Iconicity in the emergence of a phonological system?

Mara Moita*, Ana Maria Abreu, Ana Mineiro

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Iconicity has been described as an impetus for creating sign forms in emerging sign languages and forming signs in estab- lished sign languages. Iconic signs are defined as spontaneous or stable signs that directly reflect the representation of their referent. In established sign languages, iconic signs have phonological features. Regarding the link between the motivation for iconic signs and phonological features, we aim to investigate how iconicity might influence the emergence of a phonological system along with the evolution of a new sign language by observing how the rise of a phonological system might be revealed by the evolution of emerging iconic gestures and signs in a new sign language. For this purpose, we inventoried and coded the iconicity nature and phonological structure of 200 signed lexical items collected in two moments of Sao Tome and Principe Sign Language (LGSTP) emergence: at T1 (after 2 years since the deaf habitants initiated their social meetings) and T2 (8 years subsequent to T1 data collection). In the 8 years of LGSTP’s emergence, we found a dominance of iconic signs in tandem with changes in the signs’ internal structure. The handshape is revealed to be the phonological parameter with the greatest devel- opment, presenting itself as more complex. The LGSTP lexicon reveals that iconicity seems to prompt the emergence of sign forms. However, iconic strategies remain stable across the evolution of the emergent signs and are independent of the internal structure change of the sign.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Language Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 15 Jul 2023


  • Emerging sign language
  • Iconicity
  • Language evolution
  • Phonological emergence


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