New advances in sign language semantics

Course at NASSLLI 2016:

Instructor: Jeremy Kuhn (


Extending a formal theory of natural language semantics to sign languages has provided insights into a variety of phenomena at the intersection of natural language and logic. In the last 5 years, there has been rapid progress in the study of sign language semantics, especially in how representations of space can be incorporated into a formal system. This class will cover significant recent advances, including the use of space to represent telicity, discourse referents, and nominal and verbal plurality, as well as the relationship between iconicity, gesture, and quotation.

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 the unique insights that sign languages show into their own research problems. No prior knowledge of a sign language is required.


Day 1: Visibility and iconicity in sign language. (Case study: telicity and iconic scales)
For a variety of phenomena, objects that are covert in spoken language have been argued to be "visible" in sign languages. Sign languages also display pervasive iconicity, where the form of a sign corresponds to its interpretation. Setting up the remainder of the course; Day 1 introduces the properties of visibility and iconicity and addresses the relationship between the two, focusing on a case study of "visible" telicity in sign language.

Relevant readings: Klima and Bellugi, Ch 1 (1979), Bosworth and Emmorey (2010), Strickland, Geraci, Chemla, Schlenker, Kelepir, and Pfau (2015) , Schlenker (2015)


Day 2: Singular pronouns
In ASL and other sign languages, pronouns can be disambiguated with the use of space. Pronouns also display iconic properties. We will discuss how these properties can be incorporated into the formal grammar, as variables, features, or pictures.

Relevant readings: Schlenker, Lamberton, and Santoro (2013), Kuhn (2015)


Day 3: Verbal pluractionality
Day 4 turns to plurality and dependency in the verbal domain, looking at cases of pluractionality in several sign languages. An iconic phenomenon informs debates about compositionality.

Relevant readings: Wilbur (2009)Kuhn and Aristodemo (2016)


Day 4: Nominal plurality
In natural language, a variety of constructions show dependency on a plural licensor (dependent indefinites; same and different). In many sign languages, these dependencies are made overt through the use of space. We will discuss how sign language data bears on recent theories of dynamic semantics.

Relevant readings: Henderson (2014), Kuhn (2016)


Day 5: Role shift, iconicity, quotation, gesture
On the final day, we turn to the relation between iconicity, quotation, and gesture, looking at how they can be modeled with multi-dimensional meanings.

Relevant readings: Schlenker (2014 a and b), Davidson (2015), Greenberg 2013