International Review of Sign Linguistics - Vol. 1

By William H. Edmondson; Ronnie B. Wilbur | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Evidence for the Function and Structure of Wh-Clefts in American Sign Language

Ronnie B. Wilbur Purdue University

In this chapter, I show that the structure referred to by sign-language researchers as rhetorical questions (RHQ) is syntactically, prosodically, and pragmatically distinct from question-answer sequences, as well as from other suggested structures (e.g., right dislocation, predicate nominals). The proper treatment of this structure takes into account its prosodic and syntactic integrity, as well as its focusing function, which is that of the pseudocleft, or wh-cleft in other languages. Once established that this structure is properly treated as the wh-cleft-focusing construction, existing analyses of wh-clefts are available for consideration; these are reviewed and a model adopted.

Within the field of American Sign Language (ASL) linguistics, traditional analysis has treated this structure as composed of a rhetorical question and an answer ( Baker-Shenk, 1983). The first clause is considered to be a "rhetorical question" because it contains a wh-word similar to an actual wh-question and the raised eyebrows associated with a yes-no question, and because the signer does not really expect an answer from the addressee. This analysis persists despite the fact that the structure is neither rhetorical nor a question, but serves to focus a constituent, as demonstrated subsequently. Example (1a) shows a typical wh-cleft with its traditional notation, including a question mark on the wh-word WHAT and the label rhq (rhetorical question) showing the raised eyebrows. In addition, in English, the wh-clause and the focus phrase in the wh-cleft may remain in their original order, as in (1b), or they may reverse, as in (1c). In ASL, only one order is permitted (i.e., la, 1d). A prosodic explanation is provided for why the two languages differ, based on their treatment of focus and stress assignment.

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