Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Toward a Phonetic Representation of Signs: Sequentiality and Contrast

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Toward a Phonetic Representation of Signs: Sequentiality and Contrast

Article excerpt

This is the first of several papers that will describe the authors' complete approach to the phonetic representation of signed languages. One paper will appear in each successive number of Sign Language Studies until the series is completed. Future papers will deal with the topics of segmentation, hand configuration, placement, orientation, representation of analogical space, and phonological alternations.

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THE IDEA that sign languages exist as real human languages and that they have a structural design like that found in vocally produced languages is quite recent. Stokoe's (i960) proposal that American Sign Language (ASL) is a real language was considered preposterous by many linguists because sign languages had never before been treated as fully realized natural languages. People were used to thinking of them as simple systems of communication or as representations of spoken languages. In addition, the field of linguistics was wedded to the idea that all languages must be produced vocally. From this perspective, because sign languages are produced by the hands and body and perceived visually, they would have to be something other than languages.

Over the course of the next two decades, however, numerous linguists came to accept Stokoe's ideas and became involved in describing the structure of ASL and other sign languages. The idea that sign languages have grammars similar to those of vocally produced languages gradually gained nearly universal acceptance during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Today it would be difficult to find a professional linguist arguing that sign languages are not real languages.

The most obvious and immediate difference between spoken and signed languages, of course, lies in the manner of their production and perception. This difference, often described as a modality difference, is manifested in the physical activities required to create and perceive the language signal. Speakers of a vocally produced language coordinate different articulatory systems within the vocal tract that produce groups of sounds recognizable as words. Signers coordinate activities of the hands, arms, torso, face, and head to produce groups of visible physical gestures recognizable as signs. Similarly, different sets of receptors are required to understand the signals. On the one hand, variations in sound waves must be recognized by the auditory system, and, on the other, variations in light waves must be recognized by the visual system.

Since the sign language signal is so different from that of a vocally produced language signal, one cannot simply impose on signs phonetic structures known to exist in vocally produced languages. Rather, analysts must attempt to understand the phonetic structure of signs on their own terms. There have been a number of such attempts. In this article, which is the first in a series of articles proposing a phonetic theory of signed languages, we discuss Stokoe's original proposal regarding the underlying physical structure of signs, as well as some of the subsequent attempts to conceive of signs as being composed of sequential segments. We conclude that while the evidence for segmenting signs is compelling, each of the proposed systems of segmentation has significant problems, and in subsequent articles in the series we argue for a new way of conceiving of signs as sequentially organized segments. The new proposal differs in the numbers and types of segments that compose signs. It also differs in that we concentrate on representing segments phonetically rather than trying to conceive of sign structure at a more abstract phonemic level. Finally, this series of articles taken together proposes a usable transcription system for representing signs phonetically - one that can be applied to a wide variety of signed languages and refined or rejected on the basis of the description of naturally occurring linguistic events. …

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