Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Cross-Linguistic Analysis of Fingerspelling Production by Sign Language Interpreters

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Cross-Linguistic Analysis of Fingerspelling Production by Sign Language Interpreters

Article excerpt

What do the following words have in common: wealth, Afghanistan, oath, do, innocent, care, and Gettysburg? The answer may not be immediately transparent, but this motley collection of nouns, adjectives, and verbs appeared in President Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address. Notably, each of these words was fingerspelled by at least one interpreter while rendering the speech in sign language. Fingerspelling is a linguistic feature of sign languages in which letters from spokenlanguage alphabets are represented by conventionalized handshapes (Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). One of its functions is to increase the vocabulary size of a sign language by borrowing words from the ambient spoken language. In recent decades, the phonological and morphological structures of fingerspelling in various sign languages have been documented (Battison 1978; Schembri and Johnston 2007; Sutton-Spence 1998; Vasishta, Woodward, and de Santis 1981; Wilcox 1992), but few studies have compared fingerspelling in diverse sign languages. The lack of cross-linguistic analysis may be due to variation among datasets (different topics, contexts, and signers), which makes meaningful comparison difficult. However, issues of variation are at least partly mitigated when comparing sign language interpretations that were rendered from a single source text. Using this approach controls for topic, register, and context, which facilitates cross-linguistic analysis. To our knowledge this is the first study to examine fingerspelling across different sign language interpretations.

Of the 1381 sign languages that have been cataloged to date, approximately forty have been documented as having fingerspelling systems (Zaitseva 2004). Two families of manual alphabets (employing one or two hands) are used to represent the Latin alphabet. The more frequent type of manual alphabet is produced primarily by one hand. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) and Italian Sign Language (LIS) use a one-handed alphabet in which each fingerspelled letter has a unique combination of handshape, orientation, and, in a few cases, path movement (Battison 1978; Wilcox 1992).

In two-handed fingerspelling systems, letters are formed by both the dominant hand and the subordinate hand (Sutton-Spence 1998). Two-handed fingerspelling is used by signers of British Sign Language (BSL), Australian Sign Language (Auslan), and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), collectively referred to as BANZSL (Johnston 2003). The languages of BANZSL are considered dialects of one another due to their similar grammatical structures, manual alphabet, and the high degree of lexical overlap. Fingerspelled letters in BANZSL are specified for handshape, orientation, location, and, in two cases, movement. Vowels are represented by pointing to specific fingertips. Whether one handed or two handed, fingerspelling occurs sequentially, meaning that an individual letter is produced and is followed by the next letter, and so forth.2

Lexical items, including fingerspelled items, vary in frequency among sign languages (Padden 1998; Schembri and Johnston 2007). Lexical frequency has been examined in several large-scale studies of various sign languages (Fenlon, Schembri, Rentelis, Vinson, and Cormier 2014; Johnston 2012; McKee and Kennedy 2006; Morford and MacFarlane 2003). These frequency studies were based on a large number of tokens, a cross-section of the sign language community, and communicative contexts ranging from spontaneous conversations to formal speeches.

In 2003 Padden and Clark Gunsauls studied the characteristics of ASL fingerspelling in discourse. Using video recordings of fourteen native signers from different regions of the United States, they identified a total of 2,164 fingerspelled items by coding ten minutes of continuous conversation by each of the signers, who varied in age, gender, educational background, and occupation. Results indicated that 12-35 percent of ASL discourse is fingerspelling, regardless of signers' gender, age, class, and ethnicity. …

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