Cognitive, Cultural, and Linguistic Sources of a Handshape Distinction Expressing Agentivity

Topics in Cognitive Science 7 (1):95-123 (2015)
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In this paper the cognitive, cultural, and linguistic bases for a pattern of conventionalization of two types of iconic handshapes are described. Work on sign languages has shown that handling handshapes and object handshapes express an agentive/non-agentive semantic distinction in many sign languages. H-HSs are used in agentive event descriptions and O-HSs are used in non-agentive event descriptions. In this work, American Sign Language and Italian Sign Language productions are compared as well as the corresponding groups of gesturers in each country using “silent gesture.” While the gesture groups, in general, did not employ an H-HS/O-HS distinction, all participants used iconic handshapes more often in agentive than in no-agent event descriptions; moreover, none of the subjects produced an opposite pattern than the expected one . These effects are argued to be grounded in cognition. In addition, some individual gesturers were observed to produce the H-HS/O-HS opposition for agentive and non-agentive event descriptions—that is, more Italian than American adult gesturers. This effect is argued to be grounded in culture. Finally, the agentive/non-agentive handshape opposition is confirmed for signers of ASL and LIS, but previously unreported cross-linguistic differences were also found across both adult and child sign groups. It is, therefore, concluded that cognitive, cultural, and linguistic factors contribute to the conventionalization of this distinction of handshape type



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