Modality and Structure in Signed and Spoken Languages

Modality and Structure in Signed and Spoken Languages

Modality and Structure in Signed and Spoken Languages

Modality and Structure in Signed and Spoken Languages


Signed languages are the naturally-evolved visual-gestural languages of deaf communities. The realization that they are true languages is one of the great discoveries of the last thirty years of linguistic research. This book examines the linguistic properties of many, including detailed case studies of Hong Kong, British, Mexican and German signed languages. The contributors focus on determining the extent that linguistic structure is influenced by whether a language is signed or spoken. Their answers contribute to further understanding the organization of languages.


This is a book primarily about signed languages, but it is not a book targeted just at the community of linguists and psycholinguists who specialize in research on signed languages. It is instead a book in which data from signed languages are recruited in pursuit of the goal of answering a fundamental question about the nature of human language: what are the effects and non-effects of modality upon linguistic structure? By modality, I and the other authors represented in this book mean the mode — the means — by which language is produced and perceived. As anyone familiar with recent linguistic research — or even with popular culture — must know, there are at least two language modalities, the auditory–vocal modality of spoken languages and the visual–gestural modality of signed languages. Here I seek to provide a historical perspective on the issue of language and modality, as well to provide background for those who are not especially familiar with the sign literature. I also suggest some sources of modality effects and their potential consequences for the structure of language.

Systematic research on the signed languages of the Deaf has a short history. in 1933, even as eminent a linguist as Leonard Bloomfield (1933:39) could write with assurance that:

Some communities have a gesture language which upon occasion they use instead of speech. Such gesture languages have been observed among the lower-class Neapolitans, among Trappist monks (who have made a vow of silence), among the Indians of our western plains (where tribes of different language met in commerce and war), and among groups of deaf-mutes.

It seems certain that these gesture languages are merely developments of ordinary gestures and that any and all complicated or not immediately intelligible gestures are based on the conventions of ordinary speech.

Why Bloomfield was so certain that speech was the source of any and all complexity in these gesture languages is unclear. Perhaps he was merely echoing . . .

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