A Language in Space: The Story of Israeli Sign Language

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A Language in Space: The Story of Israeli Sign Language

Irit Meir • Wendy Sandler A Language in Space The Story of Israeli Sign Language FM_8112_Meir_LEA 7/6/07 9:04 AM Page

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Irit Meir • Wendy Sandler

A Language in Space The Story of Israeli Sign Language

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A Language in Space

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A Language in Space The Story of Israeli Sign Language

Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler

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Cover Design: Tomai Maridou and The Sign of Language Linguistic Lab, University of Haifa.

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Taylor & Francis Group 270 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Taylor & Francis Group 2 Park Square Milton Park, Abingdon Oxon OX14 4RN

© 2008 by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC Lawrence Erlbaum Associates is an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group, an Informa business Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-8058-6265-2 (Softcover) 978-1-8058-5507-8 (Hardcover) No part of this book may be reprinted, reproduced, transmitted, or utilized in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying, microfilming, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publishers. Trademark Notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Visit the Taylor & Francis Web site at http://www.taylorandfrancis.com and the LEA Web site at http://www.erlbaum.com

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To our families

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List of Figures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

ix xv

Chapter 1—Introduction: Language and the People Who Use It . . . .


Languages of Signs 2 Goals of this Book 4

PART I—THE LINGUISTIC STRUCTURE OF ISRAELI SIGN LANGUAGE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 Chapter 2—The Basic Components of the Word in Sign Language . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 The Meaningless Building Blocks of Words 19 The Meaningless Building Blocks of Signs 22 Additional Formational Characteristics of Signs 26 Signing It Right 30 The Phonology of Sign Language as a System 32 Sequentiality and Simultaneity in Phonology of Signed and Spoken Languages 35 Conclusion 36 Suggestions for Further Reading 36

Chapter 3—Vocabulary: Simple and Complex Words . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37 Difficulties in Finding and Recording the Words: The Lexicographer’s Lament 39 The Expressiveness of the ISL Lexicon: Words of Communication 43 Adding New Words and Building Complex Words 46 Novel Word Formation in Poetry 55 Suggestions for Further Reading 58

Chapter 4—Grammar in Space: The Pronominal System . . . . . . . . . . 59 Points of Reference: The Basis of the Pronoun System in Sign Language 60 The Pronominal System in Sign Languages 61 Reference Points as a Means of Avoiding Ambiguity 63 Other Pronouns in ISL 66 Marking Number in the Pronominal System 68 Indicating Reference with the Body: Role Shift 69 Pronouns in Other Sign Languages 71 Conclusion 72 Suggestions for Further Reading 73


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Chapter 5—Grammar in Space: Verb Agreement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 What Is Verb Agreement? 76 Verb Agreement in Sign Languages 78 The Form and Meaning of Sign Language Verb Agreement 81 Verb Agreement: Signed versus Spoken Languages 85 Marking Number with Agreement Morphemes 86 Conclusion 87 Suggestions for Further Reading 88

Chapter 6—Tenses and Aspects . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89 Tense versus Aspect 90 The Aspectual System of ISL 91 The Expression of Time 100 Conclusion 106 Suggestions for Further Reading 106

Chapter 7—Shapes, Locations, and Motion in Space: Classifier Constructions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107 What Are Classifiers? 108 When Do You Use Classifiers? 112 Classifiers in Different Sign Languages 117 Classifiers in Spoken Languages 118 Conclusion 119 Suggestions for Further Reading 120

Chapter 8—Word Order . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 Topics First, and Then Comment 123 How Is the Topic Determined? 126 Word Order in Possessive Constructions 127 Topic-Comment in Other Languages 129 Conclusion 131 Suggestions for Further Reading 132

Chapter 9—Negative and Interrogative Sentences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133 Negative Sentences 134 Interrogative Sentences 147 Conclusion 156 Suggestions for Further Reading 156

Chapter 10—Beyond the Hands: Facial Expression in ISL . . . . . . . . . 159 How We Say What We Say: The Prosodic Structure of Language 160 Prosodic Structure in ISL and Intonation on the Face 163

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Facial Expression as Part of a Word 171 Facial Expression as a Modifying Morpheme 173 Mouthing 176 Nonlinguistic Facial Expression: The Intonation of Emotions 179 Conclusion 179 Suggestions for Further Reading 180

Part I—Summary and Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181

PART II—THE LANGUAGE AND ITS COMMUNITY . . . . . . . . . 183 Chapter 11—The History of the Deaf Community in Israel . . . . . . . . 185 The Origins of the Community: A Few Friends and a School 185 The Educational System and its Changing Attitudes toward Sign Language 197 Deaf Society and Culture Today 210 Snapshot of the Community 213 Suggestions for Further Reading 216

Chapter 12—The Emergence and Development of ISL . . . . . . . . . . . . 217 The Impact of Other Sign Languages on Israeli Sign Language 218 Stages in Vocabulary Development 224 Conclusion 235 Suggestions for Further Reading 236

Chapter 13—Voices from the Community . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 239 Story 1: A Student’s Journal 240 Story 2: From Bad Girl in Class to Honored Teacher 244 Story 3: The Awakening 248

PART III—THE BIG PICTURE: ISL AND LINGUISTIC THEORY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 253 Chapter 14—Similarities and Differences Across Sign Languages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255 The View that Sign Language is Universal 256 Comparative Studies of Sign Languages 259 Differences Across Sign Languages 270 Communication among Deaf Signers of Different Languages 271 Conclusion 274 Suggestions for Further Reading 274

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Chapter 15—The Contribution of Sign Languages to Linguistic Research . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 277 The Goal of Modern Linguistics: Characterizing Human Linguistic Ability 278 How Sign Languages Help to Identify Universal Characteristics of Language 284 Language out of Nothing: Communication Systems that have Developed Without a Language Model 292 The Contribution of Research on Israeli Sign Language 298 Conclusion 304 Suggestions for Further Reading 304

Appendix A—List of Handshapes of Israeli Sign Language . . . . . . . . 307 Appendix B—Main Places of Articulation of Israeli Sign Language . . . 309 Appendix C—Notational Conventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 311 References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 313 Author Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 323 Subject Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 327

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1–1. 1–2. 1–3. 1–4. 2–1. 2–2. 2–3. 2–4. 2–5. 2–6. 2–7. 2–8. 2–9. 2–10. 2–11. 2–12. 2–13. 2–14. 3–1. 3–2. 3–3. 3–4. 3–5. 3–6. 3–7. 3–8.

Signs for ‘day’ in Israeli Sign Language and Russian Sign Language, and ‘woman’ in ISL, RSL, and American Sign Language. Two iconic but different signs for ‘bird’ in two sign languages. (a) A non-iconic sign with a concrete meaning: ISL EXHIBITION. (b) A non-iconic sign with an abstract meaning: ISL CHARACTER. Two words containing a negative suffix in ISL. Minimal pair in ISL, distinguished by handshape. Minimal pair, distinguished by location. Minimal pair, distinguished by movement. Minimal pair, distinguished by the orientation of the hands. Two kinds of two-handed signs: (a) symmetrical and (b) asymmetrical. Signs with various types of internal movement. Signs with complex movement. Signs distinguished by single versus double movement. Signs distinguished by alternating (a) versus non-alternating (b) movement. Signs distinguished by facial expression. Signs commonly confused by beginners learning ISL. Symmetry constraint: possible and impossible signs. Selected finger constraint: possible and impossible signs. Handshape assimilation: the pronoun I signed in isolation, and signed with the handshape of the sign READ. ISL signs with no direct counterpart in Hebrew or English. An ISL noun and a verb distinguished by length of movement. Some signs for types of communication. Type of movement ((a) alternating vs. (b) symmetrical) deriving related but different meanings of a verb. Examples of compounds in ISL. Complex words with prefixes. Fingerspelling of the word shalom. (a) native sign BETTER and (b) initialized sign PREFERABLE. xi

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3–9. 3–10. 3–11. 3–12. 3–13. 3–14. 4–1. 4–2. 4–3. 4–4. 4–5. 4–6. 4–7. 4–8. 4–9. 4–10. 5–1. 5–2. 5–3. 5–4. 5–5. 5–6. 6–1. 6–2. 6–3. 6–4. 6–5. 6–6. 6–7. 6–8.


A sign borrowed from French Sign Language. A new sign based on iconicity. Phonological changes in an iconic sign. Poetic innovations in Wim Emmerik’s poetry based on metaphorical imagery. Poetic innovations in Wim Emmerik’s poetry based on meaning extension. Creative innovations by ISL signers. Establishing an R-locus. Establishing two R-loci for two different referents. Two different R-loci for different referents: ‘He (Adam) asked him (Brad) and he (Brad) answered him (Adam)’. Resolving ambiguity by using two different R-loci for the last sign in the two sentences. Other pronominal forms: possessive pronoun, reflexive pronoun and object pronoun. First person plural pronoun, WE. Pronouns with number incorporation. 2nd person plural pronouns: exhaustive and multiple. Role shift diagram. Using role shift in narrative: The Snowman. The plain verb HAVE-A-GOOD-TIME. Inflected forms of the verb SHOW. An agreeing verb and a spatial verb. Direction of movement and of facing in two forms of the verb HELP. Direction of motion and direction of facing are opposite in TAKE. Exhaustive and multiple forms of the verb SHOW. An iterative action: LEARNiterative A continuative action: LEARNcontinuative The perfect aspect marker: ALREADY. The time line. Use of the time line in signs denoting time expressions. Number incorporation in words denoting time expressions. Combined use of time line and number incorporation: TWOYEARS-BEFORE (‘two years ago’). Different words translating the English word year.

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7–1. 7–2. 7–3. 7–4. 7–5. 7–6. 7–7. 7–8. 8–1. 9–1. 9–2. 9–3. 9–4. 9–5. 9–6. 9–7. 9–8. 9–9. 9–10. 9–11. 10–1. 10–2. 10–3. 10–4. 10–5. 10–6. 10–7. 10–8. 10–9.


Three different constructions meaning GIVE-(some kind of ) OBJECT. Different classifier handshapes for entities corresponding to the subject of the translated English sentences. Nouns that are not classifiers. Verbs that do not include classifiers. ‘I like that book.’ Spatial information conveyed by classifier constructions. Classifier constructions conveying spatial positions and relations. Classifier constructions depicting motion and relation in space. ‘The book is on the table.’ Signs for ‘NO’. Signs for ‘DON’T’. Signs glossed ‘ZERO’. Signs glossed ‘NOT-EXIST’. Signs conveying emphatic negation. Sign meaning ‘NOTHING’. Allomorphy in words with the suffix, -NOT-EXIST. Signs with fused negated forms in ISL. Question facial expressions. Facial expressions for questions of choice. WHY in a non-interrogative context with accompanying facial expression. Facial expressions accompanying two types of questions. Facial expressions distinguish between sentences with coordinate clauses and with a conditional clause. Superarticulation for a wh-question. Different facial expressions accompanying two different readings of the question ‘Do you have a car (here)’? Facial expression including eye squint: the sign GIRL from sentence (212). Facial expression including eye squint: MEET from sentence (213). Simultaneous combination of wh- question and shared information facial expressions. Different facial expressions and head and body positions in two intonational phrases. Facial articulations that obligatorily accompany words.

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10–10. 10–11. 10–12. 11–1.


Words distinguished by head position. Two signs distinguished only by facial expression. Comparison of facial modifiers in ISL and in ASL. Members of the Jerusalem group in 1937, among them the late Yehezkel Sella (second from right), the late Aryeh Zuckerman (third from right) and Moshe Bamberger (fourth from right). 11–2. Shoe shiner at Mugrabi Square, Tel Aviv. 11–3. The first Hanukkah party in the coffeehouse hallway. 11–4. Minutes of the first official meeting of the association, taken from the publication marking the jubilee year of the Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI). 11–5. Helen Keller (center) visiting the clubhouse of the Deaf community (1952), with her companion and interpreter Polly Thompson, shaking hands with community leader Hava Savir. 11–6. Moshe Bamberger interprets speeches at the corner stone laying ceremony for Helen Keller House in 1953. 11–7. Construction of Helen Keller House, 1953–1958. 11–8. Vocational training at Helen Keller House. 11–9. The inn in Mitzpe Ramon. 11–10. The sentence ‘I told you to go away’ (a) in Signed Hebrew and (b) in ISL. 11–11. The sentence, ‘She saw three bowls, one big, one medium-sized and one tiny, placed side by side.’ (a) in ISL and (b) in Signed Hebrew. 12–1. Signs of foreign origin in the lexicon of ISL. 12–2. Signs used at the School for the Deaf in Jerusalem (the large signs on the left), compared with their modern counterparts (the small boxed signs on the right). 12–3. Signs used at the School for the Deaf in Jerusalem (the large signs on the left), compared with their modern counterparts. 12–4. The sign in (a) meant both CHEAP and LESS in early ISL, and means only LESS in contemporary ISL. The sign in (b) did not exist in early ISL, and today means CHEAP. The signs are distinguished by the orientation of the base hand. 12–5. (a) COUPLE/PAIR (early ISL); (b) DATE (contemporary ISL); (c) COUPLE/PAIR (contemporary ISL). 12–6. BEHAVE in the past (a) and today (b). 12–7. Earlier sign for CAMERA (a) and the new version (b), with symmetrical movement of the index fingers.

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14–1. 14–2. 14–3. 14–4. 14–5. 15–1. 15–2. 15–3.


Two non-iconic signs for the concept ‘better’, in two sign languages. The sign for ‘drink’ in three sign languages. Metaphoric iconicity in the signs for ‘understand’ in two sign languages. Expressing spatial movement in sign language in the sentence, ‘The car traveled from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv.’ Verbs expressing transfer of ownership (giving and taking) in Israeli Sign Language. A spectrogram of the word cat: an acoustic event resulting from a sequence of articulations. The ISL sign, CAT: Hand Configuration, Location, and Movement simultaneously present in the signal. The compound sign for KETTLE in ABSL.

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Our work on Israeli Sign Language began in 1992, when we began to study the grammatical structure of a sign language that very little was known about. We worked out of an office on the 17th floor of the University of Haifa’s Eshkol Tower Building, shared with two other lecturers of the English Department, borrowing a video camera from time to time, and recording data against the backdrop of a few old filing cabinets. We found our first consultant, a native signer (from a deaf family), by asking a friend who was a deaf education teacher for an appropriate candidate. The consultant, Orna Halevy, enthusiastically took to the challenge of sharing with us the till-then well-kept secrets of her language. Most of the early field work was done in her parents’ living room, over cups of instant coffee and plates of chocolate-filled wafers set out on lace doilies. How do you sign this? Can you sign it this way too? What if you mean that? When Orna went to England for a year of study, she recommended Meir Etedgi, her former classmate and friend, to pick up where she left off. Meir arrived at the over-populated 17th floor office in uniform—he was in the final months of his military service—unsure of what university researchers could possibly want to know about the signed vernacular of his family and friends. Unsure, but game. And intrigued. We told him we wanted to know how he signed things—not in sign-accompanied-Hebrew, but how he really signed things, at home with his sisters, or hanging out with his pals. He flashed his irresistible smile and nodded. This was going to be good. Since those days, over the past fifteen years, through the generosity of The Israel Science Foundation, The United-States Israel Binational Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and The Ford Foundation, as well as The University of Haifa, we eventually inaugurated The Sign Language Research Lab, and were able to acquire the staff, professional equipment, and working space we needed for the work described here.1 When the video equipment and computer programs began to get the better of us, it became clear that the lab had to have a video technician, and we were joined by Shai Davidi, who came armed with a degree in environmental sciences (nothing is irrele-

1 This research was supported by Israel Science Foundation Grants no. 820/95 and 750/99-01; Israel Science Foundation Grant no. 553/04; U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation Grant no. 95-00310/2; United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation grant 2000-372; and a National Institutes of Health grant DC6473.


