Perspectives on Classifier Constructions in Sign Language

By Karen Emmorey | Go to book overview

10
Categorical Versus Gradient
Proferties of Classifier
Constructions in ASL
Karen Emmorey
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Melissa Herzig
University of California at San Diego

Classifier constructions in American Sign Language (ASL) were originally described as a type of mimetic depiction (Klima & Bellugi, 1979), rather than as morphologically complex signs. However, Supalla (1978, 1982) argued that classifier verbs were composed of discrete morphemes that express object form or category through handshape morphemes, object location through a “base grid” of discrete spatial loci, and movement through verbal roots. Similarly, Newport (1982) proposed that “'mimetic' forms within American Sign Language are not at all analogue in nature; rather, like morphologically complex forms in spoken language, they are constructed from a relatively small number of discrete components, which mark familiar distinctions of meaning and are combined in familiar ways” (p. 465). However, whether all meaningful components within a classifier construction are discrete morphemes has recently come into question (e.g., Liddell, 1995). In the series of experiments reported here, we investigated whether aspects of classifier constructions are treated as discrete categorical morphemes or as gradient, analogue representations.

Hockett (1960) proposed that human language exhibits a key set of properties that distinguish it from the communication systems of other species. Two of these design features concern us here: arbitrariness and discreteness. All sign language researchers agree that classifier constructions are iconic and not arbitrary in form; for example, classifier handshapes can refer to the shape of referent objects, and the location of the hands in space can refer to the location of referent objects in real space. Does this fact mean that signed languages are fundamentally different

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