Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Pinky Extension as a Phonestheme in Mongolian Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Pinky Extension as a Phonestheme in Mongolian Sign Language

Article excerpt

MONGOLIAN SIGN LANGUAGE (MSL) is a visual-gestural language that developed from multiple languages interacting as a result of both geographic proximity and political relations and of the natural development of a communication system by deaf community members.1 Similar to the phonological systems of other signed languages, MSL combines handshapes, locations, movements, and facial expressions to form lexemes. Altering one or more parameters of a sign may result in a sign that is phono tac tic ally available to the language but not included in its lexicon. MSL morphology includes compounding processes, aspect inflected on verbs, a rich system of indicating and depicting verbs, and a variety of negation signs and nonmanual markers. Basic sentences consistently follow an SOV word order, but more research is needed to determine whether and when word order may vary, as well as to investigate other syntactic features in this language. The ethnologue of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) states that the number of users is unknown but estimates the number of deaf Mongolians to be between 10,000 and 147,330 (ISO 639-3: msr). The extreme range of the estimation highlights the lack of knowledge about the deaf population in Mongolia, and little research prior to this project has centered on the linguistics of MSL.

Russian educators founded the first school for the deaf in 1986, and it remains the only one in the country to date. The founders chose Russian Sign Language and written Mongolian as the languages of instruction. Influence from these languages, as well as from sign languages used in other countries such as China, Korea, and the United States, is apparent in the MSL lexicon. In 1995 a committee that included the vice president of the Mongolian Association of Hearing-Impaired People, as well as a teacher and a student from the national school for the deaf collaborated with a Peace Corps volunteer, Linda Boll, to publish the first Mongolian Sign Language dictionary. In her acknowledgements Boll mentions that Mongolian Sign Language "is growing rapidly, and this book is just one small step in creating a unified sign language in Mongolia" (Badnaa and Boll 1995, vii). No mention of syntax or grammar was included in this dictionary as it is only a compilation of vocabulary. According to our consultants, a second dictionary was published in 2007; however, it is not available in the United States.

This article focuses on one feature of MSL noted in our data. Many signs with negative connotations are produced with a hand configuration in which the pinky is extended while the other fingers are all flexed. This article presents the data, reviews definitions of morphological processes and phonetic symbolism (sometimes called sound symbolism), and argues that the hand configuration is not a morpheme but a strong phonestheme.


For nine months our research team met weekly with three consultants to gather data on Mongolian Sign Language. The three consultants are each deaf and were born and brought up in Mongolia, near the capital, Ulaan Bataar.

We elicited examples of their language through a mixture of monolingual and bilingual approaches, using pictures, videos, and written English and Mongolian, as well as learning MSL during the research process. As the consultants were also learning ASL, we were able to understand each other more easily over the nine months.

Each session was videotaped with two cameras diagonally facing the consultants so that we could readily identify the location of signs in reference to the signer's right and left, as well as observing the distance of the hands from the signer's body. We transcribed the data in ELAN software using English glosses to represent the MSL signs. The consultants spontaneously used many signs with only the pinky extended while the other fingers were flexed. As this became my focus, I intentionally elicited these types of signs in several ways. …

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