Sign language linguistics

Linguistics Society of Korea Linguistic School 2018:

Instructor: Jeremy Kuhn (


Since the 1970s, sign languages have been known to be natural human languages, complete with their proper histories and grammars. Over the last few decades, linguistic work on sign language has given us a fuller understanding of the human language capacity, allowing us to abstract away from the acoustic channel and observe new properties that only emerge in the visuospatial modality. After establishing some basics of sign language linguistics, this mini-course will cover the phonology, syntax, and semantics of sign languages. In each domain, we will see that sign language fits into known typologies, but that unique properties of sign language can be used to gain linguistic insights: resolving existing debates or opening new questions. The goal of this course is to provide students and more senior researchers with a strong background for following future research contributions coming from sign language research in order to incorporate these insights into their own research problems. No prior knowledge of a sign language is required.


Day 1: Background on sign languages + sign language phonology — Slides
We begin with a general introduction to sign languages, motivating the following basic facts: (1) sign languages are not just mime (2) there are many different sign languages (3) sign language are not 'dependent' in any way on spoken languages. We will discuss socio-historical context of this unique language modality and the Deaf community.

We then turn to sign language phonology. If 'phonology' means the 'study of sound,' how can sign languages be said to have phonology? We show that the same abstract combinatorial processes that are used to put together meaningless units (phones and phonemes) in the spoken language modality are also used in the sign language modality. This includes categorical classification of continuous signals as well as combinatorial rules that target natural classes. While the abstract processes are modality-independent, the form in which they appear depends in part on the articulatory and perceptual properties of the sign language modality. Through the lecture, we examine a number of case studies that highlight these properties, including processes of assimilation and constraints on syllable structure. In the final part of the lecture, we discuss some recent work in which phonotactic properties are employed to chart out historical relations between sign languages.

Readings: Newport and Supalla (1999), Davidson et al. (2013), Sandler (2012), Geraci (2009)

Day 2: Sign language morphology and syntax — Slides
Though the same grammatical engine seems to be shared between sign and spoken language, the visuospatial modality has several unique properties that influence morphological and syntactic processes. First, because the articulators are the two hands and the face, sign languages are not necessarily subject to the same linearization pressures as spoken language: multiple words or morphemes may be communicated simultaneously. Second, sign languages can use space in abstract ways to organize concepts or avoid ambiguity.

We begin by looking at the lexicon; in addition to standard categories like nouns and verbs, sign languages generally have a system of 'classifiers,' anaphoric elements with an iconic component. We discuss several kinds of morphological complexity, including compounding; we ask whether simultaneous compounds might exists, how they can be identified, and what properties they have.

We then turn to syntactic processes, beginning by comparing macro-syntactic properties to those of spoken language. Several properties are unique to the visuospatial modality. First, we discuss the syntactic properties of non-manual signs, grammaticalized facial expressions that co-occur with manual signs. We then consider directional verbs, which move in space between between the locations at which their arguments have been indexed. We adjudicate between several competing analyses of these phenomena.

Readings: Fernald and Napoli (2000), Benedicto and Brentari (2004), Lillo-martin and Klima (1990)

Day 3: Sign language semantics — Slides
Sign languages communicate meaning by combining words through a logical system. Additionally, though, sign languages are known for their iconicity, in which meaning is communicated in a holistic, pictorial manner. How do we incorporate these iconic properties into the formal grammar, and can these iconic properties give us more general insight into semantic composition?

We discuss several case studies from the verbal domain in which an iconic predicate is involved in the compositional process. First, we examine a case of pluractionality in French Sign Language (LSF). Two patterns of reduplication are shown to fit into known typologies in which a plurality of events is distributed across time or individuals. We then examine a compositional puzzle, in which redundant instances of distributive-marking appear to be vacuous. An iconic aspect to the reduplicative process allows us to decide between competing analyses of the puzzle. Second, we observe that phonological 'end-marking' is shown to correlate with telic predicates across several sign languages, and that verbs may be iconically manipulated to communicate information about the events they denote. We draw connections to recent work in which verbs inherit their telicity from semantic scales. Finally, we cover role-shift, in which a quotation-like environment is made by shifting the body. We discuss connections to context shift, partial quotation, and sign language classifiers.

Readings: Kuhn and Aristodemo (2017), Wilbur (2008), Davidson (2015)