Body and Space in Representing Space in Turkish, Croatian, Austrian, and American Sign Languages

Posted: 21 Nov 2008

Date Written: October 19, 2008


Languages differ from each other in their lexicalization patterns (Pederson et al, 1998) yet are similar, e.g. in event segmentation that constrain linguistic representations of space (Bohnemeyer et al, 2007). Many approaches take location and motion as the basic conceptual structures in natural language (e.g. Jackendoff ,1990). Also, reference frames are considered as the building blocks of spatial language (Levinson, 2003). This paper provides a model that presents evidence from the four unrelated sign languages (TID, HZJ, OGS, and ASL), which use human body and space around to represent spatial relations.

Psycholinguistic experimental results from native Deaf TID, HZJ, OGS, ASL signers support the idea that whereas locative relations of objects, their intrinsic properties, and the perspective of the viewer constitute primary information about the spatial relations of the entities, a natural human language may not encode all of this information in its morphology. Using two sets of stimuli to elicit descriptions of object relations (a) on a table-top space with no motion (left vs. right, front vs. back) and (b) with motion (lateral vs. sagittal), we found differences between the presented layout and the linguistic descriptions provided by the signers. First, relationals (left, right) and directionals (to, toward) were not used in the signed descriptions. Second, perspective was linguistically unmarked. Third, the SLs differed from each other in representing relations on a table-top space with/without motion regardless of the 'real world' arrangements. Exact matches were highest in HZJ, lowest in TID, with ASL and OGS in between. These findings are contra the claims that spatial language in SLs are iconic (Emmorey & Herzig, 2003; Talmy, 2006).

To account for similarities and differences found in the experimental data, we have developed a model for TID, HZJ, OGS, and ASL spatial language. In our model, Spatial Representation (SR) encodes information about the geometric format of entities and the viewer's point of view. Conceptual Structure (CS), on the other hand, encodes ontological categories, their functions, and filler positions. Linguistic Representation (LR) reflects lexicon, syntax, and information structure. SR, CS, and LR are all linked to each other where the overall representation is made online. This study shows how spatial meaning, linguistic form, and signers' body interact with each other in space in sign languages.

Keywords: iconicity, cognitive linguistics

Suggested Citation

Arik, Engin, Body and Space in Representing Space in Turkish, Croatian, Austrian, and American Sign Languages (October 19, 2008). 9th Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, & Language (CSDL9). Available at SSRN:

Engin Arik (Contact Author)

Purdue University ( email )

610 Purdue Mall
West Lafayette, IN 47907
United States

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