a series of symbols each with a meaning, for example a nod of the head, or the word “yes” both convey agreement. Second, is that a linguistic community creates language conventions. This is a general agreement on how language will be applied and the general rules covering its usage. That is, once everyone agrees that “come” means approach, then that is it. Thirdly, knowledge of grammar depends entirely on an individual’s knowledge of these conventions.


Langacker differs with the conventional view held by Chomsky among other language scholars that language is an infinite set of well formed sentences, phrases and words. According to him, a speaker’s knowledge of language is contained in cognitive units within his brain. These units are originated by a process of reinforcement of features that recur. These go hand in hand with corresponding neural activity. In other words daily experiences are the basis of language acquisition. Language is therefore acquired in daily experience and is employed automatically by speakers. Phonological units of a language, he says, range from individual sounds, like consonants, to sentences and phrases. Such units, he adds, form schemas or a hierarchy with which in turn form grammar of a language. The central units of these schemas are nouns, which denote domains and verbs which denote the relationships between domains.

Edward Klima and his wife Ursula Bellugi are well known for their contribution to the study of sign language. They analyzed signs used in language and came to the conclusion that like spoken language, sign language has a complex set of patterned rules which constitute its grammar. They also point out that sign language has a neural basis. Before their work which was later compiled into the book Signs Of Language, sign language was largely interpreted as a set of unstructured gestures of pantomime.

The first point of departure between these two schools of thought is the central belief that language is an infinite set of signs and symbols. Sign language, just like spoken language, is a dynamic rather than static phenomenon. Sign language is generative in nature in that it allows for the constant formation of new conventions for new concepts that come up. Such things as the internet, AIDS and even the computer are recent developments that call for new sign coinage just like word coinage. This process fits in well with Langacker’s theory of language conventions. It goes without saying that certain signs also become obsolete where they are replaced with new ones or represent issues that are no longer in vogue, just like in spoken language.

Another area in which iconicity tends to align itself more with Langacker’s theory more than Klima et al is the fact that language centrally operates on nouns and verbs. Sign language, like all languages basically operate on these two parts of speech too. People first gave names that symbolized things around them before beginning to describe the relations between them. In  fact signs and written symbols have a common ancestry. Written words originated in symbols from cave drawings, which in turn  were imitations of animals, people, buildings and so on. Signs were also imitations of the same images.

The centrality of nouns and verbs in the formulation of these languages is obvious. It is around these them that phrases and expressions are formed. For instance “John goes to school” is a sentence that is formed with the central signs being those depicting “John” “goes” and “school”. Since the sentence denotes a continuous action, the sign for it will clearly portray this without leaving in doubt the continuity intended to be conveyed. In fact the advantage of sign language is that this can be done with relative ease compared to spoken language.

Variety of Sign Languages

The sign languages a just as varied as spoken languages. Variants include the American Sign Language (ASL), French Sign Language and South Africa’s eleven sign languages that go with each of the eleven official languages. In East Africa there is the Kenyan Sign Language and the Ugandan Sign language.  Indeed, each spoken language has its sign language counterpart. Each language has deaf people who communicate with a sign language they come up with. Such a language is dictated by conventions and the immediate environment. For instance, deaf people in Australia have a sign for a Kangaroo while their counterparts in India have one for a tiger. Though there is now an International Sign language, formerly known as the Gestuno, it is mainly used at international events for the Deaf like the Deaflympics. But notably, as Klima et al point out, sign languages have no relationship with the spoken languages in their domain. The ASL for instance is closer to Japanese than English in terms of syntax, since English terms are far more abstract than the highly symbolic Japanese. The Japanese language is a variant of the ancient hieroglyphics which employed a lot the use of picturesque symbols in their expression. Though this is mainly seen in writing, it is true for spoken Japanese as well which, like Chinese, by its very nature operates with far more symbols than English and thus has far phonic combinations. These augur well with the highly expressive sign languages that are not limited to just twenty-six letters of the alphabet and their phonic combinations.

Like oral languages, sign languages organize elementary units, phonemes or cheremes, into meaningful units. Its basic elements are: Hand-shape, Orientation of the palm, Location or palace of articulation, Movement and Expression of the face (HOLME). Sign languages extensively use classifiers, inflection and syntax based on the topic.

Sign language however has certain specific advantages over spoken language. One such advantage is the distance over which a signed message can be transmitted. Whereas one must be within hearing range, or use a phonic gadget in order to receive an oral message, a visual message can not only travel over a very long distance but tends to reach many people more clearly, at the same time. That is why a football or rugby referee communicates his decisions to the players and the crowd using signs. A traffic policeman does the very same thing with drivers on the road. As Langacker points out, this is a convention, which the manifests itself in a totally new sign language.

The basic phonemes of sign language are also more complex in nature than those of spoken language. Whereas spoken language communicates in a linear way; “I came here on a bus, the ride was very rough”; sign language is visual and communicate all that in one or two hand movements.

The archetypical cognitive model has the elements of space, time, matter and energy. Discrete objects move through space on some form of energy. Mostly this energy is derived from other objects it interacts with. All these interactions take time.  This is Langacker’s basic explanation of the four main elements displayed in any effective development of a communication system. However, Langacker emphasizes the conventional progression of this model. This falls into place with the dynamic nature of sign languages. A complete sign communication system captures more completely these four elements, and with the inclusion of facial expressions and gestures it is a very complete means of communication.

Sign language is as useful in discussing abstract concepts just as well as spoken language does. In terms of time, events can be placed yesterday, today, tomorrow in the distant past or in the near future. Beauty, power, fear and danger, which are all abstract, can be expressed just as effectively as in spoken language. However this is more due to the fact that the language constantly regenerates itself, than its mere complexity. In this aspect too is highly emphasized by both Klima and Langacker. But Langacker emphasizes more on the dynamism of the language.


Whereas Klima and Bellugi give a most comprehensive analysis of sign languages in their book, which still serves to date as one of the most important references in the subject. Their theoretical propositions are useful, but sign languages are versatile and in some cases they tend to characteristically reflect the ideas of Langacker much more accurately.


Supalla Cf., Ted & Rebecca Webb (1995). “The grammar of international sign: A new look at pidgin languages.” In: Emmorey, Karen & Judy Reilly (eds). Language, gesture, and space. (International Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research) Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, pp. 333-352; McKee R. & J. Napier J. (2002).
Klima Edward and Bellugi Ursula (ed 2005), The Signs Of Language, Oxford University Press.
Langacker Ronald, (2000) Grammar and Conceptualization, Havard.
New Oxford English Dictionary (2001), OUP

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