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Iconic pragmatics


Recent comparative semantics suggests that sign language makes use of the same logical resources as spoken language, but has richer mechanisms of iconic enrichment. It is often thought that when speech is analyzed in tandem with iconic gestures, ‘expressive parity’ is regained between speech and sign. But this comparison between sign-with-iconicity and speech-with-gestures turns out to be complex because iconic enrichments often have a non-at-issue status, as attested by their interaction with logical operators. We argue that the status of iconic enrichments is constrained by two parameters: ±internal, ±separate_time_slot. If an enrichment is effected by the internal modification of an expression (+internal)—e.g. by lengthening the word loooong in English, or the sign GROW in ASL—it can have any semantic status and can in particular be at-issue. If an enrichment is an external addition to an expression (-internal)—as is the case of co-speech gestures in English—it does not make an at-issue contribution, but it may have the status of a presupposition or of a supplement. If an enrichment has a separate time slot (+separate_time_slot), it may not be trivial (= presupposed), and must thus be at-issue or supplemental. The generalization is assessed on the basis of vocal iconicity in spoken language, iconic modulations in sign language, co-speech/co-sign as well as post-speech/post-sign gestures and facial expressions in spoken and sign language, and also gestures that fully replace words in spoken language. Our typology suggests that there are systematic expressive differences between sign-with-iconicity and speech-with-gestures, and also that the semantic status of iconic enrichments can in part be predicted by parameters pertaining to their form.

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  1. 1.

    On the terminological side, we follow Goldin-Meadow and Brentari (to appear) in sometimes referring to spoken language as ‘speech’ and to sign language as ‘sign’.

  2. 2.

    This claim is a bit less obvious than it might seem. First, there are numerous mouthings in sign language, which can be accompanied with sounds, including when produced by deaf signers. Second, assessing the claim would require that one study both deaf and hearing signers.

  3. 3.

    Our claims are restricted to the projection of iconic enrichments. Thus we do not seek to explain how iconic meanings arise in the first place (but see for instance Ortega et al. to appear, on similarities between sign and gesture iconicity). And we cannot exclude the possibility that non-iconic gestures make different kinds of contributions. For instance, Dohen and Loevenbruck (2009) show that raised eyebrows play a role in focus interpretation in spoken language; these are not iconic gestures and thus fall outside of our generalizations.

  4. 4.

    Okrent (2002) provides several examples of vocal iconicity:

    1. (i)
      1. a.

        It was a looooong time.

      2. b.

        The bird flew up [high pitch] and down [low pitch].

      3. c.

        Work, work, work, rest.

    For recent discussions of vocal iconicity, see for instance Clark et al. (2013), Perlman and Cain (to appear), and Grenoble et al. (2015).

  5. 5.

    The discussion of GROW borrows from Schlenker et al. (2013).

  6. 6.

    Briefly, a cosupposition is a presupposition which is conditionalized on the at-issue contribution of the expression it modifies. For instance, Did John punish his son? does not trigger the presupposition that John slapped his son, but that if he punished his son, slapping was involved. A more detailed definition is given in Sect. 3.2.

  7. 7.

    This is only a first approximation. One key issue in the future will be to distinguish optional modifiers from supplemental ones, since there is a sense in which both types can be eliminated without yielding syntactic unacceptability. In Schlenker (2010, 2013) it is argued that appositive relative clauses have a rather special syntax, which allows them to be attached to any propositional node that dominates their surface position—with the result that matrix appositives could be removed without changing anything to the syntactic tree to which they are attached. (By contrast, eliminating a standard modifier would remove a node from the expression it modifies.)

  8. 8.

    One could test whether an inference is obtained when a high pitch is applied to fly away, as in (i)—with the advantage that in this case the verb does not by itself trigger the inference that might be independently obtained because of the iconic modulation.

    1. (i)

      The bird [flew away]_<high_pitch>.

  9. 9.

    This is a sufficiently important inference that some animals apparently evolved mechanisms—specifically, laryngeal descent—to lower their vocal-tract resonant frequencies so as to exaggerate their perceived size (Fitch and Reby 2001).

  10. 10.

    It is quite possible (as Pasternak observes) that high pitch can in this case trigger what we call a cosupposition, i.e. a conditionalized presupposition of the form: if Johnny were to talk, he would talk with a high-pitched voice. This is in particular suggested by the universal inference that is arguably obtained in (i):

    1. (i)

      None of these ten guys will start talking_<high-pitched>.

      => for each of these ten guys, if he talks, he does so in a high-pitched voice

  11. 11.

    We do not claim that speed modulations of the sign necessarily trigger inferences about the speed of the event; less direct interpretations might be obtained pertaining for instance to the difficulty of accomplishing a particular action.

  12. 12.

    We disregard two further conditions, which involved repeated singular nouns; these were also interpreted in a highly iconic fashion.

  13. 13.

    We checked in the 4th judgment task that these sentences do not trigger any inference to the effect that if there are trophies, they should be arranged in a particular way; in other words, there is no ‘projection’ outside of the conditional of the inference pertaining to the arrangement of the relevant objects.

  14. 14.

    Schlenker et al. (2013) write that they “asked the consultant to provide acceptability judgments in the best context he could imagine for the sentence; this matters because the use of high or low loci in an ‘out of the blue’ context would normally yield deviance.”

  15. 15.

    Schlenker et al. (2013) provide preliminary data from ASL that suggest that height specifications of loci also resemble gender features of pronouns in that they trigger presuppositions that are indexical, i.e. evaluated with respect to the context of utterance rather than to the world of evaluation. We disregard this more subtle point here.

