The Linguistic Sources Of Offense Of Taboo Terms In German Sign Language

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Cognitive Linguistics


Taboo terms offer a playground for linguistic creativity in language after language, and sign languages form no exception. The present paper offers the first investigation of taboo terms in sign languages from a cognitive linguistic perspective. We analyze the linguistic mechanisms that introduce offense, focusing on the combined effects of cognitive metonymy and iconicity. Using the Think Aloud Protocol, we elicited offensive or crass signs and dysphemisms from nine signers. We find that German Sign Language uses a variety of linguistic means to introduce and enhance offense, many of which rely on iconic properties of the taboo sign. In conjunction with cross-linguistically common metonymic word-formation strategies, the degree of visual explicitness of a sign increases its potential to offend. Semantically similar taboo signs based on the same metonymic anchor but differing in their degree of iconicity also differ in offensiveness. This allows for creating dysphemisms and euphemisms via phonological changes to a sign. We further show that embodiment creates modality-enhanced ‘vicarious embarrassment’ in the viewer that results in the respective signs being judged obscene or offensive. Further, lexical blending and non-manual enhancement play a role in the creation of dysphemisms in DGS. Lastly, we propose that iconicity as a cognitive structuring principle of linguistic expressions constrains the possible semantic extensions of iconic taboo terms.


taboo language; German Sign Language; phonology; iconicity; double mapping constraint