Just thinking about this after poking around on deafpundit's blog and running into this comment from JPR.
I personally see no problem with trying to "explain away" the supposed iconicity of ASL. So first off, what is iconicity? What does it mean to say that a language must be "arbitrary" in the symbols it uses?
Okay. Now, there is nothing particularly canine about the letters "d," "o," and "g." Nor is there anything terribly doggy about the noise you make when you say them one after another: "dog." Neither is there anything doglike about "chien," "perro," or "ci." "Neko" isn't very reminiscent of a cat. "Fenster" doesn't sound like a window looks. This is what it means to say that a language is arbitrary.
Now, ASL uses a lot of what are called "iconic" signs, such as the famous "tipping a hat" and "tying a bonnet string" used to symbolize male and female. Since these are iconic (mimetic in some way), they are considered less arbitrary. Or so it's sometimes claimed. What I'm thinking is that this isn't "iconicity" so much as it's simply parallel to etymology.
Iconicity in Spoken Language: Etymology
I remember hearing a Welsh word for "snake" one time when my tutor and her husband were chatting together. "Nacdroed." (Another word, "neidr," is closer to "serpent.) Now, they both spoke Welsh since birth; it was their first language. And yet they were gobsmacked when I perked up and said, "Nacdroed. No-feet. Cool!" I still remember him blinking a bit and saying, "Hey ... That's right. Nacdroed, no-feet." He'd heard the word his entire life and it literally never occurred to him to decompose it like that. Despite the fact that that word was not arbitrary in a strong way, it sailed right past him.
Now, you could simply bump it up one level and say, "Well, there's nothing terribly foot-redolent about the word 'feet' either." Sure. But there are iconic symbols in spoken language -- onomotopoeia, for example -- and some strange coincidences, like the fact that a lot of words that start with "sn-" are sort of rude or uncomplimentary, whereas a lot of words that start with "gl-" have to do with light.
Snore, snot, sneak, snarl, sneer.
Glitter, glimmer, glisten, glow, glitter, gleam, even glass.
So there are apparently some threads of a strange sort of iconicity running through spoken language that no one can trace, too.
Not Arbitrary -- Really?
Also, I can't be the only person who find "tying a bonnet string" to be a pretty arbitrary choice for a sign to mean "female."
Why not sign an hourglass shape in the air? Why not sign hemispherical shapes at roughly chest level? Why not point to the crotch and sign "red"? All of those are a hell of a lot more obviously female than a bonnet string. I can guarantee you, just as my tutor's husband never twigged to "nacdroed" meaning "no-feet," your average little kid learning ASL doesn't associate "rubbing a thumb on the side of your chin" with tying a bonnet string. Hell, I don't either.
Also, there's a zillion ways to mime tying a bonnet string that are a lot more obvious than the frankly opaque "rubbing the side of the jaw with the thumb of an 'a' hand." You can make pinch-motions at the sides of your ears and then mime tying a knot under your chin. You can make a bow shape and point to the chin. You can indicate the bonnet brim around the head. The choice made is about as arbitrary and abstract as you can get.
The clincher for me is that I could say with exactly equal plausibility that the "male" sign is tracing a bonnet brim, while the "female" sign is indicating a beard, thus swapping the genders of the signs!
So I'm seeing rather a lot of arbitrariness here, even in a supposely "iconic" sign. In fact, I'm seeing two steps of arbitrariness:
1) ONE distinguishing quality between genders was chosen -- headwear. Now think about that. If you reallywanted to be nonarbitrary and absolutely unmistakable, why choose hats to distinguish male and female? Wouldn't you sooner dangle a forefinger in front of your crotch for "male" and make two hemispherical shapes at chest level for "female," or even point to the crotch and sign "red?" But ASL didn't make that choice; the choice they made -- fashionable headwear, for pete's sake! -- is about as arbitrary and abstract as you can get.
2) Following that, a second arbitrary choice was made -- how do you mime something that indicates a bonnet? Do you show someone actually making a bow-tying gesture under their jaw? No -- that's too concrete, too iconic. Instead, let's abstract that gesture down to its bare minimum, brushing your thumb against the side of your jaw near your chin. I'm sorry, but that's damned abstract and arbitrary to me. I can think of quite a few ways to signal "tying a bonnet" in a far more concrete way.
And again, I hasten to add that I could just as arbitrarily state that the "male" sign stands for a bonnet brim, while the "female" sign indicates a beard, thus swapping the gestures' genders. That starts looking pretty arbitrary to me ...
A while back, at the Silent Weekend that browneyedgirl65 and I attended, the subject came up of riding horses. I remember blinking and being somewhat taken aback at the sign for "horse." I expected something that indicated the long neck, or the action of riding. But two fingers wiggling twice at the brow? What the hell was that?
Oh, the ear.
Why only one? How many one-eared horses do you know?
Well, the sign used to be made with two hands.
So why use only one now? Have horses lost their other ears in the intervening hundred or so years?
Clearly, that sign is viewed by fluent signers as abstractly and disconnected from the animal itself as "nacdroed" was for my Welsh tutor and her husband. It's not a mimed sign for a horse ear; in the mind of the signer, it occupies precisely the same abstract space in the mind of the signer as the word "horse," and it's just as arbitrary. (I can again think of many ways to signal "horse" that are a lot less arbitrary and more concrete than wiggling two fingers at the brow.)
In fact, it's arbitrary enough that half of the sign can be lopped off without losing a single scrap of meaning. Just like the "g" at the end of words that end in "-ing" is often dropped off in casual speaking; why put out the effort to say it if you know it's there? Processes like that drive language evolution all the time. Utterances drop unnecessary things and pick them up constantly.
So ... why is that second ear unnecessary? I mean, I'm not going to drop any other animals' appendages by 50%: "A cat is a two-legged animal related to ... "
Clearly, that wiggling shape at the brow is not an ear in the mind of the signer. Once again, ASL is not iconic. As much as a spoken language, it is arbitrary, and abstract. As a result, I don't see the conflict that JPR hints at in his comment. I don't think we need to define an exception for signed language; they are also arbitrary, as are spoken ones.
BTW, the word for "cat" in Middle Egyptian?