Conceptual Representation of Actions in Sign Language
The idea that knowledge of events entails a universal spatial component, that is conceiving agents left of patients, was put to test by investigating native users of German sign language and native users of spoken German. Participants heard or saw event descriptions and had to illustrate the meaning of these events by means of drawing or arranging toys. Two types of verbs were tested, differing in the way they are signed. Verbs with a horizontal transient are typically signed with a left-to-right directionality, from the addressee’s point of view. In contrast, verbs with sagittal transients display transitions moving toward or away from speaker. Signers showed a direct mapping preference for verbs with horizontal transients, by putting agents at the same position in space as in the signed message (i.e., mirroring signing space). No such effect was found for verbs with sagittal transients. In all, the data fit with the idea that interpretations of signed or spoken languages are modulated by task and culture as well as language-related factors and constraints.