Perspectives on Classifier Constructions in Sign Language

By Karen Emmorey | Go to book overview
tory verbs. All classifiers are used anaphorically, that is, as proforms, for tracking referents in discourse (see chaps. 10 to 14 of Aikhenvald 2000).The only kind of classifiers reported thus far for sign languages are classificatory verbs of handling, motion, and location. These appear to be found in every sign language. Note that in spoken languages they are restricted to highly polysynthetic languages of the Americas, Australia and Papua New Guinea.A feminine/masculine distinction in pronouns is found in Japanese Sign Language; Taiwanese Sign Language distinguishes the two genders in argument marking on auxiliary verbs.Similarly to spoken languages, classificatory verbs in sign languages belong to semantic groups of handling, location and motion. In sign languages, they operate with a more fine-grained set of shapes and magnitude than they do in spoken languages. They typically identify referents by their orientation in space, and by number; this is less common in spoken languages.Shape and size specifiers are semantically similar to classifiers in spoken languages. However, they appear to be a subclass of modifiers also employed as descriptive predicates, and do not seem to form a classifier construction of their own.Many questions remain unanswered at the present stage of research on classifiers in sign languages. Do classificatory verbs in sign languages “categorize” the referents of their arguments? How like—and how unlike—classificatory verbs in spoken languages are they? How do classifiers in sign languages get grammaticalized and what semantic changes take place? Note that in spoken languages classifiers of most types come from nouns. At least in Thai Sign Language, classifiers “appear to be historically related to spatial-locative predicates” (Collins-Ahlgren, 1990, p. 115).Answering these—and many more—questions, requires investigating the following issues, based on the material of sign languages from different parts of the world:
1. What are the definitional properties of classifier constructions?
2. What are the inventories of classifier morphemes, e.g., classifier handshapes, and the semantic parameters employed? In which ways are they different from those of spoken languages? What semantic extensions are natural for sign languages? Can classifier categories be semantically complex?
3. What are the functions of classifiers? Are they used to categorize noun referents as members of conceptually distinct classes of entities? (Note that the intuition of native speakers is crucial here). How does the use of classifiers correlate with discourse-pragmatic properties of noun referents—such as their topicality—and with their syntactic function?

An in-depth study of classifier constructions in sign languages in terms of these parameters will shed light on their nature and development, and may involve significant modification to the focal points for the typology of classifiers proposed on the basis of spoken languages.


REFERENCES

Aikhenvald, A. Y. (2000). Classifiers: A typology of noun categorization devices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Collins-Ahlgren, M. (1993). Spatial-locative predicates in Thai Sign Language, in C. Lucas (Ed.), Sign language research. Theoretical issues (pp. 13–117). Washington: Gallaudet University Press.

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