Variation in ASL: The Role of Grammatical Function

By Lucas, Ceil; Bayley, Robert | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Variation in ASL: The Role of Grammatical Function


Lucas, Ceil, Bayley, Robert, Sign Language Studies


RESEARCH ON SPOKEN LANGUAGES has shown that linguistic variables may be systematically conditioned by factors operating at different linguistic levels. For example, numerous studies have shown that the deletion of final /t/ and /d/ from English words such as mist or find is systematically conditioned by features of the preceding and following phonological environment (i.e., the preceding and following sounds), stress, and the grammatical class of the word containing the /t/ or /d/ (e.g., Guy 1980, 1991; Labov 1989; Patrick 1991; Roberts 1997). Final /t/ and /d/ are more likely to be deleted before consonants (e.g., the /t/ in mist, as in mist by flic lake) than before vowels (e.g., mist over the water). They are also more likely to be deleted from uninflected words (monomorphemes) (e.g., in the past), than from past-tense forms and past participles (e.g., he passed by in which -ed is pronounced as /t/). Other linguistic variables are also constrained by both phonological and grammatical factors. Houston (1991), for example, has shown that the -ing variable in British English is systematically conditioned by grammatical function, with the apical variant (e.g., workin') associated with verbal categories and the velar variant (e.g., ceiling) with nominal categories. Labov's (1989) study of the acquisition of patterns of variability by children shows a similar grammatical effect for members of the Cameron family in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

The fact that many linguistic variables are constrained by factors operating at different linguistic levels is a commonplace for students of spoken languages. However, phonological variation in ASL and other signed languages has generally been accounted for by positing phonological constraints alone (i.e., features of the preceding and following signs), without reference to the role of grammatical and functional factors (for a full review, see Lucas, Bayley, and Valli 2001).

Until very recently, the program of research on ASL has been to demonstrate that ASL, and by analogy other sign languages, are true languages. This work has proceeded by demonstrating that the structure of ASL parallels that of spoken languages and that its phonology and syntax are subject to the same kinds of processes that operate in spoken languages. In the process, this work has not investigated the possibility that factors other than phonological ones may be operating. For example, Battison, Markowicz, and Woodward (1975) examined variable thumb extension in signs such as FUNNY, BLACK, BORING, and CUTE.' Of the six factors that they claim conditioned the variation, five concern formational (phonological) features of the signs themselves. Woodward and DeSantis (1977) examined twohanded signs that can become one handed, such as CAT, CHINESE, cow, and FAMOUS. They have also proposed that the variation they observed was conditioned by phonological features of the signs themselves (e.g., the movement and location of the sign). Liddell and Johnson explain variation in two forms of the sign DEAF (ear to chin and chin to ear) as a process governed solely by phonological constraints: "A number of signs exchange an initial sequence of segments with a sequence of final segments in certain contexts that appear to be purely phonological. The sign DEAF is typical of such metathesizmg signs" (1989, 244).

Liddell has continued to uphold the explanation expressed in the 1989 article. In Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language (2003), he refers to Lucas's (1995) pilot study of variation in the form of DEAI-, which found that only grammatical function, not the features of the preceding and following signs, had a significant effect on signers' choice between citation (ear-to-chin) and noncitation (chin-to-ear or contact-cheek) forms of DEAF. He then describes two tokens of DEAF used in the same sentence to illustrate the role of the preceding and following signs in conditioning variation. He acknowledges that the example does not show "statistical significance," but he nevertheless comments, "Clearly preceding and following signs are the significant factor in these examples" (2003, 319). …

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