Perspectives on Classifier Constructions in Sign Language

By Karen Emmorey | Go to book overview

11
Revisiting Visual Analogy in ASL
Classifier Predicates
Ted Supalla
University of Rochester

In the 1970s, American Sign Language (ASL) research had made significant progress in demonstrating that ASL is not a nonlinguistic system of gesture but a language built on universal grammatical principles shared by all human languages. The signs of ASL had been shown to be composed of the equivalents of phonemes (Stokoe, 1960, Stokoe, Casterline, & Croneberg, 1965), the signs themselves were shown to not be completely iconic (Klima, Bellugi et al., 1979), and to have evolved in consistent ways over time (Frishberg, 1975, Woodward, 1974, 1976). However, classifier predicates remained a challenge. They were the most highly iconic signs, whose forms (handshapes, locations, and movements) appeared to vary with the continuous variation in the world event that they represented. To ask a native signer the meaning of a slight variation in a verb of motion, for example swerving a car to avoid potholes, the signer could only say that the sign zigzagged to depict that motion in the actual event. And yet a hallmark of human languages is that they represent real world events using discrete rather than continuous forms. Do classifier predicates mark the point where ASL diverges from other human languages, and lapses into the all-too-available gestural capacity of the visual medium to communicate these spatial events?

In this chapter I revisit the issue of classifier predicates, as they pose a significant challenge to the investigator attempting to discriminate analogical representation from discreteness and combinatoriality in sign language. I review my own early approach to investigating classifier predicate constructions, including some description of the evolution of my own understanding of these issues. I also attempt to break the study of classifier predicates from a single object of study into a variety of issues: “grammatical” versus “ungrammatical” uses, by a variety of populations (native vs. nonnative signers, children vs. adults), for a variety of pragmatic purposes. Each of these different situations offers a valuable perspective and a greater understanding of whether these forms are formed from discrete components or whether they represent their referents analogically.

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