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vant), with what was then a little experience in video editing, and with plenty of curiosity about our work. He immediately began taking lessons in Israeli Sign Language, became an expert in video editing, and took over all the technical work in the lab. Shai became indispensable to the enterprise practically overnight, and is responsible for all the ISL pictures in this book. Thanks also to the following sign language models for bringing their language(s) to life in the book’s illustrations: Ruth Aluf-Lewin, Anne-Marie Baer, Meir Etedgi, Irena Haimov, Tali Mor, Doron Levy, Orna Levy, and Debbie Menashe. Over the years, Orna and Meir have continued working as consultants, and other Deaf assistants have joined forces with us as well: Doron Levy, Sara Lanseman, and Debbie Menashe. Every one of these talented associates has offered their knowledge and hard work with enthusiasm, warmth, and generosity. Needless to say, without their contributions, there would have been no research, and no book. We thank them all profusely. Louise Stern happened to be spending a year in Israel just when we were investigating affixes in ASL and ISL, and we thank her for her help providing ASL data. Meir Etedgi was also a motivating force in documenting the history of the Deaf community in Israel, and began the research that led to Chapter 11 in the book. The insights we gained and report in the chapter that go beyond the archives and pictures of the past are due in large part to fascinating conversations with the Deaf associates in the lab, and with members of the founding generation of the community. Thanks also to Moshe Bamberger, Hava and Yisrael Savir, Ezer Levy, and to the Association of the Deaf in Israel for providing the pictures that tell the story of the community. We are very grateful to Jill and Howard Levine of CDS Photo-Graphics in Hollywood, who did a beautiful job of restoring all the old photos for Chapter 11. We have been working with our colleagues, linguists Mark Aronoff and Carol Padden, for many stimulating and enjoyable years, and much of our work together finds expression in this book, specifically the material on affixes (Chapter 3), verb agreement (Chapter 5), and classifier constructions (Chapter 7), comparing American Sign Language and Israeli Sign Language. Mark and Carol each kindly read the book manuscript and offered comments which have been of great help in making the book more accessible and to the point. We turned repeatedly to Carol Padden to tap her wealth of experience in writing about the Deaf community in the United States. Her response was always generous, and her advice invaluable in putting together Chapter 11, on the history of the Deaf community in Israel. The ongoing work on the sign language of the Al-Sayyid Bedouins, touched on briefly in Chapter 15, is joint work with Carol and Mark. Many others contributed in various ways to this volume. We are grateful to Iczhak Schlesinger, the first researcher to study Israeli Sign Language, for sharing his experience and findings about ISL with us. Research assistants Svetlana Dachkovsky and Ofra Rosenstein contributed significantly to some of the research reported here and to the production of the earlier Hebrew version

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of the book. Shmuel Eisenstadt and Hilary Meir offered helpful comments on the manuscript, each from a very different perspective. Many thanks to Donna Bossin for translating parts of the book, and to Research Assistants Assaf Israel and Svetlana Dachkovsky for help with formatting, typing up loose ends, and handling other aspects of production of the manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge The University of Haifa Press for publishing the Hebrew precursor to this book in 2004, and appreciate their granting us the rights to publication in English. Thanks to the Research Authority of The University of Haifa for assistance in manuscript production costs. We also extend our thanks to LEA editor Cathleen Petree, who was always there to help us over the bumps. Each author wishes to thank her family for inspiration and moral support throughout, and to thank each other’s family for putting up with weekend phone calls, extra trips to the lab, and other inconveniences, at times when everyone would really rather be at the beach.

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1 Introduction: Language and the People Who Use It

Language is one of the most remarkable of the mental abilities belonging exclusively to humans. Only human beings can assign symbols to concepts, transmit those symbols with their bodies, and creatively manipulate them to express all their thoughts and feelings. Part of the uniqueness of language is in our awareness of it. While we often take for granted other cognitive feats, such as vision, locomotion, or even the enjoyment of music, our ability to use language is something of which we are keenly aware. We treasure this ability. We cultivate rhetorical eloquence and precision in science and philosophy, and raise language to high levels of artistic expression in literature, theater, poetry. More than that, people often seem to associate their own particular language with their identity, an association that sometimes has far-reaching social consequences. The centrality of language in our lives, our awareness of it, and the emotional attachment we form to it sometimes result in misunderstandings about what language actually is. Here are some common attitudes about language that result from such misunderstandings: a. b. c. d.

We learn the structure of our language in school. Some languages are primitive, especially languages that are not written. My language is better/purer/higher/more intelligent than your language. Language and speech are the same thing, or, in other words, a language that is not spoken, that has no sound, is not a real language.

By making the study of language a scientific enterprise, like the study of vision or of physics, linguists have shown that not one of those statements is true. The grammatical structure of a language is something that any native user of a language has acquired in childhood just through normal exposure—without ever having been taught. By the time a child comes to first grade s/he already knows most of the grammatical rules of his/her language; the system is in place. The grammatical ‘rules’ taught in school are mostly just descriptions of patterns that 1

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already exist in the speakers’ minds (or existed at some earlier time in the history of the language). Systematic research on thousands of languages, from those used by the most isolated tribes to languages of the most technologically advanced societies, has proven that all languages have complex grammatical structure and the potential for richness of expression.1 Languages are not high or low, smart or dumb. They are all made of the same stuff, and all are the product of the same human brain.

LANGUAGES OF SIGNS The final misconception mentioned above—that language equals speech, that language requires sound—brings us to the topic of this book. About half a century of linguistic research on sign languages has shown conclusively that this belief is false. Instead, sign languages have complex grammatical structure just as spoken languages do. They too are acquired naturally and without instruction if children have normal exposure to them. And they have the potential for nuances of reasoning and emotion, for wit and art that spoken languages have. The people for whom a sign language is the primary language feel just as strongly about their language as do speakers of Hebrew, English, Chinese, or French. It is their natural vehicle for clear description, reasoning, expression of opinions and feelings, humor, and story telling. Put simply, sign languages are real languages. And, when you think about it, you realize it’s natural that it should be so. They are the product of the same human brain and the same communicative imperatives that are behind spoken languages. It is as if our communicative instinct causes language to emerge on sound waves produced by the vocal apparatus and perceived by the ears if this channel is available; if not, language comes through the hands, face, and body, and is perceived by the eyes. The existence of sign languages often gives rise to another set of misconceptions. People often believe that signs are simply mimetic or iconic gestures, that there is only one universal sign language, or (paradoxically) that sign languages are based on spoken languages. It is easy to demonstrate that all three notions are myths. No two languages, spoken or signed, are the same. In fact, it may come as a surprise that sign languages are distinguished first and foremost by their vocabularies. This may be surprising because people have an intuitive feeling that sign languages are made of gestures that represent in pictorial fashion the concept being conveyed. While there is an element of truth to this intuition, it does not even come close to predicting the vocabularies of sign languages, or to explaining why there are so many differences between them. Figure 1–1

1 Pidgin or contact languages are excluded. These makeshift languages are not in the category of ‘native language’ as they have no native speakers, by definition.

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FIGURE 1–1. Signs for ‘day’ in Israeli Sign Language and Russian Sign Language, and ‘woman’ in ISL, RSL, and American Sign Language.

shows the signs DAY in two different sign languages and WOMAN2 in three different sign languages, demonstrating that even such everyday words are completely different in each language. Even words that do bear a transparent—or iconic—relationship to their meaning are often different from sign language to sign language, as the signs for BIRD in ISL and American Sign Language illustrated in Figure 1–2 show. And of course, a large proportion of signs in any sign language are not iconic at all, both signs that have concrete meanings, like EXHIBITION, shown in Figure 1–3a, and signs that have abstract meanings, like CHARACTER, shown in Figure 1–3b. 2

We follow the convention in the sign language literature of writing the meaning of signs using capital letters. See Appendix C, Notational Conventions.

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FIGURE 1–2. Two iconic but different signs for ‘bird’ in two sign languages.



FIGURE 1–3. (a) A non-iconic sign with a concrete meaning: ISL EXHIBITION. (b) A non-iconic sign with an abstract meaning: ISL CHARACTER.

These few examples put all three common myths to rest. In fact none of these common preconceptions could be factual, given one simple piece of information: Sign languages are created spontaneously by deaf people wherever they have an opportunity to get together regularly. The instinct to communicate is natural, and the human brain ‘knows’ how to structure this communication into a regular system of a particular kind. GOALS OF THIS BOOK It has been our privilege to study Israeli Sign Language (ISL) for more than fifteen years. We have investigated and analyzed this language in the context of

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research on other sign languages and of spoken languages as well. By studying sign languages, languages that exists in a different physical modality, linguists have learned much more about the human language faculty than we ever could have done by studying spoken languages alone. How is this so? It is commonly known that spoken languages have different levels of structure. They have sounds that go together to make words, and meaningful word bits that go together to make more complex words; they have syntactic rules for combining those words into sentences; and semantic principles for interpreting the whole thing. They also have rhythmic and intonational cues for telling the listener how to divide up the speech stream, which words are more important than others, and whether the expression is an assertion or a question. The fundamental question that has driven our research and that of likeminded linguists has been: How do sign languages do all that? We ask: Do sign languages have the equivalent of sounds? Are there complex words in sign language? Complex sentences? Can a language without sound have intonation? If sign languages do have these levels of structure, are they similar to the corresponding elements in spoken languages? How much of language is shared universally by all languages? Each of these questions is dealt with in depth in the pages that follow. A major goal of the present book is to provide an up-to-date introduction to the nature and structure of sign languages in general by focusing on a particular sign language, Israeli Sign Language. We aim to do so by examining this language in detail, but in non-technical language that any interested reader— linguist, school teacher, or interpreter; parent or other family member of a deaf child; firefighter or movie director—can understand and appreciate. The reader may be asking a natural question about now, namely, is it possible to provide a general overview of sign language by looking at one language only? The answer to this is: It is, and it isn’t. It is quite true that sign languages differ from one another, and are not even mutually intelligible. Not only do the vocabularies differ, but every sign language also constructs and refines its own grammatical structure. At the same time, all sign languages have a good deal in common, an interesting fact in itself. We believe that both the sign language-general characteristics and the sign language-particular traits are of equal importance in understanding what language is about. And we are careful to distinguish the two throughout the book. Sign languages have a good deal in common for two main reasons. First, they are all transmitted in the manual-visual modality. Quite naturally, languages in space make use of the properties of the physical modality in which they are transmitted in constructing their grammatical structures, often with similar results across sign languages. Second, sign languages are all relatively new languages. This is because a community is required in order for any communication system to crystallize into a full language, and such communities typically arise in schools for deaf children, a relatively recent phenomenon (Woll, 1983). Here we take a lesson from pidgin and creole languages, new spoken languages that arise as speakers of different languages are bought together and have to communicate

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with each other over extended periods of time. It is well known from the study of pidgins and creoles that new languages tend to share a number of characteristics, and sign languages are no exception. For these two reasons, a lot can be learned about sign language in general by the careful study of any one sign language. This book, then, has two central goals: to describe Israeli Sign Language and its community of signers, and to introduce readers to languages in the sign modality more generally. The first sign language to be studied extensively was ASL (Klima & Bellugi, 1979). As studies of that language became deeper in theoretical content and broader in scope, investigation of other sign languages began, each adding to our knowledge and understanding of language in the manual-visual modality (e.g., Engberg-Pedersen, 1993; Kyle & Woll, 1985; Sutton-Spence & Woll, 1999; Zeshan, 2000). In this book, we point out both similarities and differences between ISL and ASL in particular, and include information about other sign languages as well. In this way, we hope to show specific parameters along which the grammatical structure of sign languages converge and diverge from one another.

Part I: Describing the Language In Part I, which constitutes the core of the book, we unfold the answers that we have found to questions about ISL in particular, about sign languages in general, and about how these languages encode the same kinds of information that spoken languages do, often using similar types of structure. The story that we tell is as detailed as it needs to be in order to make our points clearly, but it assumes no prior formal knowledge of linguistics on the part of the reader. It shows how language manifests itself in the medium of signs. Using traditional tools of linguistic investigation, we take the language apart, and describe the way words are built up from meaningless elements, how more complicated words can be constructed from meaningful parts, the way in which sentences are put together, and how the whole system is given more meaning and expressiveness through the intonation expressed on the face of the signer. We show how a language of signs is composed of a myriad of patterns. And we try to go beyond metaphorical comparisons with spoken language by making explicit the ways in which some of these patterns resemble those of language in the oral-aural modality. One example, found in Chapter 9, will bring this point home. Israeli Sign Language has several ways of negating words and sentences. One of them is by adding a particular negative sign at the end of a noun sign to give the meaning ‘without X’ or ‘X-less’. Figure 1–4a and b show the signs IMPORTANCE LESS (‘without importance’) and INTERESTLESS (‘without interest/of no interest’). Two similarities with the patterns of spoken language are apparent here. First, this type of negation is formed by adding a suffix (similar to -less in English words like homeless, penniless, clueless). Second, the negative suffix has two different forms, depending on the form of the noun it attaches to. If the noun is

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FIGURE 1–4a, b. Two words containing a negative suffix in ISL.

two-handed, the suffix is two-handed, but if the noun is one-handed, so is the suffix. This kind of variation in ‘pronunciation’ is commonly associated with prefixes and suffixes in spoken language too. We say inadequate and inordinate, but imprecise and immeasurable. If the word to which we attach the prefix inbegins with a sound made with the lips, then we use the alternate form of the prefix, im-, whose last sound, [m], is also made with the lips. So, a language in either modality may have a prefix or suffix with a particular grammatical function, and the form of the prefix or suffix in either language modality may be systematically influenced by the form of the word it attaches to. This kind of convergence of patterns in languages in the two modalities— spoken and signed—gives us good reason to think that the two systems are closely related. Examples like these throughout Part I provide evidence that some things will inevitably characterize human language, whatever its physical form.

