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Arbitrariness and Iconicity: Historical Change in American Sign Language

Nancy Frishberg
Language
Vol. 51, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 696-719
DOI: 10.2307/412894
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/412894
Page Count: 24
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Arbitrariness and Iconicity: Historical Change in American Sign Language
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Abstract

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.

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