Visual form of ASL verb signs predicts non- signer judgment of transitivity

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Longstanding cross-linguistic work on event representations in spoken languages have argued for a robust mapping between an event's underlying representation and its syntactic encoding, such that-for example-the agent of an event is most frequently mapped to subject position. In the same vein, sign languages have long been claimed to construct signs that visually represent their meaning, i.e., signs that are iconic. Experimental research on linguistic parameters such as plurality and aspect has recently shown some of them to be visually universal in sign, i.e. recognized by non-signers as well as signers, and have identified specific visual cues that achieve this mapping. However, little is known about what makes action representations in sign language iconic, or whether and how the mapping of underlying event representations to syntactic encoding is visually apparent in the form of a verb sign. To this end, we asked what visual cues non-signers may use in evaluating transitivity (i.e., the number of entities involved in an action). To do this, we correlated non-signer judgments about transitivity of verb signs from American Sign Language (ASL) with phonological characteristics of these signs. We found that non-signers did not accurately guess the transitivity of the signs, but that non-signer transitivity judgments can nevertheless be predicted from the signs' visual characteristics. Further, non-signers cue in on just those features that code event representations across sign languages, despite interpreting them differently. This suggests the existence of visual biases that underlie detection of linguistic categories, such as transitivity, which may uncouple from underlying conceptual representations over time in mature sign languages due to lexicalization processes.

Bradley, C., Malaia, E. A., Siskind, J. M., & Wilbur, R. B. (2022). Visual form of ASL verb signs predicts non-signer judgment of transitivity. In M. Perlman (Ed.), PLOS ONE (Vol. 17, Issue 2, p. e0262098). Public Library of Science (PLoS).