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Part II: The Language and Its Community Even if all languages have certain organizing principles in common, each language is refined and expanded by its community of users. The words and specific grammatical structures of a language arise through the communication of the people who use it. Over time, as that community grows, as its communicative domains increase and diversify, and as the world of concepts about which it communicates expands, the language evolves to accommodate these changes. This process is not planned or contrived; it occurs naturally and spontaneously. Just as a community defines its language, so does a language define its community. If a hearing person from a foreign land hears someone speaking his or her native language as s/he strolls down the Champs Elysée in Paris, s/he immediately feels that s/he has a great deal in common with that person. This bond between language and community is doubly clear in the case of the language of Deaf people. There are many Deaf communities in the world, and all of them are grounded first and foremost in the use of sign language. Because Deaf people have a language, they are not mute, whether or not they happen also to speak. Their language, a visual language of the hands and body, has its own special character, a unique union of experience and expression. It is this special language that creates a Deaf community, and not the lack of hearing or the lack of speech. In other words, the Deaf community is defined by what it has, and not by what it lacks. Because Deaf people define themselves as a social group with its own language and culture, it has become customary to refer to members of that group and to the community as a whole by the term Deaf, with a capital D. Little-d deaf is reserved for describing the clinical auditory condition. As we are interested mainly in the social and linguistic aspects of deafness, we adopt the bigD convention here for describing Deaf people and the Deaf community. In Part II of the book, we take a closer look at the language in its social context. We describe the history of the Deaf community in Israel and the birth and development of ISL. Our interest in the history of this community was sparked by a presentation given by one of the Deaf sign language consultants associated with our lab, an architect by profession, Meir Etedgi. At a symposium we organized at The University of Haifa in 1998, Etedgi described the formation of the Deaf community in Israel. He had consulted the archives at the National Association of the Deaf in Israel and interviewed some of its founding members, and he began to put together a fascinating picture of what things were like in the early days. Together with Meir Etedgi, we set about trying to learn more about that community by interviewing its oldest members and by reading its annals in the archives of the National Association of the Deaf in Israel. In Chapter 11 we report the story that unfolded: when and under what conditions Deaf people dis-

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covered each other and began to congregate, how the idea arose to form an association—how a community originated. As the Israeli Deaf community is relatively young, we have the advantage of learning firsthand about its formation from its founders and their families. But it is likely that Deaf communities the world over have experienced some of the same growing pains and achievements, and we hope that our local account will be of more general interest, and will also encourage similar documentation elsewhere. The community of ISL signers is quite new, and modern ISL grew out of their early communication systems. In the years in which the country was forming, Deaf people brought with them whatever signing they had used in their country of origin, and Israeli Sign Language was born. We have managed to learn something about that process and about earlier forms of the language, which we report in Chapter 12 of the book. But the human side of Israeli Sign Language cannot be told fully by linguists or chroniclers. It must be told also by the people whose language it is. In Chapter 13 we bring you four narratives. Three were first presented in ISL at a symposium conducted at The University of Haifa in 1996, called ‘Seeing Voices’, and have been translated to English here. One was written more recently. Each presents the point of view of a different Deaf person; collectively they convey something of the essence of ISL in the lives of Israeli Deaf people— and of the place of sign language in the lives of Deaf people everywhere. Part III: The Big Picture In the past 30 years or so, the study of sign language has left the realm of the arcane, and entered the mainstream of theoretical linguistic research. Major linguistics journals frequently feature articles on sign languages; prominent publishers are actively seeking to publish books on the topic; international linguistics conferences include talks and sessions on sign languages. The reason for this should be clear. The realization that language exists in two modalities, spoken and signed, means that we must commit ourselves to the serious study of both. Languages in the two modalities share certain defining properties, properties which we deduce must be the essential universals of human language. Sign languages, like spoken languages, have word structure, syntactic structure, and even phonology, the equivalent of a sound system. But other properties distinguish the two. For example, as we make clear in Part I Chapters 4–7, sign language grammars use the positioning and relation of the hands in space to organize their grammatical structure. Special codified facial expressions play the role of intonation in sign languages (Chapter 10). Such properties must in some way be attributed to the modality of expression. In Part III, we consider theoretical issues such as these. We ask, What have we learned about language through cross-sign-linguistic research, and What is the relevance of sign language research for linguistic theory in general? We conclude that it is only by

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comparing language in the two modalities in which it naturally manifests itself that we can fully understand this remarkable human capacity. This book is based on an earlier version written in Hebrew for an Israeli audience. We have revised, cut, and added to that version considerably, with the goal of making it interesting and relevant for an international audience. We are aiming at a wide audience, and we take it for granted that different readers may be interested in different parts or chapters of the book. For this reason, we have offered suggested reading at the end of each chapter, some of it general and some specifically for linguists. This results in a certain amount of redundancy, since some references appear at the ends of several different chapters, but we assume that this approach will make it possible to use the book as a handbook for those who wish to do so. One difference from the earlier version is the inclusion in Chapter 15 of a synopsis of our more recent work on a new sign language that developed among a community of Bedouins in the Israeli Negev, conducted with colleagues Carol Padden and Mark Aronoff. This language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), is one of a number of distinct sign languages used by small groups of Deaf people in Arab, Druze, and Bedouin towns and villages in Israel. This language has a lot to teach us about the most basic elements of human language, and is the object of an ongoing research project. But our main focus in this book is the language of a community of about 8,000 Deaf people that is used throughout the country: Israeli Sign Language.

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Part I The Linguistic Structure of Israeli Sign Language

Through language, every community of humans can perform a wide range of communicative functions. Language enables us to transfer information, ask for information, express feelings and desires, and cause others to do things. We can use language to talk about language itself, as we are doing now. And the stuff of language can provide the raw material for creating art, as in poetry, theater, and other literary forms. Language is used by all human societies, which leads to the conclusion that it is part of our evolutionary and biological makeup. Each of these social and cultural functions of language is worthy of study, as are its biological underpinnings, and academic disciplines have been built up around each of them. Underlying the social, cultural, and biological contexts of language are the particular characteristics and structure of the system itself. In order to try to understand this system, it is useful to approach it from several different angles, each leading to a different level of structure that combines with the others to create the system as a whole. One is the level of the internal organization of words—how the different parts of a word are organized with respect to each other. The words combine into phrases, which in turn come together in the sentences we speak. Superimposed on it all is prosody, the rhythm and intonation that give further nuance and meaning to our utterances. The properties of human languages at each of these levels distinguish them from other communication systems, like those used by birds, bees or monkeys (Anderson, 2004). Most of us are used to thinking about all of these characteristics of language from the point of view of spoken languages. But do they all find some manifestation in sign languages as well? And if so, how? The first part of the book, ‘The linguistic structure of Israeli Sign Language’, deals with several central aspects of the structure of this sign language. In its chapters, we will lay out some of the mechanisms found in ISL that correspond to those of spoken languages. Frequent specific comparisons with familiar spoken languages will help make more accessible some of the aspects of sign language that may seem unfathomable at first sight. Comparisons of this


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kind will also bring into focus points of similarity and of difference between languages transmitted in the two different physical modalities. Some of the questions we will deal with are these: Does a manual-visual language have grammatical means that are parallel to those of spoken languages? Does it have special ways of ‘doing’ language that are not shared by spoken languages? In this part of the book, we examine the structural means that ISL, as a manual-visual language, recruits to perform all the linguistic tasks of human language. We mentioned that every language is made up of several structural levels: the word level, the phrase and sentence levels, and the prosodic level, all necessary for constructing and deciphering the meaningful utterances of language. Let’s take a preliminary look at these levels, and consider some questions that sign languages raise for each of them. Perhaps the most central unit of language is the word. Though it is very difficult to find a satisfactory linguistic definition for ‘word’, speakers of a language have clear intuitions about the words of their language. The most basic characteristic of a word is that it is two-faceted: it consists of a form and a meaning. Every word has a specific form, the sounds which comprise it; and every word denotes some meaning. Spoken words are not holistic, unanalyzable units, since every word consists of speech sounds. For example, the word hope consists of three sounds: [h], [o], [p]. The sounds themselves are meaningless; individual sounds do not convey any meaning. But sounds combine to create a meaningful unit, the word. The description of the speech sounds of a language and the way they combine to form larger units are the domain of phonology. In Chapter 2, we consider whether words in a sign language also consist of smaller units, parallel to the sounds of speech. Linguistic analysis of the structure of signs will show that sign languages do have a phonological level, though the physical characteristics of the basic units are different from those of spoken languages. Words in most spoken languages may also contain smaller units that do have a meaning or a grammatical function. For example, the word unavoidable consists of the verb avoid, to which the suffix -able is added, converting the verb into an adjective, and when the prefix un- is attached, the antonym to that adjective is formed. Each of these word parts, un- and -able, is meaningful. Another device that languages often use is the concatenation of two words to form a new concept, such as blackboard and snowman. The ability to put together words and parts of words to create new words contributes to the richness of languages. This level of structure and its study are called morphology. Does a visual language have the ability to create complex words? What structural means does it employ? Chapter 3 focuses on the structure of the words in the ISL lexicon, and lays out various ways in which the language can create complex words to enrich its vocabulary. Some of these mechanisms are familiar from spoken languages, such as the use of prefixes and suffixes. But certain morphological processes in ISL and, as we will show, in other sign languages as well, are unique to visual languages, such as the ability to represent

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an entity iconically, by directly representing some visual feature of that entity with the hands. When words are put together in sentences, their form may change depending on their role in the sentence. For example, the words walk, walks, walking, walked, are all forms of the same lexical item—walk—but each encompasses a different set of grammatical features. The form walks indicates that the subject of the sentence is a 3rd person singular noun and that the verb is in the present tense form, while the form walked indicates that the verb is in the past tense form. In this case as well, a language may use different means to convey this type of grammatical information. English often uses suffixes such as -s, -ed, -ing, but in some verbs (the so called ‘strong verbs’), past tense is indicated by a change in the vowel instead, for example, write—wrote. Languages differ from each other in the amount of grammatical information encoded in one word. In English there is just one form indicating past tense for every verb (except for the verb to be, which has two past tense forms: was and were). In Hebrew, on the other hand, there are nine forms for each past tense verb, indicating not only past tense, but also whether the subject of the verb is 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, whether it is singular or plural, and whether it is masculine or feminine. Other languages are far more complex than English or Hebrew. The single word Näïkìmlyìïà, in the Bantu language Kivunjo (spoken in Tanzania), means ‘He is eating it for her’ (Pinker, 1994, p. 127). Like other languages, ISL has a way to change the form of a word in order to convey different grammatical relations between it and other words in the sentence. One of these ways exploits an option that is unique to sign languages, and stems directly from the physical modality of their transmission: the use of space. In signed languages, but not in spoken languages, both the signer and the addressee can see the articulators—the hands, face and body. They can perceive with their eyes the movement of the hands in space, the specific handshape(s) they take, and the spatial relation between the two hands. Sign languages recruit this capability to create grammatical systems. Chapters 4–7 examine four grammatical systems in ISL which make use of space: the pronoun system (the equivalent of I, you, s/he, we, they), the verb agreement system (the way some ISL verbs indicate the subject and the object of verbs), the expression of time, and the classifier system, a system which conveys information about motion and location in space. The ability to use space in its grammar enables ISL (and sign languages generally) to express certain categories and relations among elements in a way that is very different from that of English, Hebrew, or other spoken languages. For example, in addition to the identity of the subject and the object, the forms of the verb in ISL also convey their spatial role, as the source or goal of an event of motion or transfer. A description of these grammatical systems will help to clarify both the similarities and differences between the two types of languages, spoken and signed.

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Words and their building blocks, sounds and meaningful word parts, create complex linguistic forms of the kinds we have just sketched. But the grammar of a language cannot consist of words alone, as important as they may be. Imagine trying to learn a language, any language, by just using a dictionary. This is impossible, of course, since a dictionary does not contain the information about how words are put together in the language to create larger units— phrases and sentences. Such information, which constitutes the syntax of the language, provides the blueprint for creating different types of sentences—like declarative, negative and interrogative, for example. The rules of syntax specify the order of words in sentences, and how function words (such as the, in, a, my, not, how) are combined with content words (like woman, run, strong) in different types of sentences. They also determine the ways in which statements, questions, and other sentence types are related to each other. Like any other language, ISL has specific syntactic rules and structures. We describe some of them in Chapters 8 (word order) and 9 (negative and interrogative constructions). Comparison with spoken languages reveals that the sentence structures found in ISL are not unique to it; they occur in spoken languages as well, though not necessarily in English. The sentences formed by syntactic rules applying to words, which in turn were put together both from meaningless elements (sounds in spoken language) and from meaningful word parts, are still not the finished product of language. Another system comes into play which is superimposed on the language signal and gives additional cues to meaning of the sentence, and to the intent of the speaker. The system also demarcates different parts of the sentence, presumably leading to easier understanding. This part of the grammar, called prosody, manipulates rhythm, prominence (stress), and the pitch of the voice (intonation) to perform these functions. Prosody alone can make a difference in the meanings of utterances. For example, in many languages, such as Hebrew and Russian, the intonation is usually the only feature distinguishing a statement from a question. The difference between the two Hebrew sentences dan yashen (‘Dan is asleep’) and dan yashen? (‘Is Dan asleep?) is signaled by intonation alone; the question has rising intonation at the end. We make use of rhythm and stress or prominence to separate the parts of a sentence and to signal which element is intended to be more in focus. Since the machinery of spoken language prosody is inherently vocalic in nature, you might expect prosody to be restricted to language in the spoken modality. Yet we found a parallel system in ISL, which uses the machinery of a visual language. Facial expressions are central to this system, and Chapter 10 is devoted to this aspect of the prosodic system of ISL. Facial expression plays other roles as well, and these are also mentioned in Chapter 10. Part I lays out the essence of the research we have conducted on ISL. It may be helpful to add a few words about our research methods—how we discovered what we are reporting here. ISL is not the native language of either of the authors. How do you start investigating a language under such circumstances?

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Luckily, many linguists before us had found themselves in a similar situation, studying indigenous languages of the Americas, of Australia, and many other places in the world, languages that they did not know when they started. Nor were we the first linguists to attempt to discover the structure of a sign language. American Sign Language and many other sign languages had already been systematically studied when we began our work on ISL, and other linguists working on other sign languages were publishing their results as we were collecting and publishing ours. I. M. Schelsinger had published some initial studies on ISL, which also gave us a point of entry. In our work, we relied on methods developed for field linguistics, that is, the systematic investigation of languages which are undocumented and are not known to the investigator. In such cases, the researchers work closely with native speakers of the language under observation. In the sign language case, we mean people who acquired the language as their native language from their parents, that is, Deaf people whose parents are also Deaf. Since it is usually the case that over 90 percent of deaf people have hearing parents, it is difficult to know when they acquired the language and under what circumstances. The age of acquisition in particular can have an effect on language proficiency, and the native language requirement ensures that all signers who provide the data for analyzing the language have native proficiency. Every study of a particular linguistic topic begins with establishing a data base, using various techniques. One is to construct written sentences or short paragraphs in the ambient spoken language—Hebrew in our case—which are expected to elicit the linguistic structures we wish to investigate, and to ask our consultants to translate them to ISL. When using the translation method, it is important that the translation convey the same message, but is not tied to the structure of the Hebrew sentence. This means that the consultants have to be fluent in Hebrew as well, and to be able to draw a clear distinction between ISL and Hebrew structures. This requires good intuition on the part of both investigators and users of the language—and it also requires training. In the preliminary stages of research, the specific structure that we want to elicit may not show up in the ISL translation, because this particular structure exists in Hebrew but not in ISL. In such cases, we have to change the Hebrew material. For example, when we started investigating the negation structures (described in Chapter 9), we made up many sentences which contained negation of verbs and adjectives. We were surprised to learn that the ISL translations of these sentences contained very few negation structures. It turned out that in many cases, our consultants preferred using an antonym instead of a negation construction. So, a sentence such as ‘The lecture was not interesting’ was translated as ‘The lecture was boring’; the sentence ‘He did not go out of the house’ was translated as ‘He stayed home’. In order to get negation constructions in ISL, we had to choose adjectives which do not have clear-cut antonyms (such as color terms, e.g., red, blue, green) or to build types of sentences that would compel signers to use negation words.

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Although translation is a viable research method in the hands of experienced linguists and consultants, the method has its pitfalls, such as interference from the written material. One way of overcoming this problem is to make sure that the consultant internalizes the elicitation material, puts it aside, and then signs its meaning in ISL to another native consultant, and not to the investigator, who turns into a fly on the wall. A different way of eliciting data is by using nonverbal material, such as pictures, animated movies, or short video clips carefully created with the purpose of eliciting specific kinds of sentences. The consultant is then asked to describe what s/he saw to another consultant. Ideally, several consultants perform the same task, to make sure we are not getting a dialect of one, or an individual style of signing. All the data are recorded by using video cameras. These video records are the basis for the research. The data are then back-translated into Hebrew, and coded in various ways, according to the topic under investigation. For example, in order to study the grammatical roles of facial expressions, it is necessary to code every part of the face involved: the brows, eyes, mouth, nose, cheeks, and head and body posture. Coding a one-second sentence may take 15–30 minutes! Research focusing on the use of space necessitates coding the position of the hands in each and every sign. After the translation and the initial coding, some generalizations may emerge, giving rise to new hypotheses, which we further examine. At that stage we often have to construct more elicitation material, in order to obtain more focused and detailed data. And of course, we work with the consultants, for example, demonstrating some other way of responding to a particular stimulus, and asking whether that way is also possible. In order to determine what is grammatical in a language, it is necessary to understand what is ungrammatical as well. As we pointed out, all our consultants are native signers who acquired ISL at home from their parents, and use it as their main language. Nevertheless, a language is never wholly uniform. First, there are individual variations; each speaker or signer has his/her own stylistic preferences and inclinations to use certain structures over others. Age is another factor contributing to variability, since every language, signed or spoken, changes over time. In addition, there are differences between more and less formal registers of the language. Finally, it is very likely that future studies will reveal aspects of the grammar which we have missed so far, and some that are still evolving. Language is dynamic, not static, and this state of affairs surrounds the description of any language. In Part 1, we show what Israeli Sign Language is made of by describing many aspects of its grammar. We aim for a description that is clear enough to be understood by lay people as well as by linguists who have never encountered sign language before, and detailed enough to interest people familiar with sign language but not with this particular sign language. Above all, we hope to show what a language that is transmitted in the only other natural modality humans have is made of, and what is meant by a grammar of sign language— any sign language.

