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Historically, the field of linguistics has drawn a fundamental delineation between phonology and morphology. The building blocks of language have been divided as independently meaningful (morphology) and independently meaningless (phonology). The relationship between form and meaning is viewed as nearly entirely arbitrary.

However, a growing number of researchers view handshape and other phonological units as meaningful (see Occhino, 2016; Occhino, 2017; Lepic 2015). These form-meaning associations may be quite schematic but do call into question arbitrary phonology.

This study explores the open-8 and related handshapes (8-family handshapes) as gradient meaningful phonological forms. 8-family handshapes were investigated for meaningful correlations based on elicited participant data.

Deaf, ASL fluent participants engaged in teamed and group activities in which they were instructed to organize 8-family signs into meaning-based categories of their own creation. Data were coded for handshape, location, movement, and participant-based meanings.

The findings of this study indicate that phonology does associate with meaning and is not fully arbitrary. Handshape, location, and movement were all found to exhibit patterning in association with certain meaning-based categories.

Phoneme distribution indicates that meaningful associations are gradient, sometimes existing as more arbitrary units and at other times associating more strongly with meaning. These findings support the theory of phonology and morphology as existing on a spectrum, rather than a binary divide.

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Meaning and the open-8 handshape in ASL: Implicit and explicit categorization


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