Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Toward a Phonetic Representation of Hand Configuration: The Fingers

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Toward a Phonetic Representation of Hand Configuration: The Fingers

Article excerpt

This is the third 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.

THIS ARTICLE follows two previous articles (Johnson and Liddell 201 1 a, 201 ib), in which we first argue for sequentiality in signed languages and then demonstrate the existence of segmentation in ASL. We also establish the need for the independent and sequential representation of the major components that make up the postural gestures of a sign (Johnson and Liddell 201 ia, 201 ib). Now we turn to the description of one of those articulatory components: hand configuration.

Among Stokoe's original components of the sublexical structure of signs was the "distinctive configuration of the hand or hands making [the sign]" (Stokoe, Caste rline, and Croneberg 1965, vii). He termed this component the designator, abbreviated as dez, and demonstrated that it had contrastive potential in American Sign Language (ASL). It has since been considered one of the elemental components of signs and is usually called handshape or hand configuration. For reasons described later, we utilize the term hand configuration, abbreviated as HC.

In this article we undertake two central and simultaneous activities. First, we describe a set of taxonomic symbols that permit an economical and tractable notation system for the representation of signed language hand configuration. Second, we tie these symbols to a corresponding set of categorical, articulatory features. The proposals we present here have grown from the observations of Liddell and Johnson (1989), Johnson (1990), and Liddell (1990). 1 These efforts culminated in a fairly abstract system of representation for HC, useful for lexical studies but largely unable to reflect the actual behaviors of the hands as they perform real-time signing. More recently, we have undertaken the development of a set of categorical, phonetic representations that emerge from the observation of actual signed tokens and clarify a number of previously inaccessible issues having to do with signed language phonetics and phonology.

Underlying Principles of the Phonetic Notation System

Articulatory Descriptions

In devising the notation system and an accompanying set of categorical phonetic features we have attempted to correct a number of difficulties we observed in our earlier work and to provide an integrated system for representing the phonetic details of signed languages - something that has been lacking in our field. This endeavor has required examining certain long-standing assumptions of sign language phonology with a critical and phonetic eye and basing our claims on observations about the structure of hand configuration as it occurs in actual signing productions - some elicited as demonstration forms, some from the context of sentences performed at our request, and others from the context of recorded narratives or videologs (vlogs), in which the signing was spontaneously produced.

In this process we have been guided by several fundamental concerns. First, the descriptors we propose are articulatory rather than perceptual or taxonomic. This means that our symbols and features endeavor to describe what the parts of the hands do to produce a particular HC rather than how hand configurations appear more globally to the observer. For example, Stokoe' s B dez is described as a "flat hand," the C dez as a "curved hand," and the O dez as a "tapered hand; fingers curved and squeezed together over thumb" (Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg 1965, xi). Stokoe' s descriptions were not intended to be phonetic,2 but they nonetheless had the effect of establishing certain prevailing assumptions - both phonetic and phonological - about what have come to be called handshapes in signed languages. One of these is that handshapes are described primarily in terms of global perceptual characteristics (i. …

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