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This part of the book is also intended to serve as a basis for the other two parts. Part II unfolds the history of the Deaf community in Israel, which began with a small group of people only about 70 years ago. The full-blown language described in Part 1 did not start out that way, and Part II also gives information about how the ISL of today developed from what was apparently a much simpler system. This first part of the book also provides a context for the theoretical issues addressed in Part III: the contribution of research on sign language in general, and on ISL in particular, to the field of linguistics, and to our understanding of human language. A meaningful discussion of these issues necessarily relies on an understanding of what sign language research is like, and what it has discovered.

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2 The Basic Components of the Word in Sign Language

We begin the linguistic analysis of sign language by focusing on this question: Are the words of sign languages comprised of smaller units, corresponding to the sounds of spoken language? It is at this level of structure, the phonological level, that the smallest linguistic units of spoken language are organized— at the level of the consonants and vowels that constitute the building blocks of the word.1 The fact that the words of spoken language are comprised of smaller meaningless units is a significant one, with far-reaching consequences. It is this property that allows language to be at once economical and rich in expressive power—economical because the phonological inventory of each language is comprised of only a small number of sounds, and richly expressive because combining and recombining these basic units results in the enormous vocabularies that each language possesses. But when you look at a sign, it is not at all obvious that it can be broken down into smaller units of this kind. If it can’t—if sign languages are not constructed on the same principle—then it’s possible that they might be less economical than spoken languages, and that they might lack their expressive power. The sections that follow will show that this is not the case. Signs are indeed comprised of a set of smaller meaningless units that combine in particular ways to create a lexicon with the expressive potential needed for any human language. THE MEANINGLESS BUILDING BLOCKS OF WORDS At the intuitive level, it seems obvious that words are made up of sounds, like the [k], [I], and [s] of the word, kiss. But if we consider the nature of these 1

In this chapter and throughout the book, we will often refer use the term ‘word’ interchangeably with the term ‘sign’.


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sounds at a deeper level, we discover what is special about the system. First, the number of distinct sounds in the inventory of a language—traditionally called phonemes—is very limited. Some languages, like Hawaiian with 11 phonemes, have tiny inventories, while others, like !Xu with 134 distinct sounds, have a relatively large set. The vast majority of the world’s languages have between 25 and 45 phonemes2. And in all cases, the number of distinct sounds is very small compared to the vast vocabularies that are generated by combining different numbers of these sounds in different orders within a word. English has about 41–44 phonemes (depending on the dialect and how you count), which is enough to create the 30,000 or so words that an educated English speaker is said to command, as well as all 315,000 entries in Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. In addition to the quantitative difference between sounds and words, there is a qualitative difference as well: each sound by itself has no meaning, but the words they make up are meaningful units. This means that language has two levels of structure that are qualitatively different from one another: a meaningless level and a meaningful level. And the latter is built up from the former. For example, no one sound of the sounds [k], [I], [s] has meaning on its own, but when they are joined together, they create a new unit, kiss, which does have meaning. By combining elements of one kind, meaningless sounds, we create an element of a different kind—a meaningful unit, a word. 3 This property of language is known as duality of patterning, an essential characteristic of human language (Hockett, 1960). Sounds conform to a system of combinatory rules when they come together to form words. Speakers know intuitively which sounds can go together in the words of their native language, and which cannot. Take, for example, two hypothetical words, plass and pnass. Neither of these words exists in English, but they don’t have equal status as possible words of English. Plass is a possible word; one can imagine using it as a brand name for a new furniture polish, for example. But pnass could never be a word in English because the combination pn is not allowed at the beginning of a word. Many of the constraints on combinations of sounds are specific to a given language. A speaker of Modern Hebrew would accept pnass as a possible word, for example, because the combination pn is possible at the beginning of a word in that language, as we see in the word pnina, ‘pearl’. In order to describe the phonological structure of a language, the linguist starts by attempting to make a list of all the sounds. This may seem like a simple task: you make a comprehensive word list, you determine which sounds comprise each word, and then you list them. But the job is not as simple as it 2

The figures are from the UCLA Phonological Segment Database (UPSID). Linguists consider the smallest meaningful unit in language to be the morpheme, rather than the word. Morphemes are meaningful units consisting of combinations of sounds, which can either be words on their own or parts of words. For example, rewrite is one word with two morphemes—the root, write, and the prefix, re-, which bears the meaning of ‘do X again’. Such meaningful word parts in ISL will be discussed in Chapter 3. 3

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seems. For one thing, two sounds that seem different from one another in any given language may not really function as distinct. Take for example a vowel like [o] in English. In a word like bone, this sound has a very nasal quality because it is influenced by the following sound, [n]. To grasp the difference, say the word bone aloud very slowly, paying attention to the sound of the [õ] 4. Then try to use the very same kind of [õ] sound in the word bow. Without the following [n], this nasal kind of an [õ] sounds very strange in English, rather like a comic impression of a telephone operator (when they were real humans and not synthesized). Now say hope, again dragging out the [o] and attending to its sound. If you now put the non-nasal [o] from the word hope into bone, it sounds strange as well—like you have a cold in the nose. These different perceptions show that the two sounds [o] and [õ] are objectively quite different from one another. Nevertheless, in English, the two are thought of as the same sound. This is because, no matter how odd it may sound to substitute one for the other, the substitution does not make a difference in meaning. They may be different, but they are not distinct sounds in English; substituting one for the other does not make a difference in meaning. To demonstrate that the two [o] sounds are actually different, consider a language in which they are distinct: French. In that language, the same two sounds are really distinct—they can make a difference in meaning. The word bon [bõ] with a nasal [õ] means ‘good’, and the word beau [bo] with a plain [o] means ‘beautiful’.5 Yet in English, no such meaning difference occurs when we switch the two sounds. The two sounds do not act like they are distinct in English. Native English speakers feel that they are the same sound, while native French speakers feel that the two are different sounds. And of course the native speakers are right in both cases! The moral of the story is this: It is not only the physical manifestations of sounds that count; the way that sounds pattern in languages is equally important. It is this notion of distinct sounds that the linguist uses in determining the inventory of sounds in a given language. The nasal [õ] and the non-nasal [o] in French are distinct, because they make a difference in meaning. Such sounds are traditionally called distinct phonemes. In English, they do not make a difference in meaning, and so they are not distinct phonemes in that language. Instead, the two different pronunciations of [o] belong to the same phoneme in English.6 The  over the o represents the nasalized quality of the sound. The relation between the way a word is written in a given language and the way it is pronounced may often be obscure and even misleading. For this reason, linguists use a more objective transcription system, as exemplified here within square brackets, such as [bo] for beau in French or [hop] for hope in English. 6 Two related sounds that do not make a difference in meaning, like the nasal and nonnasal [o] of English, are called allophones of the same phoneme. Not only [o] but all English vowels have nasal allophones, which occur whenever the vowel is followed by a nasal sound such as [n] or [m]. 4 5

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The discovery of minimal pairs—pairs of words that are identical except for one sound in the same position in the word—is the technique that linguists use to work out the inventory of distinct sounds for any language. The French minimal pair [bõ] (bon, ‘good’) and [bo] (beau ‘pretty’) shows that [õ] and [o] are distinct sounds in that language. While English does not make that distinction (there is no minimal pair in English for these two sounds), the same technique shows that [o] is distinct from [u] in English, as the minimal pair hope, hoop—[hop], [hup]—demonstrates. The category of vowels in a given language contains a list of distinctive sounds, and [o] and [u] are two such distinct vowels in English. The other major category of sounds, consonants, also contains many distinct sounds in each language. The minimal pair pit, bit shows that [p] and [b] are distinct sounds in English; the pair hen, hem distinguishes [n] and [m]; and so forth for all the other distinctions made by the phoneme inventory of English. Speech is a dynamic system. The vocal cords, tongue, lips, and other articulators move very quickly and influence each other when we pronounce the words and sentences of language. For this reason, the basic pronunciation of a sound may change under the influence of the sounds around it, as we saw with the vowel [o], which becomes nasalized next to a nasal consonant like [n]. The same thing can happen between words. The [n] of tan in the phrase, The tan boy on the beach often doesn’t sound like [n] at all—it might actually turn into an [m] by bumping into the [b] in the next word—producing tam boy. Try it! To sum up, then, words are made up of distinct sounds, traditionally called phonemes, and the list of phonemes in each language is quite short. The sounds combine with one another according to the rules for combination provided by each language. The way these basic sounds are pronounced can change under the influence of surrounding sounds. Combinations of sounds create units of a different type: words. And words, unlike the sounds of which they are made, have meaning. THE MEANINGLESS BUILDING BLOCKS OF SIGNS The signs of sign languages, of course, cannot be comprised of consonant and vowel sounds because sounds are acoustic signals, while signs are transmitted in the visual domain. So, if we ask the question, ‘Are the words of sign languages made up of consonants and vowel sounds?’, the answer would have to be negative. But the preceding discussion has provided a more fine-grained explanation of the role of sounds in language, one which suggests that the question should be phrased differently: “Are sign languages characterized by the property of duality? Do they also have meaningful units (words) that are comprised of a limited number of smaller units which lack meaning themselves?’ At first glance, each sign appears to be a holistic unit, and it is not clear how we might break this unit down into smaller elements. In fact, for a long

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time signs were viewed in this way, as unanalyzable wholes. This view had a profound influence on attitudes toward sign languages that were held by the general public and by linguists as well. If sign words are holistic entities—if sign languages do not conform to the principle of duality—then they must be fundamentally different from spoken languages. The first person to demonstrate that signs are indeed made up of smaller units was William Stokoe. Stokoe was a professor of English at Gallaudet University (then Gallaudet College) in Washington, D.C., the only university in the world for Deaf students. Through his research, he was able to show systematically that signs of American Sign Language have internal structure, just as spoken words do (Stokoe, 1960). In so doing, Stokoe is credited with paving the way for linguistic research on sign languages, which in turn led to the recognition that they are rich and complex languages, with internal structure and systematicity, just like other languages. But what are the building blocks that comprise the signs of sign languages? How can a sign be broken down into smaller units? One way to find out is by identifying minimal pairs, like hope and hoop, pit and bit, hen and hem. While Stokoe used minimal pairs from American Sign Language, we present minimal pairs from Israeli Sign Language, the language that is the object of our study. The principle is the same: minimal pairs reveal the distinct meaningless units that combine to make a sign language word. The signs SAY and ASK shown in Figure 2–1 are almost identical; they are a minimal pair.

(a) SAY

(b) ASK

FIGURE 2–1. Minimal pair in ISL, distinguished by handshape.

In both signs, the hand moves in an arc path from the mouth forward. The only difference is in the shape of the hand. In SAY, the hand is shaped like this:

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, and in ASK, the hand is shaped like this: .7 Since a difference in handshape results in a difference in meaning, we can deduce two things. First, this pair indicates that one type of building block in ISL is handshape. Second, we find that within the category of handshape, the two specific shapes of SAY and ASK are distinctive units in the language, just as [p] and [b] are distinctive consonants in English. Appendix A lists the inventory of distinctive handshapes in ISL. A different formational category distinguishes the pair LEARN and EAT, pictured in Figure 2–2. The handshapes are the same in these signs, and both are characterized by a small repeated arcing movement from the wrist. What distinguishes the two is the location at which the sign is produced. For LEARN, the location is the head, and for EAT, it is the mouth. The list of major locations in ISL is found in Appendix B.8


(b) EAT

FIGURE 2–2. Minimal pair, distinguished by location.

While there are two major categories of sounds in spoken languages, consonants and vowels, an adequate description of the meaningless level of words in sign languages requires three categories. Figure 2–1 and Figure 2–2 revealed two of them, handshape and location. The third category is movement. For example, the signs ESCAPE and BETRAY, pictured in Figure 2–3, are minimally

7 The source for illustrations of handshapes is S. Prillwitz et al., HamNoSys. Version 2.0. Hamburg Notation System for Sign Languages: An Introductory Guide. Hamburg: Signum, 1989. 8 Each major location is subdivided into smaller areas which can also be distinctive. See the suggested reading list for linguists at the end of the chapter for references to more detailed analyses.

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distinguished by movement. Both of these signs have the handshape , and in both one hand slips out from under the other hand in a direction away from the signer.



FIGURE 2–3. Minimal pair, distinguished by movement.

What distinguishes the two signs is the shape of the movement path. In ESCAPE, the movement is straight, while in BETRAY, it has the shape of a convex arc. Movement, then, is the third category of units that may distinguish signs, and our example shows that ‘straight’ and ‘arc’ are two distinct movements in ISL. So far, we have identified three categories of components in the structure of a sign: handshape, location, and movement. But this division is quite broad. Just as the major spoken phonological categories of consonants and vowels are subdivided into smaller categories such as fricative consonants (like [f ]) or rounded vowels (like [o]), so too do the major phonological categories of sign language have subcategories. One of these is orientation of the hand, a category that distinguishes the signs COMPARE and VACILLATE, pictured in Figure 2–4. In COMPARE, the palms of the hands are oriented upwards, and in VACILLATE, they are oriented downwards. The meaningless formational units of signs, then, belong to three major categories: handshape, location, and movement. Each category contains a list of units (the various possible individual handshapes, locations, and movements) which together comprise the unit inventory of each sign language. From this limited list, all the words of sign languages are created, just as the words of spoken languages are created from the list of consonant and vowel sounds that each contains.

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FIGURE 2–4. Minimal pair, distinguished by the orientation of the hands.

ADDITIONAL FORMATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS OF SIGNS Describing the phonology of spoken languages requires more than a simple specification of each consonant and vowel. Other characteristics also play a part in the phonological system. For example, there is often more than one kind of syllable structure available for forming words in a language. We’ll exemplify this point with words that consist of a single syllable, for clarity. The English syllable teen is called a closed syllable, because it ends in a consonant, while the syllable tee, ending in a vowel, is open. While the same syllable, tee, begins with only one consonant, tree has a cluster of two consonants in its onset, [t] and [r]. Similarly, the end of a syllable may vary in complexity. The syllable fit has a simple end (or ‘coda’), while fist contains a cluster of two consonants in that position. It should come as no surprise that the signs of sign languages also have other formational characteristics in addition to the specification of handshape, location, and movement. The description of signs includes such additional parameters as number of hands and their roles in the sign, type of movement, and the presence of nonmanual components. We will describe the role of each of these in turn. One of the formational elements of sign languages that finds no parallel in spoken language is the presence of two separate but identical articulators: the two hands. While most signs are one-handed (like LEARN and EAT in Figure 2–2), a good number involve both hands. Two-handed signs can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical.9 In symmetrical signs, the two hands have the same 9 The terms ‘symmetrical’ and ‘asymmetrical’ are used informally here, and our usage should not be confused with more precise distinctions involving the same terms found in the sign language literature.

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handshape and they articulate the same kind of movement at the same location (or at mirror locations on or near each side of the body). An example is the symmetrical sign called ‘FA’, and meaning THE-REAL-THING shown in Figure 2–5a. In asymmetrical signs, one hand (the preferred or dominant hand) articulates the sign, while the other hand (the nonpreferred or nondominant hand) is static and functions as the location of that sign. An asymmetrical sign is JUST-THEN, illustrated in Figure 2–5b.



FIGURE 2–5. Two kinds of two-handed signs: (a) symmetrical and (b) asymmetrical.

