Perspectives on Classifier Constructions in Sign Language

By Karen Emmorey | Go to book overview

Preface

This volume is the culmination of work discussed and presented at the Workshop on Classifier Constructions held in La Jolla, California, in April, 2000. Research in the early 1980s suggested that classifier constructions can be analyzed as combinations of discrete morphemes, specifically, as predicates consisting of one or more movement roots along with several other morphemes encoding the shape or semantic class of object involved (indicated by handshape), the location of a referent object, and the orientation of the object. However, several critical questions have since arisen regarding the syntactic, morphological, and phonological analysis of these forms. Some researchers have suggested that these constructions do not actually involve classifiers in the usual sense of the term, may involve gestural (rather than morphemic) components, and may be unique to signed languages. To resolve some of this controversy, sign language linguists studying 13 different sign languages, experts in spoken-language classifier systems, and experts in gesture came together in La Jolla to participate in a workshop aimed at addressing these issues.

The chapters included in this volume discuss the following issues: (a) How sign language classifiers differ from spoken languages, (b) cross-linguistic variation in sign language classifier systems, (c) the role of gesture, (d) the nature of morpho-syntactic and phonological constraints on classifier constructions, (e) the grammaticization process for these forms, and (f) the acquisition of classifier forms. The organization of the volume follows the general format of the workshop. Each section focuses on a particular issue, and commentary chapters that discuss general questions, as well as comment on specific issues, are presented at the end of each section.

Because classifier constructions are universal to all sign languages encountered thus far, it is important to build a consensus on what counts as a classifier and to begin to document the nature and extent of cross-linguistic variation. In addition, the field needs to come to a consensus on terminology. Many have suggested that the term, classifier, is misleading and should be abandoned. However, the term is in widespread use among sign-language researchers, not to mention sign-language instructors, interpreters, and those in deaf education, and no other term has been generally accepted as a replacement. Therefore, the term, classifier, is retained in the title of this book and in many of the chapters, but the reader should be aware of the controversy surrounding the meaning of classifier for signed languages (see particularly the chapters in the section titled, "The Syntax and Morphology of Classifiers in Sign Languages").

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