  16. 16.

    One cautionary note might be helpful at the outset, however. Presuppositions can, at some cost, undergo ‘local accommodation’, with the result that their content is treated as an at-issue meaning component (e.g. Heim 1983). We come back to this issue in Sect. 5.3.

  17. 17.

    Since this is a demonstrative, it denotes something which is made salient by the context—here the action evoked by the accompanying gesture. The semantics of this need not involve explicit gestures, however, and thus it must be handled by a theory of context dependency that does not reduce to gesture semantics.

  18. 18.

    In some embedded environments, a sentence such as John won’t help his son like this could trigger an implicature because it has a structurally simpler alternative John won’t help his son. Since the latter is more informative, scalar reasoning yields the inference that it is false, hence an implicature that John will help his son. For simplicity, we disregard implicatures in the present discussion.

  19. 19.

    In principle, one could profitably investigate the role of vocal enrichments in sign language (in hearing native signers). These would genuinely be the analogue of co-speech gestures in spoken language. We leave this question for future research.

  20. 20.

    As noted in (55)c, on occasion the inference is not just that it is bad/difficult for poor states to spend money, but for states in general. This might be part of a more general issue in the study of presupposition, called the Proviso Problem: in many cases, presuppositions that are predicted by dynamic semantics to be conditional in nature get strengthened (here, we predict an inference of the form: if a state is poor, it is bad/difficult for that state to spend money; this is strengthened to: it is bad/difficult for states to spend money). See Schlenker (to appear b) for further discussion, and see Beaver and Geurts (2014) and Schlenker (2016a) for surveys of presupposition theory that discuss the Proviso Problem.

  21. 21.

    The inference might be strengthened to ‘it is bad for states in general to spend money’, or even: ‘spending money is bad’. As noted in fn. 21, this falls under the ‘Proviso Problem’, i.e. the observation that presuppositions are sometimes stronger than is predicted by standard dynamic analyses.

  22. 22.

    Thanks to Larry Horn for helpful remarks on this topic.

  23. 23.

    We tested examples involving the one-handed sign for COOL performed with the gesture for a big belly, with some projection effects—but not ones that are captured by theories under discussion here.

  24. 24.

    See Esipova (2016a, 2016b) for further discussion of this matter in connection with possibilities (or lack thereof) of local accommodation of inferences triggered by facial expressions.

  25. 25.

    Thanks to Miloje Despić for making this suggestion.

  26. 26.

    Note that here and in the other b-examples one might expect a slight pragmatic oddity with likely because this expression implicates that it’s not established that the relevant event took place, whereas the which-clause presupposes its existence. But in any event the version of the sentence with unlikely is far worse.

  27. 27.

    Thanks to Cornelia Ebert (p.c.) for discussion of this point.

  28. 28.

    One possible way to develop the theory (possibly along Krifka’s lines) would be to take the pronoun \(\mathit{pro} _{i}\) in (85) to be a definite description of events, one that triggers a presupposition to the effect that the relevant events exist. (I believe this point was made by seminar participants at NYU in Fall 2016.)

  29. 29.

    In this respect, co-speech gestures resemble height specifications of sign language loci, as studied by Schlenker et al. (2013) and Schlenker (2014).

  30. 30.

    In fact, in (95)b triggers another shape-related presupposition, namely that the subject denotes a helicopter: if helicopters is replaced with aircraft in (97)b, we get an inference that each of the aircraft is a helicopter.

  31. 31.

    See Schlenker and Chemla (to appear) for an attempt to use pro-speech gestures to replicate within English some properties of sign language object agreement verbs.

  32. 32.

    Exceptions include the presuppositional particles too and again.

  33. 33.

    The proposal in Schlenker (2013) was that supplements should be non-trivial in their local context, but they should be ‘easy’ to accommodate, in the sense that the global context C could ‘easily’ be turned into a strengthened context C+ relative to which a supplement becomes locally trivial.

  34. 34.

    It must be kept in mind, however, that our comparison between speech and sign was not fully minimal. In particular, we investigated a variety of co-speech gestures, but very few co-sign gestures: only facial expressions fulfilled this function. As emphasized by Esipova (p.c.), it cannot be excluded that these make a special contribution due to their semantics rather than to their co-sign status, and thus further gestures should be investigated in sign language.


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ASL consultant: Jonathan Lamberton. Special thanks to Jonathan Lamberton, who provided exceptionally fine-grained data throughout this research, and corrected the ASL transcriptions; his contribution as a consultant was considerable.

I am particularly grateful to the following colleagues for discussions and objections: Diane Brentari, Dylan Bumford, Emmanuel Chemla, Caterina Donati, Masha Esipova, Susan Goldin-Meadow, Gabe Greenberg, Jeremy Kuhn, Salvador Mascarenhas, Rob Pasternak, Matthew Stone, Brent Strickland, as well as the participants of my seminar at NYU in Fall 2016. Special thanks to Rob Pasternak for discussion of numerous data points. Thanks also to Lucie Ravaux for checking averages and working on the bibliography. All remaining errors are mine.

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Correspondence to Philippe Schlenker.

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Grant acknowledgments: 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 N°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.

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Schlenker, P. Iconic pragmatics. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 877–936 (2018).

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  • Sign language
  • Gestures
  • Iconicity
  • Presuppositions
  • Supplements
  • Cosuppositions
  • Co-speech gestures
  • Post-speech gestures