Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Numeral Variation in New Zealand Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Numeral Variation in New Zealand Sign Language

Article excerpt

This article reports on an empirical investigation of how the social factors of age, region, and gender are associated with signers' use of variants for the numerals from one to twenty in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Labov (1972) specified that linguistic variables for systematic investigation should be frequent, structural, and variable parts of the language. As a subset of the NZSL lexicon, number signs are good candidates for study because they are occur frequently and vary considerably. Variation in numeral forms potentially illustrates the sociolinguistic processes of social patterned heterogeneity and change in the use of a signed language.

The research was conducted as part of a larger study of sociolinguistic variation in NZSL (Schembri et al. 2009; McKee, Schembri, McKee, and Johnston 201 1).1 That project was modeled on preceding quantitative variation projects that investigated variable features of the phonology, syntax, and lexicon in American Sign Language (Lucas, Bayley, and Valli 2001) and in Auslan (Schembri and Johnston 2004). In this study number variation is considered primarily at the lexical level, although phonological parameters arise in relation to subvariants and articulatory considerations in sign preferences. Morphological aspects of number use are not considered here. The aim of the article is to highlight patterns in variable use rather than to provide an exhaustive description of number forms in NZSL.

Variation in numbers has been described in other signed languages but not often with a quantitative analytical approach. The variable formational parameters of some ASL numbers, particularly sixteen through nineteen, have been discussed in terms of sublexical variation in the phonological features of movement and orientation (e.g., Wilbur 1987; Fischer 1996). A preliminary description of the Catalan Sign Language (LSC) number system is included in Fuentes and Tolchinsky's (2004) study of Deaf children's accuracy in transcoding written numbers into signs. Description of number variants in that study is based on data from three Deaf teachers, LSC course materials, and observations at a Deaf association (2004, 95), and the authors acknowledge that the limited dataset does not fully represent or account for social and regional variation in wider LSC usage (2004, 1 14). In an experimental study of the development of children's number skills in Belgian French Sign Language, Leybaert and Van Cutsem (2002) describe a base-five structure: Between one and five, the number of extended fingers represents numerosity, while signs for the numbers six to nine represent the visible number of digits plus five. However, they do not discuss variants within the number lexicon.

Skinner (2007) undertook a thorough typological and descriptive account of variants in the BSL number system, which identifies variants by region and draws some generalizations about the formational properties of number variants and systems. Although the aim of the NZSL study is not comparative, Skinner's descriptions of BSL number variants provide evidence that the majority of NZSL number variants are related to BSL forms.

The research most directly comparable to the current study is a sociolinguistic analysis of BSL number variants produced by 249 signers, collected in an elici tation task that formed part of a larger corpus project (Stamp et al. 2010) that measured the effects of age, region, and gender, as well as language and school background, ethnicity, and occupation, on the use of BSL number variants. Social factors of older age and Deaf parentage were found to be associated with the use of traditional two-handed (vs. reduced, one-handed) number signs. The BSL study also shows that dialectal variation in the number lexicon is decreasing among younger signers. Gender, social class, and ethnicity were found not to be significant determinants of variation in their data.

NZSL History

The Deaf NZSL community is estimated to be between 4,500 and 7,700 (Dugdale 2000; Statistics New Zealand 2001) within an overall population of four million. …

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