The movement of the hand or hands along a path may take different forms, such as straight (for example, ESCAPE, Figure 2–3a) or arc (Figure 2–3b SAY). But there are other aspects of movement that may also be present in signs. In addition to path movement from one location to another, signs may be characterized by hand internal movement—either a change in the position of the fingers or a change in the orientation of the hand. The sign SEND shown in Figure 2–6a involves a change in finger position, opening of the fingers. FALL-ASLEEP in Figure 2–6b has the opposite kind of change, closing. Curving of the fingers is exemplified by the sign OPPORTUNITY in Figure 2–6c, and the sign COMPUTER in Figure 2–6d involves wiggling of the fingers, another internal movement. A change in the orientation of the hand, as in DIE in Figure 2–6e, is the second category of internal movement. Complex movements made up of two kinds of movement produced simultaneously also exist. The sign HOMEWARD in Figure 2–7a is characterized by a handshape change internal movement and a path movement outward. SUMMON in Figure 2–7b includes two kinds of internal movement—handshape change and orientation change—also produced simultaneously. Another way in which movements may differ in signs is according to the number of times the movement is produced, once or twice. This distinction

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(a) SEND




(e) DIE

FIGURE 2–6. Signs with various types of internal movement.



FIGURE 2–7. Signs with complex movement.


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can be seen clearly in the minimal pair, LUCK (in Figure 2–8a) with one movement, and LOAN (in Figure 2–8b) with two. Finally, when both hands are involved in a sign that is symmetrical and has two movements, the movement may take different forms. The two hands may move in alternation, as in RUN (Figure 2–9a), or in tandem, as in REFRIGERATOR (Figure 2–9b).

(a) LUCK

(b) LOAN

FIGURE 2–8. Signs distinguished by single versus double movement.

(a) RUN


FIGURE 2–9. Signs distinguished by alternating (a) versus non-alternating (b) movement.

In Chapter 1, we noted that sign languages do not rely on the hands alone. Nonmanual signals such as facial expression also play an important role in different aspects of the linguistic system of these languages. The phonological level, the level that deals with meaningless formational components, is no ex-

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ception; here too nonmanual signals play a role. One example was already seen in the sign ‘FA’, (THE-REAL-THING). This sign is so named because it requires a movement of the mouth that corresponds to that of the spoken syllable [fa]. (We will have more to say about the origin of this sign in Chapter 12.) This mouth movement does not correspond to any word of the ambient spoken language, Hebrew. From the point of view of the ISL lexicon, it is just a meaningless formational element in the entry for the sign. Other facial articulations may also play a role at this level of description. A particular facial expression may be required in characterizing a sign, and two signs may even be distinguished by facial expression alone, as in the minimal pair, DANGEROUS and AWESOME, illustrated in Figure 2–10.



FIGURE 2–10. Signs distinguished by facial expression.

SIGNING IT RIGHT So far, the description presented here has been rather technical, and we may have managed to wear out some of our readers with the specifics of sign formation. But the importance of these details goes beyond mere linguistic description. The components we have described are the building blocks of Israeli Sign Language, and, as with any construction, choosing the wrong building block can result in a structure that is ill-formed and shaky. People learning a sign language for the first time often overlook such details in their sign production, with a result that may be confusing, funny, and sometimes embarrassing. In Figure 2–11 we picture some pairs of signs that are commonly confused by beginners. Using the handshape instead of can turn an interesting book into a dangerous one. Inattention to the orientation of the hands can confuse START with SIMPLE, leading to misinterpretation of the intended message.

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(d) BUY, DEFECATE FIGURE 2–11. Signs commonly confused by beginners learning ISL.


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An internal movement formed by rotating the hand out at the wrist can cause a communication breakdown by turning THANK-YOU into BAD; and using the shape instead of will give the sentence ‘I bought a book’ a different meaning entirely, causing more than a little embarrassment. These small differences may seem inconsequential. Does it really matter whether you use (thumb only) or (thumb and index finger)? To be completely convinced, try making similar mistakes in a language more familiar to most readers, English. If someone learning the language were to confuse [t] and [d] and complain about an annoying drip, do you blame the travel agent or the plumber? Confusing [s] and [sh] could easily stump the vet when asked to save the pet or shave it. Small differences in pronunciation can make big differences in meaning; that’s the way the system works.

THE PHONOLOGY OF SIGN LANGUAGE AS A SYSTEM Stokoe’s discovery that the signs of American Sign Language have internal structure had a revolutionary effect on the way sign language was viewed. First of all, the discovery showed that sign language has duality of patterning, like spoken language. No longer could sign languages be considered merely a gestural or pantomimic form of expression. Instead, they came to be recognized as linguistic systems with their own complex structure. Secondly, this study paved the way for more linguistic research which showed that, like other languages, sign languages are governed by rules. One avenue of study sought to determine whether there are any constraints on the way that the formational elements may combine to make the words or signs of sign languages. In spoken languages, such constraints exist, as we demonstrated with the impossibility of beginning a word with [pn] in English. A more general constraint that holds across spoken languages is one that determines the possible order of sounds in different positions in a word or syllable. The sounds [r] and [p] can only occur in the order [pr] at the beginning of a syllable (prince), while at the end of a syllable, the order must obligatorily be the opposite: [rp] (warp). Linguists investigating American Sign Language discovered constraints on the combinations of elements in that language that hold for other sign languages as well, ISL among them. For example, in signs in which both hands move, the handshapes are typically the same on both hands (Battison, 1978). Figure 2–12a shows a possible sign, STORE, and Figure 2–12b shows an impossible sign, in which both hands move, but with different handshapes. Another constraint has to do with the fingers selected to produce a sign. Although the fingers may change their position in a sign, producing internal movement, the group of fingers selected for the sign may not change; only one finger group is allowed (Mandel, 1981). BE-SURPRISED (Figure 2–13a), in which the index

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(a) possible sign (STORE)

(b) impossible sign

FIGURE 2–12. Symmetry constraint: possible and impossible signs.


(b) impossible sign FIGURE 2–13. Selected finger constraint: possible and impossible signs.


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finger and thumb are both involved

is fine, but Figure 2–13b, with

different finger selections in the same sign , is not possible.10 Constraints such as those described here demonstrate that the individual elements that make up signs enter into a system; they are not fully independent of one another and their combination is not random. Some of the characteristics of the system may be deduced from investigating possible and impossible signs, as we have done here. Other aspects of a phonological system emerge when words come together in sentences. When words combine with one another, the basic elements that make up a word may change under the influence of surrounding elements. One type of change is assimilation, the process by which adjacent elements become more similar to one another. This process was demonstrated earlier in the chapter with the example from English, in which tan boy is optionally pronounced ta[m] boy. The [n] takes on the place of articulation of the [b] that follows it, to produce [m]. Instead of pronouncing [n] by putting the tongue behind the top teeth, the sound is pronounced by closing the lips, that is, at the same place of articulation as [b]. An example of assimilation in ISL can be seen when signs used to mean ‘I’ ‘he’ or other pronouns, or signs used to point out or show locations like ‘there’, come together with other words. Under these circumstances, assimilation of handshape may take place. An example is shown in Figure 2–14, I READ. The handshape of I is

(a) I (in isolation)

and the handshape of READ is

(b) I (assimilated)

. When the two signs

(c) (READ)

FIGURE 2–14. Handshape assimilation: the pronoun I signed in isolation, and signed with the handshape of the sign READ. 10 Both constraints are more properly described as constraints on the morpheme rather than the word, but a discussion of the difference would take us too far afield. What is important here is that constraints on sign formation exist.

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come together in I READ, the handshapes may assimilate, making the shape of I the same as that of READ.11 SEQUENTIALITY AND SIMULTANEITY IN PHONOLOGY OF SIGNED AND SPOKEN LANGUAGE The two physical modalities through which language is transmitted have little if anything in common with each other. One uses the vocal apparatus and is perceived by the ears, while the other uses the hands, face and body, and is perceived by the eyes. It’s precisely these radical differences that make the discovery of similarities at the phonological level at once unexpected and impressive. But phonology is clearly linked to the physical system of transmission, and this linkage does have an effect on the form taken by phonology in each modality, leading also to differences between the two. A fundamental difference is in the way the major formational categories are organized with respect to one another in a word. Even in a short spoken word like ask, three sounds follow one another in a linear sequence: the vowel [æ], and two consonants, [s], and then [k]. The ISL sign ASK, shown in (2–1b) is articulated with elements belonging to the categories of handshape, location, and movement, comparable in some ways to the categories of consonants and vowels. But unlike the sounds in English ask, most of the units of ISL ASK do not follow one another in a sequence. Instead, most of the subunits of handshape, location, and movement are produced simultaneously. During the movement, there is a single handshape, and the location is at or near the mouth throughout the whole sign.12 Is there an explanation for this difference—for the predominance of sequential structure in spoken language and the predominance of simultaneous structure in sign language? A serious discussion of this topic would demand more space than we can allow here, but a few observations are worth noting. For one thing, the hands are much larger and slower articulators than the vocal cords, tongue, and lips. On the other hand, the visual system may be better than the auditory system at perceiving different kinds of information simultaneously (Emmorey, 2002). Since languages in both modalities are charged with conveying sentences of a similar type and at a similar rate of speed, it makes sense that precisely the properties that we find in sign languages would develop. The simultaneous way in which the units that form words are combined

11 A very similar kind of assimilation occurs in ASL (Liddell & Johnson, 1989). Constraints on handshape assimilation of different kinds are found as well (Sandler, 1987; 1999a). 12 The full picture is more complex and more interesting. Most of the units that characterize a sign are produced simultaneously—but not all. There is a degree of linearity in sign language phonology as well. On the other side of the coin, while spoken language is more sequential in its organization, there is a degree of simultaneity in spoken language as well. Interested readers should consult the reading list for linguists at the end of the chapter.

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may compensate for the relative slowness of the articulators (see Bellugi & Fischer, 1972). CONCLUSION The meaningful signs of sign languages, like the words of spoken languages, are made of simpler elements that are meaningless. This duality of patterning characterizes natural language, regardless of modality. A sign is not a holistic gesture, but an entity with internal structure, built up from a finite list of elements which combine in accordance with rules. These two qualities—duality and systematicity—make it possible for sign languages to create rich vocabularies. In the 45 years since the publication of Stokoe’s pioneering monograph, new research on sign language phonology has proceeded in parallel with innovative research in the phonology of spoken language, and comparison of the two systems has produced more interesting and detailed ways of analyzing phonology in general. This work, exploring, for example, different ways in which phonological structure may be sequential and simultaneous, has deepened our understanding of the essential nature of phonology in human language. In this regard, some of the differences between the two modalities have been instructive. At the same time, the impressive similarities at the phonological level of structure bring home most clearly a very important realization: you don’t need sound in order to have language. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Stokoe, W. C. (1960). Sign language structure: An outline of the visual communication systems of the American Deaf. Studies in Linguistics: Occasional Papers (Vol. 8). Buffalo, NY: University of Buffalo. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). (Chapter 9). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Brentari, D. (1998). A prosodic model of sign language phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006). (Unit 3: Phonology). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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3 Vocabulary: Simple and Complex Words

In the previous chapter we demonstrated that sign languages have the means to combine and recombine meaningless primitives to make new words, leading to a potentially rich lexicon. But are sign language lexicons really rich in their expressive power? To pose this question, we really must ask another question first: How is richness measured in a language? Most people probably assume that it is measured in terms of vocabulary size. English is often considered to be a very rich language because English dictionaries contain a large number of entries. The largest English dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, contains about 400,000 entries. A current, comprehensive Hebrew dictionary, the Sapir Dictionary, contains only about half that number, 220,000, and a recent ISL dictionary has 3,000 entries. Why the gaps? One answer is that mere counting not only oversimplifies things, it also obscures other important factors. First, the number of words in a dictionary does not accurately represent the vocabulary used by speakers of the language. Shakespeare, the greatest master of the English language, used ‘only’ about 17,000 words in all of his works together. On the other hand, dictionaries typically contain many words from earlier periods of the language that are no longer in use— words like lest or anon. There are also many technical words that are known only to a small group of people, words like imaging or ergativity or proscenium (from medicine, linguistics, and theater, respectively). At the same time, there are words that speakers do use but that have not yet entered the dictionary. New concepts require new words, and speakers find the means from within their language for creating them. Another factor that must be considered is whether or not a language has a written form. In the many languages that are not written, it is extremely difficult to list all the words, as there are no records to consult. Another factor that makes it difficult to compare vocabulary size is the fact that different languages encode concepts differently. What might be captured by a single word in language A may be expressed by a phrase in language B, or may be very difficult to express at all. Related to this challenge is the fact that languages have different processes for deriving new words from existing ones. If these processes are very productive (i.e., if they apply very generally), then the possible words they can form may not be considered to warrant a dictionary 37

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entry. An example of such a process is the English suffix -ful, that refers to the quantity that a container holds, as in basketful, handful, cupful, thimbleful, etc. The suffix could be added to any container at all with predictable pronunciation and meaning. The word shoeboxful is not contained in any dictionary, though it is a possible word of English. But words formed by processes that are more limited or less predictable—words such as fatherhood, statehood, etc.—may indeed be listed, implying that the process for adding the suffix -hood is more limited, and cannot apply generally to form non-words such as *unclehood or *countryhood. All these confounding factors show us that mere word-counting is not a satisfactory way of determining the richness of a language. A far better way to evaluate the richness of vocabulary by examining systematic means that a language has at its disposal for creating new words as the need arises. Most languages have a variety of ways of creating new words. The most productive way is through morphological processes: exploiting patterns that already exist in the language to derive new complex words. The internal structure of complex words made by such processes, and the complex structure of a word itself, are both called morphology by linguists. An example of a morphological pattern is the addition of morphemes called affixes (prefixes and suffixes in this case) like -ful and -hood above, or of re-, un-, -ment, -ity, etc. The building blocks of morphology are called morphemes—the smallest meaningful units in language. Another common process is compounding, putting two existing words together to form a new word, as in blackboard, pickpocket, basketball, sign language. Different types of morphology are found in other language families. Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic, have a characteristic form of morphology, sometimes called root and pattern morphology. In these languages, roots that typically consist of three consonants are combined with different vowel patterns and rhythmic structures to derive new forms in a systematic way. The root k.t.b., for example, which has a meaning related to writing, takes on numerous forms in Hebrew. In the following sample of forms, the root can be spotted in a variety of patterns (in which [b] may be pronounced as [v], and [k] is pronounced [x] like ‘ch’ in Bach in certain phonological environments): katav, ‘(he) wrote’; katuv, ‘is written’; hitkatev, ‘(he) corresponded’; nixtav, ‘written’; hixtiv, ‘dictated’; mixtav, ‘letter’; ktuba, ‘wedding contract’; katava, ‘write-up, article’; ktovet, ‘address’; ktuviot, ‘subtitles’. These patterns are productive; many other roots in the language can undergo similar derivations. Every known language has resources of various kinds for increasing its lexicon through word building processes. In this chapter, we examine the lexicon of ISL, and demonstrate some of the processes through which the vocabulary of that language expands. The beginning of the chapter constitutes a first pass at dispelling the myth that ISL has an impoverished vocabulary. This myth prevails about many sign languages, and our discussion is meant to dispel the myth generally, not only with respect to ISL.

