Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Functional Description of SELF in American Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Functional Description of SELF in American Sign Language

Article excerpt


Past studies have identified the function of self as a canonical reflexive pronoun in American Sign Language (ASL).This study examines the use of self with fifteen hours of naturalistic ASL discourse framed by the cognitive-functionalist approach. The analysis reveals that the category of self is expressed in three phonological forms and exhibits a number of other functions beside the canonical reflexive. In contradiction to previous analyses, this study finds that the use of self as a canonical reflexive is minimal whereas the distribution shows 80 percent of self tokens as an emphatic. Genres appear to play a role in the SELF usage where the study reports that self is frequently expressed in vlogs compared to narratives and two-person conversations, self is not best analyzed as a reflexive pronoun as previously claimed but instead can be viewed as a morpheme marking emphatic functions.

It is generally assumed that American Sign Language (ASL) has a reflexive pronoun expressed as self (Baker-Shenk and Cokely 1980; Kegl 2003; Liddell 2003; Lillo-Martin 1995; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). A few studies propose that self also carries out functions other than reflexivity (Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). Koulidobrova (2009) argues that self functions as an intensifier pronoun, not an anaphoric (reflexive) pronoun, based on three other studies that found self to behave as a "defmiteness marker" (Fischer and Johnson 1982), a "specificity marker" (Wilbur 1996), and a "presuppositionality marker" (Mathur 1996) ,1 However, these studies recognize the phonological variants and concede that each one may have a different function. The issue is that the studies often focus on only one or two variants of self but do not take a global view of them.2 The empirical question about the grammatical function of self in relation to its phonological variants in ASL remains open to inquiry.

Until now, no study has attempted to undertake a corpus analysis that examines the relationship between formal-functional properties of self variants. This study is based on fifteen hours of naturalistic ASL data that also involve three genre types of monologues, elicited narratives, and conversations. Studying the interaction of genre types and functions of self reveals some insight into the distribution of self use in various genres.The study describes the grammatical functions that emerge in phonological variants of self, providing a broad characterization of how self is used in clauses.

Findings of the study show the existence of three phonological forms, which appear to be constructed from different semantic-pragmatic motivations construed in the context of discourse. Evidence illustrates that the usage of self occurs more frequently in monologues than in conversations and elicited narratives, indicating that the distribution of self is governed by discourse genre types. In contrast to previous research, this investigation finds that the use of self as a canonical reflexive is minimal.The current analysis reveals that self has three grammatical functions: reflexive, emphatic, znâ formulaic sequence, for which examples are provided. This study presents an analysis of the use of self, which is limited and has a range of related grammatical functions other than reflexivity.

Phonological Shape of self

Often ASL dictionaries and linguistic studies have identified self with either one or two forms with one or two movements, respectively, and with or without the presence of a nondominant index finger (Baker-Shenk and Cokely 1980; Kegl 2003;Liddell 2003;Lillo-Martin 199$; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 200Ó;Tennant and Brown 1998; Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg 1965). Analyses often cluster all phonological variants of self together in reference to their grammatical function. In this study I examine phonological variants in search of emerging patterns involving grammatical functions in discourse.

The data reveal that the general category of self contains three distinct forms, coded as self+, self++, and self-one++. …

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