Can you understand a single sign in sign language without knowing the language? Natalia Gałecka explains, Jakub Malik translates into Polish sign language.
Sign language is a visual-spatial language, and the signs used in it have an iconic potential. What does it mean? In other words, the signs are somewhat similar to their counterparts in the world around us. Look, here is the HOME sign in Polish Sign Language. His motivation is clear to you, right? You can see that it refers to the roof of the building.
Some of you may think now: “Oh, so sign language is not that difficult, I can guess what the different signs mean.” Nothing could be more wrong. First, the reference is often not directly related to the shape of the designate. Look at the sign: Do you know what this is? Also a sign for HOME, but this time in American Sign Language. It means the place where you eat and sleep. You see, as I have already explained it to you, it is logical, but let’s be honest – We wouldn’t have figured it out ourselves, would we?
Secondly, some of the signs have nothing to do with the designate, even a sign GRADUATE e.g. high school or college. Take a look: do you associate the shape of this sign with something? Exactly.
Okay, we got to know these two arguments, but there is no doubt that that, however, some signs refer to the shape of the designate, i.e. the thing, place or person we see. So we can guess some of the characters and not some of them?
The conducted research is the answer to this question by the Department of Sign Linguistics at the University of Warsaw*. The survey answers the question of whether a person who has no previous contact with Polish sign language are able to correctly interpret the meaning of the sign, relying only on its shape. So we have: 50 hearing people who have no previous contact with sign language and 25 signs in Polish sign language depicting animals. Animals, which is a pretty grateful category, because take a look: CANCER, BIRD, CAT. The task seems simple.
These signs were shown in four ways.
Let’s be honest – in real life, the first and second situations are the most common: we either see the sign itself or we see it in context. In the first case, do you know how many correct answers were? Only 4.8% percent. As many as 95.2% of the answers were incorrect. On the other hand, knowing the context, the number of correct answers increased to 21.52%.
You can see, the experiment carried out by the Laboratory of Sign Linguistics clearly indicates: the Polish Sign Language vocabulary consists of conventionalized characters. What does it mean? That despite their iconic potential you still have to learn them the same as vocabulary words from a spoken language. Along with better and better knowledge of sign language, the signs become more and more “logical” for you, you are able to remember them, because the shape of the sign, what it refers to, but it does not change the fact that persons who are not Polish sign language, users they are not able to properly indicate the meaning of the signs. This is one evidence that sign languages are just as conventionalized, like phonic languages. If you want to communicate in it – you just have to memorize it.
*Source: Joanna Filipczak, Anna Kuder, Piotr Mostowski, Paweł Rutkowski „Ikoniczność leksykalna w PJM: badanie eksperymentalne” (Lexical iconicity in Polish sign language: an experimental study) [in:] „Ikoniczność w gramatyce i leksyce polskiego języka migowego (PJM)” (Iconicity in the grammar and vocabulary of Polish sign language), red. Paweł Rutkowski.