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We then examine the ISL lexicon from several angles, spelling out some of the systematic word-building processes in more detail. The moral of the story is that a language that is only about 70 years old, which now has a mere 8,000 users, and which has no written form, has a varied and expressive vocabulary, and a wide range of systematic (productive) patterns for creating new words and further enriching its lexicon, like any other language. Throughout, comparisons are made with the morphology of American Sign Language. Similarities between these two languages point to shared characteristics of the vocabularies of sign languages generally. We end the chapter by looking at ways in which this technical productivity of sign language is raised to artistic creativity in story-telling and in poetry, with a specific example of poetry in Sign Language of the Netherlands. Many of our explanations compare ISL with Hebrew, the ambient spoken language. In some cases, Hebrew is especially revealing or interesting because of comparisons that can be made between its root and pattern structure and the structure of signs. But in no way do we mean to imply that ISL is derivative of Hebrew, for it is not. Interestingly, the same morphological properties found in ISL are found in American Sign Language, proving that they are not borrowed or derived from Hebrew. In other cases, Hebrew is used as a mere convenience, and comparison with any other language would do just as well. Often the reader can simply substitute the name of his/her own spoken language to get the point. DIFFICULTIES IN FINDING AND RECORDING THE WORDS: THE LEXICOGRAPHER’S LAMENT There are several factors behind the mistaken impression that ISL (or any sign language) has an impoverished vocabulary. Let’s take a look at two of them: the lack of direct counterparts of Hebrew words in ISL (or of other spoken language words in the corresponding sign language), and the failure to distinguish small but significant differences among signs. Lack of Direct Counterparts of Spoken Language Words in the Sign Language One of the main reasons for the belief that sign languages have impoverished vocabularies is the expectation that every word of the spoken language ought to have a counterpart in sign language. This is a universal misconception, not unique to ISL and Hebrew. People in other places often make the same mistake, assuming, for example, that British Sign Language is impoverished because it has no direct translation for particular English words. Our examples will come mainly from a comparison of ISL and Hebrew, but they are instructive about the relations between vocabularies of different languages generally. For example, according to this expectation, as Hebrew, like English, has differ-

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ent words for ‘soil’ and ‘ground’ (adama, karka), so should ISL. But when we turn to ISL, we discover that there is only one sign for these two Hebrew words. This leads to the assumption that ISL is not as rich as Hebrew because it does not distinguish these two concepts lexically. The trouble is that this assumption, and the expectation that underlies it, are mistaken to begin with. No two languages have parallel lexicons. If we compare Hebrew with English, we immediately see the difficulty in finding exact parallels for words in the two languages. Hebrew, for example, makes a distinction between the words latus ‘to fly by plane’ and laʔ uf ‘to fly under one’s own steam’, while English has only one word to express both concepts—fly. Another example is two words for ‘knowing’: ladaʔ at and lehakir.. The first refers to knowing facts, while the second for knowing people or places, or lines of reasoning, for example. Does the lack of separate words in English for these separate concepts mean that English is an inadequate language? On the other hand, the English word subtle has no Hebrew counterpart at all. Perhaps, then, it is Hebrew that has an impoverished vocabulary? The problem is a mistaken assumption. The premise that the vocabulary of one language must be fully parallel to that of another language is fundamentally wrong. The same is true of comparisons with ISL. Its vocabulary is different from that of Hebrew, making different semantic distinctions. The Hebrew word xaver has at least three meanings: (a) ‘friend’ (b) ‘boyfriend’ (c) ‘member’ (of an organization, committee, etc.). ISL, like English, has a different word for each of these meanings. The Hebrew word dimyon means either ‘imagination’ or ‘similarity’. In ISL, each concept has its own sign. Like many other languages, Hebrew uses the same word—bevakasha—to mean both ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’. ISL, like English in this instance, has two signs for the two notions. As is the case with synonyms in any language, ISL has synonyms without exact counterparts in other languages. Of two words for ‘jealous’, one with the handshape on the chest, and the other with the handshape at the nose, the latter has a more negative connotation. Similarly, there are two words for ‘proud’, shown in Figure 3–1a, one with positive connotations (‘to be proud of someone or something’) and one with negative ones (‘to be proud, haughty, stuck up’). The sign glossed HOMEWARD (Figure 3–1b) means ‘to go home’ in some contexts and in others it means ‘to scram’.1 A popular sign with Israeli Deaf people, also shown in Figure 3–1b, means something like, ‘to insist on continuing to do something’. It is often used in the context of not wanting to leave at the end of a social gathering. Deaf people report that the distance from the living room to the door at the end of a party can take several hours to traverse, as all the guests are delayed along the way, ‘insisting on continuing’ (to chat). Through comparison with other languages, these examples show clearly that ISL makes semantic distinctions that simply do not exist in the ambient 1 The term 'gloss' refers to a literal translation, often including grammatical information, from the language under study to the language of discussion.

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(a) PROUD (of someone); PROUD (‘haughty, stuck-up’)

(b) HOMEWARD/SCRAM; INSIST-ON-CONTINUING-TO-X FIGURE 3–1. ISL signs with no direct counterpart in Hebrew or English.

spoken language, doing away with the expectation that exact parallels will exist between a signed language and the surrounding spoken language. If instead we examine the lexicon of ISL from inside the language itself, as we will do below, and in more detail in later chapters, we can see some of the resources that the language has at its disposal for generating new words. Distinguishing Small but Meaningful Differences Between Signs The second reason for gaps in vocabulary size in different languages has to do with the way words are counted. Small differences between signs can make significant differences in meaning. Two or three signs that are actually different words may often be mistaken for only one word. A good example is pairs of nouns and verbs with a shared basic meaning that are derived from a common base, such as FOOD/EAT, SWING/TO-SWING, and QUESTION/ASK

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(shown in Figure 3–2). The members of these pairs of words are very similar to one another: each pair shares the same hand configuration, the same general location, and the same direction of movement. However, they are not identical; they are distinguished from each other in ISL by the length of the movement. In the verbs, the movement is longer than in the nouns.

(a) ASK


FIGURE 3–2. An ISL noun and a verb distinguished by length of movement.

A similar phenomenon exists in American Sign Language, although the type of movement that distinguishes the nouns from the verbs is somewhat different in the two languages. In the first study of noun/verb pairs in any sign language, Supalla and Newport (1978) dealt with a particular type of pairs in ASL, activity verbs and related concrete nouns which are involved in that activity, such as BROOM/SWEEP, AIRPLANE/FLY, CHAIR/SIT. The researchers found for ASL that in the derived nouns, the movement is doubled and reduced (restrained). The verbs may or may not be doubled, depending on whether or not their meaning entails duration or repetition, and they never have reduced movement. Until Supalla and Newport’s study, this distinction went unnoticed, and the nouns and verbs in each of these pairs were assumed to be a single sign. That small distinctions such as these can be meaningful can be readily seen in pairs of nouns and verbs in English, for example, which are distinguished only according to which syllable is stressed: prógress (noun), progréss (verb). Ignoring differences such as size of movement makes the vocabulary of ISL appear smaller than it is. As we will demonstrate below, fine differences between signs—in the type of movement, length of movement, and number of hands—are among the structural devices that the language exploits for creating new words and word families with a wide range of meanings. We now focus a bit more closely on one semantic field in ISL—words for communication between people—to demonstrate how slight, systematic changes in form can create a large number of different but related words.

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THE EXPRESSIVENESS OF THE ISL LEXICON: WORDS OF COMMUNICATION The vocabulary of a language depends to some extent on the physical environment of the people who use that language. For example, one of the environmental factors that distinguishes Israel from, say, the British Isles is rainfall, and this difference is reflected in the vocabularies of Hebrew and English. In Hebrew, alongside geshem (‘rain’) Hebrew has the words yore (‘first rain’) and malkosh (‘last rain’), words that are useful to a society that exists in a climate that has a long season without rain. English has no words of that kind, but the English spoken in the precipitation-blessed British Isles does distinguish many different kinds of rain with different words: raining, drizzling, spitting, mizzling, pouring, showering, and more. Not only does the physical environment influence the vocabulary of a language; the cultural environment may also play an important role. In Japanese, for example, there is a system of pronouns which establishes different levels of respect and politeness. For the first person pronoun (‘I’), Japanese has at least seven words, distinguished from one another by gender and by the status of the speaker in relation to the addressee (Crystal, 1987, p. 99). This linguistic system is connected to the structure of Japanese society, in which one always conceives of oneself in relation to the other, and not as an objective entity that stands on its own.2 It makes sense that certain aspects of life shared by the community that uses ISL will also require particular lexical distinctions. In order to pursue this idea, we speculated that an important semantic domain for the community is that of communication. Following this hunch, we asked our sign language consultants to try to come up with words related to communication among people. We were not disappointed. In no time at all, they arrived at a list of more than twenty signs that express different kinds of communication—and that was only a partial list. In Figure 3–3 we offer pictures of some of the signs in this list, each with a translation into English. The fact that many of the signs require more than one word of English in their translation shows that English (like Hebrew) has no exact lexical counterparts to these ISL examples. The system for deriving these forms has not yet been formally studied. But we can begin to see patterns by attending to two parameters of these signs, and thinking of them as the roots for deriving the words in the list: hand configuration and location. Hebrew, a root and pattern language, offers a good basis for comparison. The meaning of the root d.b.r. is associated with spoken communication. This root appears in a large number of words with different (but related) meanings: ledaber ‘to speak’, lehidaver ‘to set up something by conversing’, dover ‘spokesman’, dibur ‘speech’, and others.3 In ISL, the hand con-

2 3

Thanks to Shmuel Eisenstadt for this explanation. [b] is pronounced as [v] in some contexts.

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(a) Handshape:

, location: near mouth



(b) Handshape:

, location: near mouth

SPEAK (at length) (c) Handshape:

SIGN (d) Handshape:




, location: space in front of the body



, location: near mouth

‘dialogue consisting of questions and answers’

‘to give a decisive answer’

FIGURE 3–3. Some signs for types of communication.


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figuration/location ‘roots’ also enter into different derivational patterns formed, for example, by altering the number of hands and the type of movement in the sign.4 We hasten to note that the very general similarity between Hebrew and ISL cited here is felicitous but purely coincidental. ISL sign structure was not influenced by Hebrew word structure, and is in fact more similar to the structure of signs in other sign languages. In some of the forms, the number of hands used can reflect whether there is only one speaker or more than one. Use of two hands in these forms indicates a reciprocal activity or one that is performed by more than one person, introducing contrasts such as SPEAK/CONVERSE; SAY/CONDUCT-SERIOUS-CONVERSATION; ANSWER/CONDUCT-QUESTION-ANSWERDIALOGUE. Another element that participates in such derivations is the type of movement used. For signs in which both hands move, there are two possible types of movement, symmetrical and alternating. In the set of signs under consideration, each of these two types of movement imparts a different meaning. Alternating movement, in signs like CONDUCT-CONVERSATION, CONVERSE, SIGN, ALL-CONVERSE, and CONDUCT-QUESTION-ANSWERDIALOGUE, indicates successful interaction, while the type of symmetrical movement in which the two hands approach each other indicates a simultaneously occurring activity by more than one participant who are in opposition, as in ARGUE, and TALK-AT-EACH-OTHER (simultaneously, without heeding). Figure 3–4 shows these two types of movement for the sign meaning


(b) TALK-AT-EACH-OTHER (simultaneously, without heeding)

FIGURE 3–4. Type of movement ((a) alternating vs. (b) symmetrical) deriving related but different meanings of a verb.


Our use of the terms ‘root’ and ‘derivation’ is intended to clarify our point for the reader. We certainly do not claim a direct parallel between roots and patterns of Hebrew and of ISL. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 offer more detailed morphological analyses of ISL.

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TALK. This use of alternating movement of the two hands is not restricted to words related to communication. It is a common derivational mechanism in the language that can be applied to various verbs to mean reciprocal and alternating activity. For example, the verb that means VISIT can be signed with alternating movement to mean, VISIT-EACH-OTHER. Changes in rhythm and movement pattern can change meaning as well. For example, the sign meaning TALK is normally signed with a plain movement that is doubled. If this sign is performed with a slow elliptical movement, the meaning becomes, ‘to speak in a boring fashion’. A short, quick, repeated movement renders the meaning ‘talking activity that ends quickly’. Here too, these movement patterns do not only characterize verbs of communication; they also combine with many other verbs, such as LEARN and EAT, pictured in Figures 2–2a–b. Rhythmic changes also convey verbal aspects, such as continuative and iterative, and we will deal with these in Chapter 6. From this brief survey of communication terms, we begin to see fine distinctions in meaning that are often difficult to translate directly. To make these distinctions, a base form, consisting of a particular handshape and place of articulation, is altered by selecting one-handed or two-handed articulation, and different movement patterns. This all shows that the ISL lexicon has internal mechanisms for expansion by taking basic forms and changing them in systematic ways. ADDING NEW WORDS AND BUILDING COMPLEX WORDS Expressiveness in language is not static. New words are continually being added to every living language. One motivation for creating new words is the rise of new concepts that the community needs to express, for reasons like these: a. New technology (telephone, fax, loudspeaker, internet, email) b. Scientific inventions and discoveries (imaging, scanning, cloning) c. New social realities (strike, empowerment) Under certain circumstances, the vocabulary of a language can be under pressure to increase dramatically in a short time. This is what happened when Hebrew was transformed from a language of prayer and religious study to an ordinary language, used daily by all members of a society in every conceivable communicative situation. We are now witnessing a similar vocabulary explosion in ISL, as the circumstances in which it is used expand beyond the home and insular social group, to the school; the media, through interpreting television news; and academia, as more and more Deaf students enter universities. What are the general mechanisms—linguists call them productive mechanisms—that ISL has at its disposal for systematically adding new words to its vocabulary? In the following sections, we describe some types that are familiar

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and easily recognized from spoken language, leaving a more detailed examination of the morphological machinery of sign language to Chapters 5–7. Compounds One of the most common devices for creating new words is compounding. By putting two (or more) words together, a single new word is formed. English is replete with examples, like blackboard, movie star, scarecrow, rabble-rouser, computer wizard. These compounds are lexicalized, which means that they have entered our mental lexicons as words. We can tell that they are thought of as conglomerates in a sense, rather than as combinations of two words, because the meanings of these compounds are not entirely predictable from the meanings of their parts. The word blackboard, for example, means a board, usually hanging on the wall, that is used for writing, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be black. It is easy to understand what compounds are by referring to such lexicalized examples. But the list of compounds is not limited to compounds that are ‘frozen’ in our lexicons. It is literally endless, because the process of compounding is productive. As the relatively recent compound computer wizard attests, we can make a new compound whenever we need one. Let’s coin a new one: word nerd. Even if you have never encountered that compound before, you will be able to assign a meaning to it because the process of compounding is productive in English, and the resulting meanings are usually easy to interpret. Like any word, lexicalized compounds can also become archaic and then obsolete, and can leave the synchronic (current) lexicon of the language. Many Americans who were teenagers and older in the 1970s remember the compound love bombing, which referred to the practice used by members of religious cults to attract new members, by enveloping them with feelings of camaraderie and love. This lexicalized compound waned together with the social phenomenon that prompted its invention, and is probably not in the lexicons of younger people. Compounding is a good example of the dynamism of human language. It does not stand still, but changes all the time. Israeli Sign Language, like many other languages, spoken and signed, makes broad use of compounding. Some examples are SICK, comprised of the signs for TEA and FEVER (Figure 3–5a); FAINT, from HEAD  LIE-DOWN (Figure 3–5b); (financial) LOSS, from MONEY  LOSE; FAMOUS, from KNOWN  EVERYONE; and VOLUNTEER, formed from HEART  OFFER. As the literal translations of the individual members of these ISL compounds show, the examples we bring here are lexicalized compounds like blackboard, movie star, etc. ‘To volunteer’ does not mean literally ‘to offer one’s heart’. They have become words of ISL. The process of compounding is very productive in ISL, whose users often employ it when they encounter a concept that does not already have a corresponding sign. Some more recent examples of ISL compounds are STAND  STRONG  STURDY; EXCURSION  WANDER  FIELD TRIP; RESPECT  MUTUALITY for the concept, TOLERANCE (Figure 3–5c).

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(c) RESPECT + MUTUALITY = TOLERANCE FIGURE 3–5. Examples of compounds in ISL.


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Prefixes Our investigations of ISL have uncovered another group of complex words, in addition to compounds. These complex words are formed with prefixes. The addition of affixes—usually prefixes like un- in untidy or suffixes like -ness in tidiness—is found in most languages, and offers another way to increase the size of the lexicon. The first part of the ISL word, the prefix, indicates a sense or sense organ: SEE (eye), HEAR (ear), SMELL (nose), SAY (mouth), THINK (head). Two such complex words are shown in Figure 3–6. The first signs in these forms behave like prefixes, in the sense that they comprise a small list of forms that may be attached to the beginning of a large number of words to form complex words. We can compare these to English prefixes like post- or sub-. The base words that the ISL prefixes precede are either verbs or adjectives. By

(a) EYE-CATCH ‘catch red-handed’

(b) NOSE-SUSPECT ‘suspect intuitively’ FIGURE 3–6. Complex words with prefixes.

