Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

Synopsis

In the sign languages of the deaf some signs can meaningfully point toward things or can be meaningfully placed in the space ahead of the signer. Such spatial uses of signs are an obligatory part of fluent grammatical signing. There is no parallel for this in vocally produced languages. This book focuses on American Sign Language to examine the grammatical and conceptual purposes served by these directional signs and demonstrates a remarkable integration of grammar and gesture in the service of constructing meaning.

Excerpt

The recognition that sign languages are real human languages was a watershed event with potentially profound effects, not only in the daily lives of Deaf people, but on an entire set of disciplines related to language and cognition. When William Stokoe (1960) made the original arguments proposing that American Sign Language (ASL) was a real human language, he based his arguments on finding parallels between the abstract grammatical structures of ASL and the types of abstract grammatical structures found in spoken languages. In the four decades since that discovery, sign languages have been analyzed in countries throughout the world. The analyses of ASL and other sign languages demonstrate that sign languages are an incredibly fertile field for research, with potentially far-reaching implications.

There is, however, one major difference between sign languages and vocally produced languages. ASL and all other sign languages I am aware of include significant numbers of signs that can be meaningfully placed or directed in space. One instance of such a directional sign may differ from the next instance of 'the same' sign depending on how the sign is directed or placed in the space ahead of the signer. For example, the verb TELL begins with the index finger in contact with the chin. If the finger moves outward toward the addressee, the verb expresses the meaning 'tell you'. If it moves outward toward a female (non-addressee) present in the room, it expresses the meaning 'tell her'. No one disputes the meaningfulness of this type of directionality.

In the mid-1980s I attempted to write a book chapter describing directional signs in ASL. At that time there were several treatments of spatial phenomena in ASL and I imagined that it would be possible to draw upon these published resources in describing how signs are directed and placed in space. I was unable to write the chapter because, as it turned out, virtually all analyses of how signs are directed in space were based on faulty representations of the sign language data. Specifically, analyses starting in the seventies until the present assume that signers associate entities with a location in space, called a spatial index or a spatial locus. They further assume that directional signs are subsequently directed toward that spatial index to make reference to the entity associated with it. The assumption that directional signs are physically directed in this way . . .

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