Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

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Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language by Scott K. Liddell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 398 pp. Hardcover, $85.00, paperback, $34.99. ISBN 0-521816-20-3 [hardcover]. ISBN 0521016509 [paperback]).

WHEN LINGUISTS BEGAN their epic analysis of ASL as a language in the 19605, a journey guided by two major books (Stokoe 1960, Klima and Bellugi 1979), the prevailing folk view could be summed up by the expression "sign is gesture." The insights accumulated by Stokoe and extended by Klima and Bellugi belied this folk belief, however. The belief has by now been decisively defeated, and the linguistic bona fides of ASL are established beyond all doubt. Subsequent research has brought further details of the language and other sign languages to light that clearly are features exemplary of natural human language, including its neurological underpinnings (Poizner, Klima, and Bellugi 1987).

The original effort to establish ASL's authenticity included an imperative to show that the language was not "just gesture." In practice, this imperative was met by sharply distinguishing the linguistic code of ASL from the pantomimic or iconically depictive gestures with which the folk view confused it. Nonetheless, the separation of ASL and gesture was not a scientific distinction. It was a rhetorical-political one, meant to disarm the old, dismissive view. Now, thirty to forty years later, it is increasingly possible to consider the sdentific question of how and where gesture appears in the context of natural sign language use and how such gesturing relates to the linguistic code. A milestone in this new approach was Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox's Gesture and the Nature of Language (1995). Those authors' claims regarding the evolution of human language and the processes of grammaticalization in sign language depend on the existence of a gestural dimension of patterning in all language use, spoken and signed.

Now, Scott Liddell, in the book under review, has provided a major landmark in this new understanding of sign language. Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language joins its illustrious predecessors in adding significantly to our knowledge of ASL as it takes our understanding of the language and other sign languages in a new direction. Liddell's work has long sparked meaningful debate among sign language linguists. We are confident that this volume, which incorporates the theoretical insights of twenty-some years of research, will (and should) spur further debate that is grounded in empirical observation of ASL use in natural discourse contexts. The trend Liddell's book forcefully argues for-to see ASL and gesture not as alternatives but as parts of a single working system-is long overdue and very much to be welcomed.

The Arguments

Liddell's arguments can best be seen against a backdrop of what appears to be the received view of sign language. That perception focuses on "design features of human linguistic systems" (Hockett 1960; Supalla 1982, 2003), such as the arbitrariness of form-meaning pairings, and on the elucidation of a framework of categorical oppositions to serve as a basis for contrastive analyses of the language's meaningful units (Stokoe 1960; Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg 1965; Klima and Bellugi 1979; Padden and Perlmutter 1987; Neidle et al. 2000). In the introduction to his new book, Liddell explains that the original plan was to include an extensive review of this "backdrop," but he decided to forego this. Among the book's readership, those not thoroughly steeped in the research literature from which Liddell's work is a marked departure may find portions of his argument a challenge to comprehend. The effort to do so is warranted, however, in that a main mission of his book is to elaborate a truly alternative paradigm for understanding the nature of human language, one for which sign languages offer decisive evidence.

The accepted view of sign language (and of human language generally) distinguishes static categorical properties of human language from dynamic gradient properdes of language in contexts of use. …