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joining the two words, interesting nuances of meaning can be conveyed. A good example is the verb SUSPECT. The complex word EYE-SUSPECT means to become suspicious because of something one has seen. Its use is appropriate in a situation in which a person looks strange and therefore arouses suspicion. The form NOSE-SUSPECT has a somewhat different meaning. It expresses suspicion resulting from intuition, and not from something one has seen. It would be appropriate to use this word in a situation in which a person is home alone and suspects—or feels—that someone unseen is outside the house. A similar distinction can be made between EYE-CHECK ‘to check something by looking at it’, EAR-CHECK (‘to check something by listening to it’, as with a tape recorder), and NOSE-CHECK (‘to check something by smelling it’, or, metaphorically, through intuition). Sometimes the meaning of the complex word can’t be understood simply as the sum of its parts. For example, NOSE-REGULAR does not mean ‘to smell normally’, nor does it mean ‘to become accustomed through the sense of smell’, either of which might be predicted by simply adding the meaning of first part to that of the second. Instead, this complex word means ‘to get used to something’. Similarly, EYE-INTERESTING doesn’t mean ‘to interest oneself visually’ but rather ‘to to be very interested’ or ‘to want to experience something’. The same situation is often found in spoken languages. The English word, curiosity is often used to mean ‘something peculiar and note-worthy’, and not ‘the quality of being curious’, as would be predicted by adding the meaning of the suffix -ity to the base word, curious. Complex words with this class of prefixes are plentiful in ISL—we have found about 70 so far—and they contribute to the semantic distinctions that the language is capable of expressing. These particular prefixes are particular to ISL, but other sign languages also have affixes (Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006). Borrowing from Foreign Languages All languages borrow words from other languages. English borrowed fait accompli, pièce de résistance, ménage à trois from French, Weltanschauung from German, hibachi from Japanese, hutspa from Yiddish5, to name just a few examples.6 As these examples show, when words are borrowed, they may bring along sound or word patterns that don’t exist in the native lexicon. ISL takes advantage of several different ways of borrowing new words from other lan5

The word hutspa (sometimes spelled chutspa, and pronounced [xutspa]) was indeed borrowed into English from Yiddish—but Yiddish originally borrowed it from Hebrew. And Yiddish itself is a Germanic language—like English. Languages do not stand still. 6 We’ve selected examples whose foreign origins are clear. Borrowing is in fact widespread when languages come into contact, and its effects are often eroded over time, so that borrowed words are no longer recognized as foreign. Because of the history of England, the story of English is very complex, with part of its lexicon originating in Germanic and part in Latinate forms, through French.

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guages; some of these processes are familiar from spoken languages, and others are unique to sign language. Borrowing whole words. When a sign language borrows words from spoken language, it is achieved through fingerspelling, in which each letter of the alphabet is represented by a different handshape. Fingerspelling, then, actually represents the written word. Figure 3–7 shows the form of the Hebrew word shalom (meaning, ‘peace’, ‘hello’, or ‘goodbye’) in ISL fingerspelling. The vowel [a] is omitted from the fingerspelling, following the conventions of Hebrew orthography.





FIGURE 3–7. Fingerspelling of the word shalom.

Fingerspelled words stand out as borrowed, because they do not respect the phonological (formational) rules of the language. Native words of the language are typically characterized by a single path movement from one location to another, or a single change of handshape, or a single change of orientation. The most complex movement involves a path movement in addition to a handshape or orientation change (see Chapter 2). But in fingerspelled words, there is no path movement from one location to another. Instead, movement consists mainly of the transition from one handshape to another—and as many such transitions as there are letters in the word. The constraint on handshapes that holds on native words explained in Chapter 2—allowing only one group of fingers to be selected in each sign—is not observed by fingerspelled forms, which by their very nature must change the finger configurations to represent each letter of the word. Other sign languages, such as ASL and British Sign Language (BSL), also have fingerspelling. Comparing the fingerspelling systems of ASL and BSL offers us an interesting observation. Both of these languages exist in Englishspeaking countries, and both fingerspell the English alphabet. But the two languages have very different fingerspelling systems. In ASL, all the letters are made with one hand, while BSL uses both hands for each letter, causing the two systems to appear dramatically different from one another. This dramatic difference serves to underscore the fact that these two languages are independent of English and of one another. Partial borrowing. In this kind of borrowing, the basic form of the borrowed word is altered to fit the morphological patterns of the new language. English is the source of the Hebrew word for ‘brush’, which extracted only the consonants b.r.sh. from the English root, and placed them in a Hebrew nounforming pattern miCCeCet, to create the new Hebrew word, mivreshet. In this

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case, the word takes on the phonology of its new home language, changing [b] to [v] when following a vowel. A comparable type of borrowing takes place in ISL, ASL, and other sign languages. Under this sign language kind of partial borrowing, called initialization, the fingerspelled handshape representing the first letter of the ambient spoken language word becomes the handshape for the sign. The location and movement come from the sign language. This initialized handshape is usually added to a sign that already exists in the language, lending it an additional— often more specific—meaning for which there is no other sign. An example is the Hebrew word adif, ‘preferable’. To express this concept, the handshape for the first letter of this word, ayin, , was added to BETTER, a sign with a related meaning. Figure 3–8 shows the native sign BETTER and the initialized sign, PREFERABLE. Other examples include EXPERIENCE, comprised of the native sign FEELING with the handshape of the first letter of the Hebrew word that means ‘experience’; and LAND, COUNTRY, with the handshape of the Hebrew word replacing the handshape of the native sign, FLAT-AREA. Borrowing is a natural process in language; a number of borrowings of this kind have entered ISL, and the same is true of ASL as well.



FIGURE 3–8. (a) native sign BETTER and (b) initialized sign PREFERABLE.

Sometimes, however, unnecessary or less natural initializations are invented by overly-zealous language reformers. It happens, for example, that subtle formational differences between two native signs are overlooked, giving the mistaken impression that there is only one sign for the two concepts, and prompting the invention of an initialized sign. In such cases, the newly invented initialized signs are not necessary to fill a gap in the lexicon, since the native lexicon got there first! For example, an initialized sign for ‘family’ was created, based on an American Sign Language counterpart, although an inde-

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pendent sign already existed in ISL. In other cases, distinctions are made by intialization that signers just don’t like. One example is the introduction of different initializations to distinguish STREET from AVENUE or ROAD. One reason for rejecting these distinctions may be aesthetic. The fingerspelled handshapes detract from the pleasing iconicity of the native sign. As always with language, it is those who use it as their primary means of communication who ultimately determine which new forms will stick. Borrowing from other sign languages. Several signs in ISL are commonly known to have been borrowed from other sign languages. For example, the sign TO-IMPROVE-RADICALLY, pictured in Figure 3–9 is borrowed from French Sign Language. Similarly, names of other countries and their cities are often borrowed. Signs borrowed from other sign languages do not feel foreign in the same way that initialized signs often do, because they conform to general constraints on sign formation. For this reason, they are often quickly and comfortably incorporated into the ISL lexicon. In Chapter 12, on the history of ISL, we will provide a number of examples of signs that were brought to Israel by immigrants from other countries, and have become part of the ISL vocabulary.

TO-IMPROVE-RADICALLY FIGURE 3–9. A sign borrowed from French Sign Language.

Taking advantage of iconicity to create new words. Sign languages, as visual languages, have an advantage over spoken language when it comes to labeling a concept with a symbol. This is much easier to do in a visually perceived language than in an auditorally perceived one, as we explained in Chapter 1. When a technological innovation appears, iconicity can sometimes be exploited to create a new word. Some examples are COMPUTER, FAX, and CELLULAR-FAX, pictured in Figure 3–10. Once an iconic sign has made itself at home in the lexicon of ISL, it conforms to the phonological constraints that hold on well-formed signs of the

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CELL-FAX FIGURE 3–10. A new sign based on iconicity.

language. An example of such a constraint is the Symmetry Condition (Battison, 1978; see Chapter 2). The constraint states that when two hands are involved in articulating a sign, they behave symmetrically in handshape, movement, and location. The original sign for CAMERA in ISL was fully iconic, and therefore asymmetical: one hand positioned the camera and the other pushed the button to take a picture, as shown in Figure 3–11a. Over time, the sign became a well-formed, symmetrical word of ISL, illustrated in Figure 3–11b.

(a) CAMERA (old sign)

(b) CAMERA (contemporary sign)

FIGURE 3–11. Phonological changes in an iconic sign.

In sum, sign languages have a number of means at their disposal for bringing new words into the language. Like other sign languages, the sign language we are discussing here, Israeli Sign Language, has morphological changes (like

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altering the number of hands or type of movement), compounding, and borrowing from other sign languages and from the surrounding spoken language through initialization. ISL also exploits its iconic potential in creating new signs for new concepts. Systematic ways of extending the ISL vocabulary by creating more complex forms of a word will be discussed in later chapters. NOVEL WORD FORMATION IN POETRY In heightened uses of language such as literature or poetry, new words are sometimes created. The purpose is not to fill gaps in the lexicon. Rather, new words created in this way are used stylistically to create a nuance of meaning or enhance an impression that the author wants to convey. Artistic inventions of this kind are usually one-time events; the words are part of the work of art and do not enter the general lexicon. In a famous poem, ee cummings writes of ‘. . . Just- spring when the world is mud-luscious . . .’.7 Artistic use of language is not limited to spoken language alone. There are gifted sign language poets in some Deaf communities, whose work is widely disseminated on videotapes. Sign language poets often ingeniously exploit the potential for iconicity and metaphor that are the privileged domain of visual languages. In the work of Wim Emmerik, a Deaf sign language poet from Amsterdam and signer of Sign Language of the Netherlands, it is possible to find many poetic devices. One such device is a kind of sign language alliteration, in which the same handshape is used repeatedly throughout the poem. In his poem, ‘Member of Parliament’, Emmerik sketches a character that is cut off from the events and sensations of the real world. He uses the handshape on both hands to represent the trees lining the walks around the parliament building, fencing it off from its environs, as shown in Figure 3–12a. So far, this can be described as use of a classifier handshape (see Chapter 7) in a way that might be somewhat heightened but not yet poetic. But Emmerik then continues, using the same handshape and the same kind of movement, but now at the sides of the head, to suggest blinders (Figure 3–12b) and extending the meaning metaphorically to portray the barriers fencing off the Member of Parliament. The only connection that the parliamentarian has to events of the world is through the newspaper, which he reads during his lunch hour. Here the poet recruits another poetic device, disrupting the normal use of language in order to bring home an idea more strongly and more vividly (see Sandler & LilloMartin, 2006 for more examples and discussion). To convey the idea that the politician consumes the reported news as an automatized bodily function— rather than experiencing the events mentally and spiritually—the poet char-


From in Just-spring, by poet e.e. cummings from Tulips and Chimneys. Published in 1923.

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(b) metaphorical imagery: ‘HEDGED-IN’

FIGURE 3–12. Poetic innovations in Wim Emmerik’s poetry based on metaphorical imagery. From: Wim Emerik, Videotape: Pöezie in Gabarentaal, courtesy of Wim Emmerik.

acterizes him as eating the news together with his lunch. As he eats and reads, the poet changes the sign EAT by substituting the location of the newspaper for the location of the food on the politician’s plate, and his eyes for his mouth as the destination of the morsels consumed. The two types of ‘eating’ are signed in alternation; the member of parliament alternately eats food and news, food and news.

(a) EAT


FIGURE 3–13. Poetic innovations in Wim Emmerik’s poetry based on meaning extension. From: Wim Emerik, Videotape: Pöezie in Gabarentaal, courtesy of Wim Emmerik.

Because of the youth of Israeli Sign Language and its community, artistic use of the language is just beginning to make itself felt. The art of story-telling is beginning to become very popular, and some signers are considered to be especially talented at it. Along the way, some of these story tellers extend the vocabulary of the language to create new forms that enhance the message they are conveying in the story. Meir Etedgi, one of the sign language consultants

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in our lab, has brought some examples to our attention from stories told by a family member who is known for good stories, which we include here. One story told of the relation between two families, which began as close, but became more remote over time. In order to convey the weakening of the relations between the two families, the story-teller created a new sign, made up of two existing signs: CONNECTION and BECOME-TIRED. A new sign was born, that might be glossed CONNECTION-BECOME-TIRED. The sign creation is shown in Figure 3–14a–c. Notice that the English word close as in close relations, which in its literal meaning refers to physical proximity between concrete objects, is used metaphorically when referring to relationships. The ISL example is also a metaphor, as relationships are not animate, and do not literally tire. Another consultant in our lab, Doron Levy, provided an additional example, coincidentally also involving loss of verve. In order to convey the meaning ‘to run out of steam’, he used the handshape and closing movement of DEPLETE, but signed it on his bicep as shown in Figure 3–14d, instead of in its usual place, neutral space.




(d) ‘STRENGTH-DEPLETE’ FIGURE 3–14. Creative innovations by ISL signers.

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The heightened use of language is first and foremost of cultural and aesthetic value within a language community. But the fact that such artistic uses of language arise within the Deaf community has special significance. It teaches us that molding the formal elements of language for artistic expression, and creating the means for doing so, are among the foundations of human culture. It teaches us the following lesson as well: just as sound is not essential for the existence of language, neither is speech required for the creation of poetry and literature. Language and its cultural manifestations are a human endowment that transcends modality. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Brennan, M. (1990). Word formation in British Sign Language. Stockholm: The University of Stockholm. Cohen, E., Namir, L., & Schlesinger, I. M. (1977). (Introduction). A new dictionary of sign language: Employing the Eshkol-Wachmann movement notation system. The Hague: Mouton Johnston, T., & Schembri, A. (1999). On defining lexeme in a signed language. Sign Language & Linguistics, 2, 115–185. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). (Chapter 11). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Poetry in Sign Languages Klima, E. S., & Bellugi, U. (1979). (Chapters 13–14). The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Perlmutter, David. (in press). Nobilior est vulgaris: Dante’s Hypothesis and Sign Language Poetry. To appear in Doreen DeLuca, Kristin Lindgren, and Donna Jo Napoli (eds.), Signs and voices: Language, arts, and identity in the Deaf community. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. Sutton-Spence, R. (2001). British Sign Language poetry: A linguistic analysis of the work of Dorothy Miles. In V. Dively (Ed.), Signed languages: discoveries from international research (pp. 231–242). Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). (Chapters 10, 14). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Taub, S. F. (2001a). Complex superposition of metaphors in an ASL poem. In V. Dively (Ed.), Signed languages: Discoveries from international research (pp. 197–230). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

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4 Grammar in Space: The Pronominal System

In the preceding chapters of Part 1, we focused on the nature of signs, showing many similarities between signs and spoken words. Both are characterized by duality of patterning—both spoken words and signs are meaningful units built up from different combinations of units that have no meaning. Both signs and words can also be comprised of more than one meaning-bearing unit— compounds consist of two words in one, and meaningful prefixes or suffixes can be added to a word to make it more complex. From a linguistic standpoint, then, signs and words have much in common. But from the perspective of their physical form, words and signs couldn’t be more different. The physical form of the spoken word originates with the speech organs which produce acoustic signals to be perceived by the ears. In the manual modality, we find signs that are produced by movements of the hands in space, and are perceived by the eyes. The sign image is three-dimensional, and its parts are produced in a way that is more simultaneous than is the case with sounds, which are organized in a manner that is often described as linear. We have made a point of mentioning that there is a certain amount of common ground even here—a degree of simultaneity in the spoken word and of sequentiality or linearity in the sign. But there is no denying that the physical medium in which sign languages operate is qualitatively different from the medium in which spoken languages are transmitted. It would be very surprising if this fundamental difference did not have an impact on the linguistic structure of language in each modality. And indeed it does. Sign languages take advantage of the fact that they are transmitted in three-dimensional space for a wide variety of purposes. For example, space can be used iconically to represent spatial relations among objects. In order to convey a message such as ‘the cup is on the table,’ the signer’s right hand can assume a shape representing a cylindrical cup, while the left hand represents the flat table-top. Placing the right hand on top of the left hand will express the relationship ‘on.’ Two hands in space can also be used to express a contrast or a comparison between objects. We found an example of this in a particular passage in which the signer was comparing two types of bacteria—harmful and helpful. In 59

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this passage, the signer signed the helpful bacteria on the right side, and the harmful bacteria on the left.1 Subsequently, every sign or sentence related to the ‘good’ bacteria was signed on the right, while every expression related to the ‘bad’ bacteria was signed on the left. The use of the two sides made possible a convenient visual demonstration of comparison and contrast. Space also plays a role in the syntax, where certain relations are expressed in spatial terms. Because the structure of every sentence relies on syntactic relations, space is crucial to the syntax of sign language. The notion of using space to express syntactic relations is extremely odd to people who are familiar with spoken languages only, because spoken language has nothing comparable. Yet it is impossible to understand sign languages without understanding the role played by space in their linguistic structure. This chapter focuses on the topic of space, specifically on how it is used to represent and monitor the referents of nouns participating in a discourse.2 POINTS OF REFERENCE: THE BASIS OF THE PRONOUN SYSTEM IN SIGN LANGUAGE What Are Pronouns? As a point of departure, let’s examine the following sentence in English: 1.

