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Cognitive Science


In sign languages, the task of communicating a shape involves drawing in the air with one moving hand (Method One) or two (Method Two). Since the movement path is iconic, method choice might be based on the shape. In the present studies we aimed to determine whether geometric properties motivate method choice. In a study of 17 deaf signers from six countries, the strongest predictors of method choice were whether the shape has any curved edges (Method One), and whether the shape is symmetrical across the Y‐axis (Method Two), where the default was Method One. In a second study of ASL dictionary entries for which the movement path of the sign is iconic of an entity's shape, the same predictors surfaced. These tendencies are captured in the Lexical Drawing Principle, which is coherent with biological constraints on movement in general. Drawing in the air with two hands, however, is costly, both cognitively and biomechanically. Furthermore, it distinguishes signers from non‐signers, who draw shapes with only one hand. Signers assume this extra cost in the lexicon because of the enhanced iconicity the possibility of two hands offers; they assume it in drawing shapes in the air because they apply the same linguistic principle they use in the lexicon. Additionally, having a choice of methods allows the signer to benefit from over‐specification in providing redundant information about the shape, enhancing comprehensibility and resolving ambiguity.


Sign languages, Manual movement, Iconicity, Symmetry, Shapes

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