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The effects of multiple linguistic variables on picture naming in American Sign Language


Picture-naming tasks provide critical data for theories of lexical representation and retrieval and have been performed successfully in sign languages. However, the specific influences of lexical or phonological factors and stimulus properties on sign retrieval are poorly understood. To examine lexical retrieval in American Sign Language (ASL), we conducted a timed picture-naming study using 524 pictures (272 objects and 251 actions). We also compared ASL naming with previous data for spoken English for a subset of 425 pictures. Deaf ASL signers named object pictures faster and more consistently than action pictures, as previously reported for English speakers. Lexical frequency, iconicity, better name agreement, and lower phonological complexity each facilitated naming reaction times (RT)s. RTs were also faster for pictures named with shorter signs (measured by average response duration). Target name agreement was higher for pictures with more iconic and shorter ASL names. The visual complexity of pictures slowed RTs and decreased target name agreement. RTs and target name agreement were correlated for ASL and English, but agreement was lower for ASL, possibly due to the English bias of the pictures. RTs were faster for ASL, which we attributed to a smaller lexicon. Overall, the results suggest that models of lexical retrieval developed for spoken languages can be adopted for signed languages, with the exception that iconicity should be included as a factor. The open-source picture-naming data set for ASL serves as an important, first-of-its-kind resource for researchers, educators, or clinicians for a variety of research, instructional, or assessment purposes.

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  1. The English glosses for the ASL signs correspond to Entry IDs in the ASL-LEX database ( Videos of ASL signs referenced in this paper can be found on ASL-LEX using these glosses and links or on the OSF Supplementary Materials page here:

  2. Sign language dictionaries typically include only lexical signs and exclude classifier constructions and fingerspelled words, which constitute distinct components of the lexicon (Padden, 1998).

  3. A post hoc analysis confirmed that participants’ age of ASL exposure (native vs. early-exposed) was not a significant factor in naming RTs, β = –.03, SE = .04; t = –.71, p = .486, or target name agreement, β = .18, SE = .15, z = 1.94, p = .232, suggesting that as long as deaf signers were exposed to ASL prior to age 7, significant differences in picture-naming behavior might not be apparent.

  4. The picture codes are from the IPNP data set, and the pictures can be found in the Supplementary Materials on OSF (

  5. The results here did not change when the parameter-based phonological neighborhood density was used in the model instead of phonological neighborhood density.

  6. Iconicity remained a significant predictor even when concreteness was entered into the model, indicating a unique contribution of iconicity to lexical retrieval.


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Author Note

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS and REU supplement 1625954 and BCS-1918556) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH DC010997). We would like to thank Cindy Farnady O’Grady, Ryan Edinger, Nadmi Casiano, and Dan Fisher for assistance with data collection, coding, or data processing, and all the deaf participants without whom this study would not be possible.

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Correspondence to Zed Sevcikova Sehyr.

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Written English instructions to the participants

In this experiment you will name pictures in ASL. The experiment will take approximately 60 minutes. There are two blocks, Object Block and Action Block, presented in either order. There will be a break in the middle of each Block. Your task is to name each picture as quickly and accurately as possible. Provide a single sign for each picture—avoid phrases and descriptions. To start viewing the picture, use both hands to hold down the space bar. You will see a “+” followed by a picture. When you’re ready to sign your response, lift your hands and sign clearly to the camera. Don’t release the space bar until you are ready to name the picture because it is important to avoid hesitations during your response. When you are ready to see the next picture, press and hold the space bar. In Object Block, you will see pictures of objects. Provide the best ASL sign that is a “noun” for the object. In the Action Block, you will see pictures of actions. Provide the best ASL sign that is a “verb” for that action. The experimenter will now give you some examples and you will get a chance to practice. If you don’t know a sign for the object, just sign “don’t know” and move to the next picture. Do you have any questions? Ask the experimenter now. First, let’s practice with 6 pictures. Press the “return” key to start the practice.

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Sehyr, Z.S., Emmorey, K. The effects of multiple linguistic variables on picture naming in American Sign Language. Behav Res (2021).

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  • Picture naming
  • American Sign Language
  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Lexical retrieval