Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

By McNeill, David; Duncan, Susan D. | Sign Language Studies, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language


McNeill, David, Duncan, Susan D., Sign Language Studies


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.