Do deaf people experience semantic satiaton?
July 11, 2012 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Do deaf people and/or other speakers of American Sign Language experience semantic satiation?
posted by sleevener to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is a really interesting question! I am a speech therapist who has worked with some hearing impaired people before, and studied the phenomenon of semantic satiation in hearing people. I am a hearing person, so I can't speak on behalf of deaf people, but I have met and talked with a few hearing impaired/deaf people.

This doesn't answer your question, but might add some insight to it. Speech sounds don't always have the same meaning to some congenitally deaf people compared with hearing people. If they were born without the ability to hear, some sign language users have told me that they *think* in sign language. The brain can even re-wire itself in congenitally deaf people to use the hearing cortex of the brain to devote it to visual tasks, such as interpreting sign language, a visual language.

If the study supports how the brain/neurons interpret auditory info, it will be interesting to hear how the brain interprets visual info (signs), and if the visual neurons experience the same distorition/fatigue in interpreting the visual info.

My guess is that it would either take *longer* to achieve the semantic satiation with signs, or that it wouldn't happen at all. Think of a strobe light for example--it's the same flashing visual light, but I've never felt the distortion of the blinking light, even after several minutes of exposure. (Not saying that sign language is as meaningless or purely visual like a strobe light of course! Sign language is definitely still a coded language all in itself!)

I would be happy to learn more (or be called out for anything incorrect) by mefites who are deaf/hearing impaired themselves.
posted by shortyJBot at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am a hard of hearing person who uses both ASL and speech. Semantic satiation is a new term for me, but I am very familiar with the experience, and I'm happy to have a name for it!

I would say that I definitely experience semantic satiation through speech, as described in the linked Wikipedia article. If I say fun-fun-fun-fun-fun it becomes nonsense rather than the word "fun" with any meaning.

I also experience it through writing, which I don't see mentioned in Wikipedia. If a particular word appears frequently in a text (not particles, of course), I feel it has lost meaning in the manner described by the term semantic satiation. Writing a word out of context, in sequence (as with fun-fun-fun-fun-fun-fun above), gives the same feeling.

As for signs, I have never noticed semantic satiation before, so I cannot say whether I experience it unconsciously. When I read this question, I began trying out different signs to see if I could achieve semantic satiation with them. (You can see the signs I reference here at

At first, I only thought about the concept in my head, and I decided the fact that signs move meant that they would always have meaning, and couldn't be included with semantic satiation. When I tried them, though, I realized that they could. For example, the sign WAIT, when done for a long period of time, feels more like I'm just wiggling my fingers rather than actually signing WAIT. The sign TRY, when done repeatedly, feels like I'm just twisting my wrists over and over rather than signing TRY.

And yet there are significant barriers to achieving this with ASL. One such barrier is the fact that making a sign in a particular manner changes its meaning. For example, when the hands signing WAIT are moved in a circle several times in front of the body (front to back, not side to side), it means WAIT-FOR-A-LONG-TIME. Continuing this sign for a longer period of time just means WAIT-FOR-A-REALLY-SUPER-VERY-ULTRA-LONG-TIME, and I can't seem to get it to lose meaning. The same goes for TRY - moving in a circle, which is the indicator for "over a period of time," makes it TRY-OVER-AND-OVER, and continuing it just means you're trying lots and lots of times!

Another barrier to this is that facial expressions contribute significantly to ASL grammar. Holding a facial expression for a long time requires conscious thought, and that seems to retain the meaning in my mind, rather than achieving semantic satiation. For example, the sign VOMIT is made with a sick-looking face, sometimes with the tongue sticking out. Holding that "I'm sick" face makes me remember that I'm referencing a particular meaning.

I am not sure I explained this very well! I will see if any friends of mine have MeFi accounts and want to chime in. Hopefully this gets people started!
posted by etoile at 8:57 AM on July 11, 2012 [28 favorites]

Best answer: Anecdata time:

I used to experience this a lot with written words when I did more graphic design tasks at work. So, for example, I might spend a few hours designing labels for prop soup cans. After a while, the letters that formed the word "soup", and the visual impact of the word itself, would lose all meaning for me. It would just be a series of shapes.

So it seems to me that semantic satiation might have a visual component.
posted by Sara C. at 9:54 AM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: etoile basically says what I was going to (I saw this on my way to work, and have been thinking about it all day), especially the bit about writing. And if it can happen for writing, why should it be limited to a spoken modality?

Anyway: with the caveat that ASL is not my native language, I also experience semantic satiation in ASL. For me, though, the kind of aspectual modification etoile describes does exhibit semantic satiation; it's not *wrong* to keep that sort of sign repeating indefinitely, but at some point my expression of it loses (in my head) actual meaning and just becomes a repeated motion. Could be an individual variation, could be differences in when we learned (we're both non-natives, though, I think?), could be any number of things. I just mention it as an alternative possibility.

I've never heard discussion of semantic satiation in signed languages in a linguistic context, but I suppose it's more of a psychological concept than a truly linguistic one, anyway.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:36 PM on July 11, 2012

Response by poster: etoile, I greatly appreciated your explanation! And, I got wonderfully lost at the site, just looking at different signs.

I wonder if I could ask a question: what about signs whose meanings aren't changed significantly by repetition? You mentioned "try" and "wait," both verbs; I wonder about a noun (like "toad" or "tortoise," two of my favorites from ASLPro)? Do those types of words lose meaning/identity more easily, and lapse into "empty" motions?

Thanks all, for the thoughtful comments!
posted by sleevener at 7:38 PM on July 11, 2012

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