Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Pointing and Reference in Sign Language and Spoken Language: Anchoring vs. Identifying

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Pointing and Reference in Sign Language and Spoken Language: Anchoring vs. Identifying

Article excerpt

Abstract

In both signed and spoken languages, pointing serves to direct an addressee's attention to a particular entity. This entity may be either present or absent in the physical context of the conversation. In this article we focus on pointing directed to nonspeaker/nonaddressee referents in Sign Language of the Netherlands (Nederlandse Gebarentaal, NGT) and spoken Dutch. Our main goal is to show that the semantic-pragmatic function of pointing signs and pointing gestures might be very different.The distinction is characterized in terms of anchoring and identifying. Whereas pointing signs can serve both functions, pointing gestures appear to lack the anchoring option.

Manual movements that co-occur with spoken language are called gestures, which are supposedly unconventionalized and not language-like. Manual movements of signers are called signs, which in most cases are conventionalized and language-like (McNeill 1992, 37). This seems to be a very clear and straightforward distinction. However, in the case of pointing, the matter is complicated. Pointing occurs in both spoken language (co-speech) and sign language and shows a high degree of similarity in form. The aforementioned distinction leads us to believe that pointing that co-occurs with spoken language is gesture and that pointing in sign language is sign. However, this distinction is too restrictive. In this article we argue that pointing signs in NGT and co-speech pointing gestures in Dutch do not fulfill the same discourse functions.

Several researchers (Cormier 2012; Liddell 2003; Pfau 2011) have compared pointing gestures and pointing signs. Utilizing a variety of possible articulators, pointing gestures that co-occur with speech have been consistently analyzed as a separate category in the gesture literature (Kendon 2004; McNeill 1992).They seem to constitute an innate human strategy for indicating that extends across cultures. Pointing gestures rely heavily on the location (of an entity) that occurs in the direct physical environment of speech participants (Kendon 2004). Many researchers have studied both the kind of information that is contained in a co-speech pointing gesture and its discourse function (Clark 2003; Goodwin 2003;Lascarides and Stone 2009).The general starting point has been both to look at speech and the pointing gesture and to derive the intended interpretation of the pointing gesture. Pointing can occur with all kinds of verbal material (e.g., verbs, nouns, pronouns, hesitations, adjectives, interjections), and it appears to be more obligatory in some contexts than in others. In summary, the informational status of a pointing gesture is not yet clear.

As for pointing signs, it has been shown that they do not form a homogeneous syntactico-semantic category in sign language, and this has led to many different analyses of pointing signs. Wilbur (1979) is one of the first sign language researchers to hypothesize that the definite/indefinite distinction in American Sign Language (ASL) may be due to the contrast between the absence or presence of an overt determiner, which is perceived as a pointing sign. Other authors (MacLaughlin i997;Neidle et al. 2000) observe systematic differences between the syntactic positions that pointing signs occupy. Prenominal pointing signs correlate with definiteness and can express plurality, while postnominal pointing signs may be used both for definite and indefinite referents, but they are not marked for plural. Postnominals should be better analyzed, according to these authors, as adverbials. Another analysis is that sign languages have a right dislocation with a pronoun copy at the end of the sentence (Bos 1995, but see Crasborn et al. 2009). Furthermore, pronominal pointing signs are said to mark a first/nonfirst distinction (e.g., Engberg-Pedersen 1993; Meier 1990) or a distinction between first, second, and third person in sign language, just as in spoken languages (Alibasic and Wilbur 2006; Berenz 2000), or even no person distinctions at all (McBurney 2002; Liddell 1990, 2003). …

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