Perspectives on Classifier Constructions in Sign Language

By Karen Emmorey | Go to book overview

their shape, as either tree-like, i.e., long; leaf-like, i.e., flat; and fruit-like, i.e., round) and these classifiers may themselves eventually evolve into noun classes (Dixon, 1986), whereas verbal classifiers appear to evolve from noun incorporation or the reanalysis of serial verbs (Seiler, 1986). PV constructions appear, on the other hand, to have a much more central role in the origin and evolution of signed languages (Armstrong et al., 1995; Senghas, 1994; Singleton et al., 1993).

The picture that emerges then from this comparison of PVs in signed languages with classifier systems in spoken languages is that the handshape unit in these constructions has an origin, form, and function that appears to be distinct from what is found in classifiers. Although the selection of a particular handshape unit is partly motivated by the salient inherent or perceived characteristics of the referent, this does not appear to be the only factor involved in their use. Therefore, these forms cannot be said, strictly speaking, to have a primarily classificatory function.


CONCLUSION

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, I aimed to provide an overview of recent descriptions of classifier morphemes. The chapter cannot do justice, however, to the wealth of spoken language literature on this topic or to the abundance of new data coming from ongoing documentation of classifier systems. It has simply attempted to sketch some of the major issues in this area and their implications for our understanding of systems of nominal categorization in signed languages. We can conclude that, like noun classes or measure terms, the use of handshape units in PVs appear to represent a type of morphosyntactic subsystem that is motivated by similar semantic properties as the classifier morphemes found in some of the world's spoken languages. It also seems clear, however, that the handshape unit in these constructions exhibits a number of unique characteristics. Although I outlined the main reasons that the analysis of handshape units in PVs as classifiers is problematic, this topic is far from closed and requires much more investigation. More detailed data and more standard terminology is required in order to begin to address some of the issues raised here.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I am grateful to Karen Emmorey, Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen, Colette Grinevald, Trevor Johnston, Edward Klima, Scott Liddell, and Inge Zwitserlood for extremely helpful comments on earlier versions of this chapter. All errors that remain are my own.


ENDNOTES
1
These include Adamarobe Sign Language (Frishberg, personal communication, 2000), American Sign Language (McDonald, 1982; Schick, 1990; Supalla, 1982), Balinese Sign Language (Branson & Miller, 1998), British Sign Language (Brennan, 1990, 1992; Deuchar, 1984; Sutton-Spence & Woll, 1999), Catalonian Sign Language (Fourestier, 1999), Chilean Sign Language (Adamo, Acuna, Cabrera & Lattapiat., 1999), Columbian Sign Language (Oviedo, 1999), Czech Sign Language (Turner, personal communication, 2000), Danish Sign Language (Engberg-Pedersen, 1993), Finnish Sign Language (Takkinen, 1996), Flemish Belgian Sign Language (Vermeerbergen, personal communication, 2000), French Sign Language (Moody, 1983), German Sign Language (Mathur & Rathmann, 1996), Hausa Sign Language (Schmaling, 2000), Hong Kong Sign Language (Tang, 2000), Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (Zeshan, 1999), Irish Sign Language (Matthews, 1996), Israeli Sign Language (Meir, 1996), Italian Sign Language (Corazza, 1990), Japanese Sign

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