Document Type


Publication Date



American Sign Language (ASL) and English differ in linguistic resources available to express visual–spatial information. In a referential communication task, we examined the effect of language modality on the creation and mutual acceptance of reference to non-nameable figures. In both languages, description times reduced over iterations and references to the figures’ geometric properties (“shape-based reference”) declined over time in favor of expressions describing the figures’ resemblance to nameable objects (“analogy-based reference”). ASL signers maintained a preference for shape-based reference until the final (sixth) round, while English speakers transitioned toward analogy-based reference by Round 3. Analogy-based references were more time efficient (associated with shorter round description times). Round completion times were longer for ASL than for English, possibly due to gaze demands of the task and/or to more shape-based descriptions. Signers’ referring expressions remained unaffected by figure complexity while speakers preferred analogy-based expressions for complex figures and shape-based expressions for simple figures. Like speech, co-speech gestures decreased over iterations. Gestures primarily accompanied shape-based references, but listeners rarely looked at these gestures, suggesting that they were recruited to aid the speaker rather than the addressee. Overall, different linguistic resources (classifier constructions vs. geometric vocabulary) imposed distinct demands on referring strategies in ASL and English.


This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Applied Psycholinguistics, volume 39, issue 5, in 2018 following peer review. This article may not exactly replicate the final published version. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at

Peer Reviewed



Cambridge University Press

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.