How can we make language theory more inclusive?

by Gabrielle Hodge and Lindsay Ferrara

This is a blog post about a longer article (Open Access): Ferrara, Lindsay, & Hodge, Gabrielle. (2018). Language as description, indication, and depiction. Frontiers in Psychology, 9: 716. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00716

How do humans communicate with each other?

As we all know, there are many paths up the mountain! Depending on who we are and the specific time and place, we can use different strategies and different parts of our bodies to communicate. For example, a hearing person might combine spoken words and hand movements to explain to a lost tourist where a shop is located. A deaf person might describe her first day at a deaf school by combining manual signs within a full body enactment of herself as a young child to express her surprise and wonder at seeing all the other kids signing. Or a deafblind signer might reach for the hand of a hearing shopkeeper, gesture “how much?” and then invite the shopkeeper to trace numbers on his palm. In each context, each person engages with others in their environment on their own terms, making use of the different bodily actions and strategies for communicating that are available in that moment and physical space.

This stuff happens all the time! So what’s the problem?

Many domains of linguistics and other communication sciences have spent a long time researching and understanding the speech and writing practices used by hearing people. There is also a tradition of researching and understanding the signing and tactile practices used by deaf and deafblind people, for example, and also some hearing people who sign or gesture. However, current theories of language do not yet account for the sheer diversity of communication practices that can be observed. Some practices (e.g. speech, writing) are prioritised, while other practices (e.g. signing, gesturing) are marginalised. Mark Dingemanse has written a great blog post about how things get marginalised in the language sciences more generally.

There has also been an intense focus in linguistics on the spoken and written forms that are conventional enough that they can be understood out of context, i.e. arbitrariness. Understanding how forms become conventional and arbitrary is certainly important to understanding how language and communication works, but they are only one part of a bigger picture. Such a limited focus also makes it difficult to understand how different people (e.g. deaf, hearing, deafblind) communicate with each other. Yet understanding the full range of communication practices that are used, and how they might combine together by different people in different contexts, is important for enabling community and scientific progress. So, if we want a theory of language that accounts for all this diversity – while also underscoring similarities across communities – then we need to step back and find a way of unifying the broader set of patterns of communication and interaction that we see out in the world.

How can we unify our understanding of human communication practices?

Our approach is to consider language and language use as three different strategies for making meaning: describing, indicating, and depicting. These three strategies may be combined in different ways. This theory was first proposed by Herbert H. Clark in his book Using Language (1996). Clark is a psycholinguist at the University of Stanford who focuses on the cognitive and social processes of how people use language, and how they achieve mutual understanding through interaction and conversation.

In his book, Clark provides examples from face-to-face interactions between hearing British English speakers to show how using language involves describing, indicating and depicting. Clark emphasised that people use a range of strategies for making meaning when they communicate with each other. We re-formulated this as a theory of language more generally and applied it to the communication practices of deaf signers and hearing speakers. In this way, we want to show that a theory of language should be able to explain how different people use language in their everyday lives, and that such a theory should be able to account for the similar and different ways of making meaning in the range of human communities that exist.

What is describing, indicating, and depicting?

Earlier we said that language is made up of different meaning-making strategies: description, indication, and depiction. Here we briefly introduce each of these strategies and give examples of how they may be used and combined in signed and spoken language interactions. We want to demonstrate that all three of these strategies are necessary for understanding how signed and spoken communication works, and so all three strategies should all be included in a theory of language.

What are descriptions?

Linguistics as a field has largely focused on descriptions and how they are structured and combined within and across different languages. Description is how people use symbols for making meaning. A symbol is a form paired with a meaning in a stable and conventional way. Descriptions tend to be arbitrary, without obviously motivated links between form and meaning (although this is not always the case). As descriptions can be arbitrary, the meaning of these forms is understood through conventions in the community. The English word dog or the Norwegian word hund are both examples of symbols that different communities use to refer to some of our furry and loving domesticated friends. Emblematic hand gestures such as GOOD, OKAY or THUMBS-UP are also examples of descriptions, as well as the conventional intonation contours speakers of some languages may use to signal they are asking a question, for example. Descriptions may also include conventional patterns of grammar specific to a language community, such as frequent word order patterns.

What are indications?

Indication is how people index and anchor communicative events to a particular time and place. Index is basically another word for pointing, but it is a useful umbrella term to refer to all the different ways we can point (e.g. pointing with the fingers, head or lips, pointing by looking to a meaningful location in space, using words to indicate a referent, etc). Indication works by focusing someone’s attention on something. Indications have both conventional and non-conventional properties. Finger-pointing actions and indexical words like the English this or she are examples of indications, whereby the form is conventional but the specific meaning (i.e. the referent) changes each time it is used. Linguistics as a field has been very interested in some specific strategies for indicating, but not all. For example, we now know a lot about spoken language pronouns and indexical word forms such as demonstratives, but not as much about how deaf or hearing people use eye-gaze pointing in face-to-face interactions.

