Iconic plurality


ASL (American Sign Language) can express plurals by repeating a noun, in an unpunctuated fashion, in different parts of signing space. We argue that this construction may come with a rich (and at-issue) iconic component: the geometric arrangement of the repetitions provides information about the arrangement of the denoted plurality; in addition, the number and speed of the repetitions provide information about the size of the denoted plurality. Interestingly, the shape of the repetitions may introduce a new singular discourse referent when a vertex can be inferred to denote a singular object. Thus one may point towards the first or last iteration of a horizontal repetition of BOOK to denote the left- or right-edge of the corresponding row. This yields a remarkable interaction between iconic semantics and standard logical semantics. We show that our analysis extends to ‘punctuated’ repetitions, which involve clearly individuated iterations of a singular noun. While these may initially look like coordinated indefinites, they are better handled by the same iconic framework as plural, unpunctuated repetitions. Some repetition-based mass terms also give rise to iconic effects, and to different readings depending on whether the repetition is continuous, unpunctuated, or punctuated. Our analysis highlights the need for a formal semantics with iconicity to study the integration of such iconic and logical conditions. It also raises a question: can similar facts be found in spoken language when gestures are taken into account? We suggest that several effects can be replicated, especially when one considers examples involving ‘pro-speech gestures’ (= gestures that fully replace some spoken expressions).

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The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. 324115-FRONTSEM (PI: Schlenker). Research was conducted at Institut d’Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure—PSL Research University. Institut d’Etudes Cognitives is supported by Grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC et ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*. Special thanks to Sam Alxatib, Emmanuel Chemla, Masha Esipova, Jeremy Kuhn, Salvador Mascarenhas, Rob Pasternak, Benjamin Spector, Brent Strickland and Lyn Tieu for helpful remarks on this research, and to Brian Buccola for discussion of an English sentence of interest. We are also grateful to Helen Koulidobrova for sending us her manuscript on ‘Counting Nouns in ASL’ (we received it after the present piece was almost finalized, so systematic comparisons are left for the future). We greatly benefited from the remarkably constructive comments of Malte Zimmermann and three anonymous reviewers (Malte Zimmermann’s suggestions lead to an important improvement of the final analysis). Many thanks to Lucie Ravaux for preparing the bibliography and checking averages.

Author information




PS initiated this research, constructed all examples in consultation with JL, and developed all the analysis. JL was the ASL consultant for the initial phase of the work. When it was written, he provided transcriptions and translations, as well as descriptions of the iconic properties of the signs. Any theoretical discussion among co-authors occurred only after the data were collected and the first version of the article was written, and primarily by email because the authors were not on the same continent. The separation between the two phases of the work was intended to minimize the risk the ‘theoretical contamination’ of sign language judgments.

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Correspondence to Philippe Schlenker.

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Schlenker, P., Lamberton, J. Iconic plurality. Linguist and Philos 42, 45–108 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-018-9236-0

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  • Sign language semantics
  • Iconicity
  • Plurals
  • Mass terms
  • Unpunctuated repetitions
  • Punctuated repetitions
  • Continuous repetitions