Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Variable Subject Presence in ASL Narratives

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Variable Subject Presence in ASL Narratives

Article excerpt

IN THIS study we examine one kind of syntactic variationvariable subject pronoun presence with ASL plain verbs. ASL verbs are usually grouped into three main categories: spatial-locative (or classifier) predicates, pointing or indicating verbs, and plain verbs. In the first two categories, characteristics of the verb forms provide additional real-world information. The most important characteristics of classifier predicates are a handshape that represents some aspect of the size and shape of an entity and a movement that either further adds to the size and shape information provided by the handshape or indicates the movement path of the entity in three-dimensional space. Classifier predicates make extensive use of the signing space in meaningful ways by mapping real-world space onto the signing space. For example, a right-to-left movement in the signing space would describe a right-to-left movement of the referent in the real world.

Indicating verbs can provide information about their subject and/ or object via changes in form. These changes typically involve a sign's location and palm orientation features. For example, in Example 1, to produce the verb GIVE, a signer's hand would move from an area of space associated with the subject referent (A) to an area associated with the object referent (B). If B were the giver and A the recipient, that act of giving could be represented as in Example 2.




In an actual conversation, the discourse would have previously established the identity of person A and person B and their associations with particular areas of the signing space, and both the signer and the addressee would be aware of these. These associations, along with the verb directional movement, provide the addressee with the information necessary to determine the subject's and object's respective referents. Similarly, in the verb FLATTER, the palm orientation indicates the subject and the object: In ist person-FLATTER-3rd person, the orientation of the signer's palm is away from the body, whereas in 3rd person-FLATTER-ISt person, the orientation of the palm is toward the signer's body. With these verbs, signers may consider the presence of an overt subject or object pronoun as providing redundant information. These verbs are sometimes produced with separate signs for subject and object for the purpose of emphasis or disambiguation (Woodward 1973).

ASL also has a class of so-called plain verbs (Padden 1988), such as THINK, KNOw, and FEEL, that do not incorporate indications of subject and object into their structure. Although these verbs necessarily move through space, their use of space is strictly articulatory. Plain verbs would theoretically have to co-occur with separate signs for subject and object. However, they do not always do so. Rather, subject presence is variable. Our goal in this study is to understand the reason for this. Although subjects can be full noun phrases, our focus is on subject pronouns. For example, we examine sentences such as PRO.I THINK (I think), which also occurs as (PRO.1) THINK, with no overt pronoun sign. The examination of pronominal subjects is based on a set of naturally occurring narratives extracted from a videotaped corpus of ASL collected in seven different regions of the United States (Lucas, Bayley, and Valli 2001).

Previous Research

Null pronouns, that is, the absence of overt subjects in which we might ordinarily expect pronominal subjects, have received considerable attention from scholars working in a number of different frameworks and areas of linguistics, including formal syntax, first- and second-language acquisition, and the sociolinguistic study of variation, which aims to assess the influence of the range of linguistic and social factors that constrain speakers' and signers' choices among variable linguistic forms (Chambers 1995). Here we selectively review the research on null pronoun variation in ASL and in sociolinguistic variation, the two areas most relevant to the current inquiry. …

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