What are depictions?

Depiction – as opposed to description and indication – is how people make meaning through icons, such as by showing what something looks, sounds, feels, smells or tastes like. Depictions are iconic in some way, exhibiting perceptual and/or structural resemblances between form and meaning. They also can be more conventional (e.g. what some linguists call lexical spoken ideophones, and lexical manual signs), semi-conventional (e.g. manual actions that demonstrate how someone or something moved – these are often known as classifier signs or depicting signs), or even non-conventional (e.g. improvised bodily re-enactments mimicking what someone said or did). Depiction has received the least attention by linguists overall, although this is slowly changing.

How do people combine these three strategies to make meaning?

We will now show an example from a deaf signer using a signed language (Auslan) and an example from a hearing speaker using a spoken language (Australian English) that combines these three strategies. In the Auslan example below, we see a deaf signer retelling a story about a frog to his friend. The plot involves a boy searching for a missing frog. Many signed language linguists will be able to guess this story, but everyone else: it’s kind of a weird story! Here the signer is expressing an utterance that means the boy looked inside the boot. You can see this video at 09:30 in the vlog above.

(Ferrara & Hodge, 2018: 4)

This utterance is expressed through different ways of describing, indicating and depicting and exemplifies how signers can combine these three strategies. Firstly, the signer starts and ends this utterance with an enactment (also known as role shift or constructed action). Enactments are iconic demonstrations that are created on the spot. They are one way of depicting. In this example, the enacted depiction expresses the main action of the utterance and who did this action, i.e. the boy looking for the frog. In addition, the signer also indicates other referents during this enactment, by pretending there are other referents in the signing space – namely, the inside of the boot that the boy is holding (we can call this an invisible or indexed referent). In this way, the signer’s depicting actions include indicating, or pointing to, the location of another referent included in this utterance (i.e. inside the boot). Finally, the signer mouths the English word boot, while also fingerspelling the word B-O-O-T and producing the conventional sign BOOT in Auslan.

In this way, the signer explains what the boy is looking into by combining conventional words and signs (description) within an enactment (depiction) that also indexes a referent (indication) in the space in front of his body. We have represented the contribution of each strategy in the figure for the Auslan example above using dotted, dashed or continuous lines to show you what we mean. The only way we can fully understand this Auslan utterance – and analyse everything that is meaningful within it – is to consider the contributions from all three strategies and how they are combined.

We argue that the same is true for spoken languages in comparable face-to-face contexts. In this next example, a hearing Australian English speaker is comparing the flight costs of two different airlines. She produces two utterances that combine acts of description, indication, and depiction.

(Ferrara & Hodge, 2018: 11)

The speaker says and like when I worked it out, the cost was the same, she mainly produces conventional spoken words organised in a familiar order (descriptions) along with some semi-conventional indexical spoken pronouns (indications). She also produces a co-speech manual gesture comparing the two prices by raising both her palms so they are facing upwards, and alternating their movements (see the image in the figure). This manual form (often known as PALM-UP) can be analysed as a depiction, if one interprets the two hands as two “calculations” that allow the speaker to visually inspect and weigh up the choices. During this depiction, her eye-gaze also switches from one hand calculation to the other, thereby indicating the two airline choices. The example concludes with the speaker’s final decision, which takes the form of a framed depiction of her projected inner thought: so I just thought, “I’ll go with Lufthansa.”

Language as describing, indicating, and depicting

We have shown that language use encompasses a wide spectrum of communicative practices that include acts of description, indication, and depiction. These acts of describing, indicating and depicting are not independent or mutually exclusive: they are combined and layered in different ways according to the needs and wishes of the people who are interacting. For example, imagine expressing the above examples with only describing strategies. You would end up with something quite different – and also possibly boring. This theory of language as describing, indicating and depicting is different to traditional views of language that focus mainly on strategies for describing (the most conventional, arbitrary and static way of making meaning) and indicating (and even then, only some types of indicating). By broadening our focus, we think it results in a more inclusive and dynamic theory of language, one that can account for, and enable comparison between, the wide range of communicative practices used by people all around the world.

[The authors are grateful to Octavian Robinson, Hilde Haualand, Robert Adam, Stef Linder and Gavin Rose-Mundy for feedback on this blog and vlog.]


Dr. Lindsay Ferrara works as an associate professor in the Section for Signed Language and Interpreting at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). She is also leading a project to document and describe Norwegian Sign Language.

Dr Gabrielle Hodge is a postdoctoral researcher working with Dr. Kearsy Cormier on the British Sign Language Corpus Project at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London. She is also leading the development of the Auslan and Australian English Corpus. She is on Twitter as @gab_hodge.

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