The link between form and meaning in American Sign Language: lexical processing effects

Robin L Thompson, David P Vinson, Gabriella Vigliocco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)


Signed languages exploit iconicity (the transparent relationship between meaning and form) to a greater extent than spoken languages. where it is largely limited to onomatopoeia. In a picture-sign matching experiment measuring reaction times, the authors examined the potential advantage of iconicity both for 1st- and 2nd-language learners of American Sign Language (ASL). The results show that native ASL signers are faster to respond when a specific property iconically represented in a sign is made salient in the corresponding picture, thus providing evidence that a closer mapping between meaning and form can aid in lexical retrieval. While late 2nd-language learners appear to use iconicity as an aid to learning sign (R. Campbell, P. Martin, & T. White, 1992), they did not show the same facilitation effect as native ASL signers, suggesting that the task tapped into more automatic language processes. Overall, the findings suggest that completely arbitrary mappings between meaning and form may not be more advantageous in language and that, rather, arbitrariness may simply be an accident of modality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)550-7
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009

Bibliographical note

(c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Comprehension
  • Deafness
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development
  • Male
  • Multilingualism
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition (Psychology)
  • Semantics
  • Sign Language
  • Young Adult


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