“Sound can be made visual.” Amanda Everitt: Onomatopoeia exists in sign language too

Posted on November 27, 2015


What are these sounds called? Onomatopoeia.

Onomatopoeia is a word that phonetically resembles the sound that it describes. Basically, it is a word that is written how it sounds. I came up with a sign for it.

NOTE: This is an unofficial sign – so let me know if you have another sign you use

There is onomatopoeia in sign language too. But it is not limited to signing sounds. In sign language, we can visually link meaning with form. We can explain what a plane means at the same time as showing its form.

The signer is demonstrating that a plane is a vehicle with an engine that flies in the sky, and is shaped as such

Some might call this iconicity. But this does not mean that we can automatically understand sign language because it is a series of visual pictures and what-not. Sign language is like spoken language with arbitrary forms that we have to learn.

Sign Language can also sign sound in relation to how it feels or looks. But it can go further than that. It can show location, movement, texture, manners, emotion and time in a single sign.

To give an example, when we sign “The elephant’s ears swished” we can place a flat palm next to each ear, and swing them back and forth.

Schuit from the University of Bristol found that signing Deaf children use more onomatopoeic forms in their signing. While a hearing child would say “the pot is boiling,” a deaf child may give the sign of the pot, and then describe the actual action of boiling with a close up of the water bubbling.

I read a book to a group of deaf 10 year olds recently. We came across the word “ping.” These children would not hear the inflections in the voice which might help them work out what the word means.

They could not hear the actual sound “ping.” But they understood immediately when I pinged a rubber-band in sign language. We had a big discussion about how the word ping has evolved, it could also be the sound that a mobile phone makes when it receives a text message.

These deaf children were struggling with the English language. But we were able to use sign language to talk about English and they loved it. They started making up stories about hissing slithering snakes zooming along on skateboards.

Sound is not just for the hearing you see. Sound can be made visual.


Schuit, J., (2005) ‘The sounds in silence, the representation of sound and accent in sign language,’ unpublished MSc thesis, Bristol, University of Bristol

Thompson, R, Vinson, D.P., Vigliocco, G., (2013) ‘The Link between form and meaning in American Sign Language: Lexical Processing Effects,’ Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cog, vol.35, no.2, pp 550-557 [Online] available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667647/ (last accessed 27 August 2015)

By Amanda Everitt – views are her own. To read more about sign language, literacy and technology check out Amanda’s blog here or follow @playbyeye

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