Adam and Elaine decided to go to a movie. He asked her if she likes thrillers, and she answered that she prefers sci-fi.

The words in italic are pronouns referring to Adam and Elaine. We use pronouns because languages tend to avoid repetition. Instead of saying Adam or Elaine over and over again, we use words that represent these names. Pronouns are substitutes or stand-ins, indicating nouns that have already made an appearance in the discourse. The pronouns he, she, and her are used in Sentence 1. In this example, we know which pronouns refer to Adam and which to Elaine according to their form, because the pronouns agree with the nouns to which they refer in gender (masculine/feminine), in number (singular/plural) and in person (first, second, third). In this case the gender distinguishes the two, since the referents do not differ in number or person. But it is not always clear to which noun a particular pronoun refers, as can be seen in sentence 2.


The decision to use the right side to represent positive things and the left side for negative things may not be coincidental. In our videotaped data, all three signers in Israeli Sign Language made this decision, as well as the one signer of American Sign Language. Our thanks to Meir Etedgi for calling this to our attention. 2 A referent is the entity in the world to which a noun refers. In the sentence ‘Danny went to a movie,’ the referent of the word ‘Danny’ is the boy himself.

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Adam and Brad went to a movie. He asked him if he likes thrillers, and he answered that he prefers sci-fi.

Because both of the nouns in the sentence are third person singular masculine nouns, the pronouns used to refer to them are identical. The sentence is ambiguous because the pronouns he and him can refer either to Adam or to Brad. In English, pronouns are classified according to gender and number, and also according to whether or not the referent is human. That is, the pronouns he and she stand for nouns representing male and female human beings, respectively, while the pronoun it represents nouns that are not human.3,4 The fact that pronouns represent a group of nouns, rather than one noun only, can lead to uncertainties or ambiguities of various types, as exemplified in sentences 3 and 4: 3. Adam wants me to meet him tomorrow. 4. Why doesn’t he want to participate? In Sentence 3, the pronoun him can refer to Adam, but it can also refer to someone else who was mentioned previously. Sentence 4 is problematic for a different reason. The noun that is the referent of the pronoun he does not appear in the sentence. The sentence can be understood only if the speaker and the addressee are able to identify the referent from previous context, or if the speaker points to or glances at the person being referred to. So, pronouns are pointers; they point to nominals previously mentioned in the linguistic context or to a present referent in the discourse situation. THE PRONOMINAL SYSTEM IN SIGN LANGUAGES How are pronouns expressed in a sign language? The answer appears to be quite simple. In order to express the pronoun, I, the signer points to himself or herself, toward the chest. In order to express the second person pronoun you, the signer points to the addressee. But matters become more complicated for the third person pronouns, the equivalent of he or she. How can the following sentence be translated into sign language?


Sometimes pronouns referring to non-human animate creatures, especially mammals, also vary according to gender. 4 The pronoun systems of some languages are more complex than those of English. In French, for example, the pronoun on is used to represent a non-specific referent (similar to one in the following English sentence: One does it like that). In some languages, nouns are classified into many gender classes (German, for example, makes a three-fold gender distinction—masculine, feminine and neuter), which is reflected in the form of their pronouns. In general, pronouns encode three grammatical categories: gender, person and number.

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5. He can’t come to the party. If the person who is the referent of the pronoun he is present, the easiest way to refer to him is simply to point at him. But what happens if the reference is to someone who is not in the immediate vicinity? In that case, many sign languages use the following grammatical convention: The signer establishes an association between the referent of the noun that is not present and an arbitrary point in space. This association is often made by producing the sign for that nominal, and then pointing to or gazing at a specific location in space, called a reference point, or a Referential locus (R-locus; Lillo-Martin & Klima, 1990). This is illustrated in Figure 4–1: the signer signs BABY, and then points to a specific location in space, to his left. From that moment on throughout the discourse, pointing again to that locus has the function of referring back to the nominal associated with it. In sign language transcription, R-loci are often written as ‘INDEX’, since establishing an association between a locus in space and a nominal (noun) amounts to assigning that nominal the equivalent of a catalog number or index. The subscript letters at the end of the word in transcribed glosses, such as sentence 6, indicate different R-loci in space.

(a) BABY

(b) INDEXa

FIGURE 4–1. Establishing an R-locus.

To talk about another referent, the signer assigns it a different R-locus. In the discourse that follows, the signer points to the first locus to refer to the first nominal, and to the second locus to refer to the second. Let us now consider Sentence 1 again, with its two referents—Adam and Elaine. This sentence is signed in ISL as follows (Figure 4–2): 6. ADAM INDEXa ELAINE INDEXb GO-TOGETHER MOVIE. ‘Adam and Elaine went to a movie.’

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FIGURE 4–2. Establishing two R-loci for two different referents.

The signer created two R-loci—one for Adam (a) and one for Elaine (b). From this point on, pointing to (a) will be interpreted as referring to Adam (comparable to he in English) and pointing to (b) will be interpreted as referring to Elaine. The discourse will continue as follows: 7. INDEXa ASKb . . . INDEXb ANSWERa. ‘He asked her . . . She answered him . . .’ INDEXa indicates that the signer is pointing at point (a), that is, Adam. Because this point is assigned to Adam, the meaning of the sign is he. The rest of the sentence shows that it is not only pronouns that take advantage of the system of reference points. Verbs also change their form according to the locations of reference points. The verb ASKb is directed toward point (b) and will thus be interpreted here as ‘asked her’ (that is, Elaine). Inflecting the verb in accordance with spatial R-loci is discussed in detail in Chapter 5. REFERENCE POINTS AS A MEANS OF AVOIDING AMBIGUITY As we’ve said, in languages like English, pronouns represent groups of nouns— masculine singular nouns, for example—so that ambiguities are unavoidable. Here the visual-spatial medium makes sign languages different. The mechanism of assigning R-loci creates a unique one-to-one association between the referent and the spatial locus, so that sentence (2), which was ambiguous in English, is not the least bit ambiguous in ISL. 8. ADAM INDEX a BRAD INDEX b WALK TOGETHER MOVIE. INDEXa ASKb . . . INDEXb ANSWERa. . . . ‘Adam and Brad walked to the movies together. He (Adam) asked him (Brad) something, and he (Brad) answered him (Adam).’ Each referent is assigned its own R-locus. The fact that in this sentence both of the nouns have male referents while in the previous sentence one noun referred to a male and the other to a female makes no difference in assigning pronouns in sign language. Each R-locus is associated with a unique referent,

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ANSWERa FIGURE 4–3. Two different R-loci for different referents: ‘He (Adam) asked him (Brad) and he (Brad) answered him (Adam)’.

and not with a group of referents such as ‘all males’ or ‘all females’, as is the case in spoken languages. INDEXa can only refer to Adam in the above discourse, and not to Brad (Figure 4–3). Now let’s look at sentence 3, Adam wants me to meet him tomorrow, which also was ambiguous in English. Here as well, the system of assigning reference points solves the ambiguity, as can be seen from Figure 4–4, in which the following sentences (9 and 10) are illustrated. 9. ADAM INDEXa WANT I MEET INDEXa.5 ‘Adam wants me to meet him.’ (him  Adam) 10. ADAM INDEXa WANT I MEET INDEXb. ‘Adam wants me to meet him.’ (him  someone else) 5 The pronoun I should actually be glossed as INDEX1, that is, a pointing sign directed towards the signer. However, for ease of presentation, we use the equivalent English pronoun, I.

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FIGURE 4–4. Resolving ambiguity by using two different R-loci for the last sign in the two sentences.

In sentence 9, the pronoun serving as the object of ‘meet’ points to locus (a), the point assigned to Adam, indicating that the pronoun in this sentence refers to Adam (that is, ‘Adam wants me to meet Adam himself’). In sentence (10), the object pronoun is directed toward locus (b), which is not associated with Adam. The meaning is clearly that Adam wants me to meet someone else. So we see that a sentence that was ambiguous in English is not at all ambiguous in ISL, ASL and many other sign languages. By pointing to locus (a) or to locus (b), as in Figure 4–4, the signer generates two sentences whose meanings are distinct. To sum up: when a referent is introduced in the discourse for the first time in a sign language, it is assigned an arbitrary point in space. This point represents the referent in the discourse, and pointing toward it is equivalent to using a pronoun referring to this referent. Different referents are assigned different points in space, so that most cases of ambiguity are avoided.6 A comparison between the pronominal system of sign languages and that of spoken languages raises interesting questions with respect to the definition of the term ‘pronoun.’ How many pronouns are there in a given sign language? If a different R-locus can be assigned to every noun in the discourse, then 6

Janis (1992) points out that ASL pronominal system may be ambiguous, but this ambiguity is different from that found in the pronominal systems of spoken languages. In ASL (and this holds for ISL as well), a pronoun may refer to a referent or to its location. Thus, pointing to an R-locus could mean either referring to a referent, or to its location. Therefore, ‘when discussing a referent as part of a spatial milieu, it is necessary for the locus of the referent and the locus of the referent’s location to match. . . . Thus, in these contexts, loci are obligatorily ambiguous.’ (ibid., p. 120).

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CHAPTER 4 TABLE 4.1. Pronouns in English and in ISL

Pronouns in English

Pronouns in ISL

Represent a group of nouns (ambiguity is possible)

Each noun is assigned a different R-locus (ambiguity is avoided)

Pronouns in Both Languages A. refer to a noun mentioned previously in the discourse B. refer to a noun whose referent is present

theoretically the number of pronouns in the language is infinite. Alternatively, we might make the opposite claim, that in effect there is only one pronoun in the language—the pointing gesture—and the various interpretations of this gesture (whether it refers to noun A, B, or C) are determined by the discourse situation and are not part of the grammatical system. But neither of these possibilities is compatible with our intuition about the nature and function of pronouns, which are generally considered to belong to a closed set of terms that behave systematically within a linguistic system. Most sign language linguists have argued that the sign language pronominal system indeed has many essential characteristics of any linguistic system of this kind, though some take a different view. A detailed discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this work, and interested readers should consult the references at the end of this chapter for more information about it. The most important similarity between pronouns in spoken and sign language is the way they function within the linguistic system: pronouns are ‘placeholders’ for nouns, referring to nouns mentioned previously in the discourse or present in the signing situation. Table 4.1 sums up the similarities and differences between pronominal systems in the two language modalities. OTHER PRONOUNS IN ISL Pointing signs are not the only signs which make use of R-loci. Other pronominal signs, as well as certain verbs employ this system as well. ISL has several types of pronouns. The basic personal pronouns have a handshape, with the fingertip pointing toward the reference point, and are analogous to either subject pronouns (I/you/he etc.) or object pronouns (me/you/him etc.) in English. Other pronouns in ISL include possessive pronouns, reflexive pronouns, and a special object pronoun. Like ISL, American Sign Language also has possessive and reflexive pronouns which point in the direction of R-loci. Apparently, the sign modality mandates such a system. However, in ASL, the pronouns themselves have a different form, as we will show for comparison toward

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the end of this chapter. The third type of pronoun, a special object pronoun, exists in ISL but not in ASL. Possessive pronouns.

The possessive pronoun in ISL, glossed POSS(essive),

takes the handshape (see Figure 4–5a), and the palm of the hand leads toward the reference point. This form would be used in a sentence like example 11. 11.

DAN INDEXa DOG POSSa SLEEP. ‘Dan’s dog is sleeping.’

In sentence (11), the possessive pronoun POSS is associated with reference point (a), referring to Dan. In other words, the sign POSSa indicates that the possessor is Dan. If a signer signing a sentence with this meaning were to direct the possessive pronoun sign at some other reference point, the resulting sentence would have been ungrammatical under the reading. ‘Dan’s dog is sleeping’, because the possessive pronoun would not be referring to the right referent. Reflexive pronouns.

The reflexive pronoun SELF (Figure 4–5b) has the

handshape , with the index finger pointing up and the back of the hand facing the reference point. It would be used in a sentence like ‘He did it by himself’ or ‘He himself did it.’7 Like all pronouns, this one moves around in space according to the reference point it is referring to. It looks quite different from the personal pronoun, despite the fact that it has the same handshape, because the position of the hand is different. In the personal pronoun, the fingertip leads the way in the direction of the reference point, while in the reflexive pronoun the fingertip is always pointed up, and the back of the hand leads the way. ASL also has reflexive pronouns, but uses a different handshape. The ASL shape for the reflexive pronoun is , with the thumb up and the pad of the thumbtip leading toward the reference point.8 Object pronoun. The -object pronoun (Figure 4–5c) is a special pronoun, used exclusively as an object pronoun for a particular group of verbs. The shape of the sign is identical to that of the sign for PERSON, and it seems to 7 This sign might also be used in a sentence such as ‘I looked at myself.’ However, more often than not, in such contexts the regular personal pronoun (with the ‘pointing’ index finger handshape) is used. 8 In the ASL first person reflexive pronoun, the position of the hand is different. In that form it is the back of the thumb that leads toward the signer’s chest, and not the pad on the inside of the thumbtip. ISL allows more freedom of movement here; the back of the index finger leads the way for all reflexive pronoun forms.

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have developed historically from that sign (Meir, 2003). This pronoun is used with verbs of emotion (such as ADMIRE, LIKE, HATE), verbs expressing bad intentions on the part of the actor (INSULT, INFORM-ON, EXTRACTINFORMATION-FROM, TELL-A-LIE) and verbs that take a ‘content’ object (LEARN, WRITE, RECOMMEND, TELL-ABOUT in a context such as ‘I talked/wrote/complained about him’). Verbs of giving and taking, on the other hand, do not belong to any of these three classes, and do not co-occur with this

(a) ‘his/hers’

(b) ‘himself/herself ’

(c) ‘him/her’

FIGURE 4–5. Other pronominal forms: possessive pronoun, reflexive pronoun and object pronoun.

pronoun. The

-object pronoun has no counterpart in ASL.

MARKING NUMBER IN THE PRONOMINAL SYSTEM Up till now, we have discussed only singular pronouns. Since each R-locus is associated with a single referent, a system built upon such loci might appear to be limited to singular pronouns only. But this is not the case. Plural pro-

FIGURE 4–6. First person plural pronoun, WE.

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nouns can also be expressed in sign language, through changes in the type of movement used. In the sign for WE illustrated in Figure 4–6, the hand does not point toward a unique point in space, but rather traces a horizontal arc shape across the signer’s chest. The ISL pronominal system includes even finer distinctions in the number category. The number of referents can be expressed by extending the corresponding number of fingers and incorporating the resulting handshape into the sign. Two extended fingers means ‘the two of us’ or ‘the two of them’, depend-



FIGURE 4–7. Pronouns with number incorporation.

ing on the locus; three extended fingers—’the three of us/the three of them’, and so on. Figure 4–7 illustrates THE-TWO-OF-THEM and THE-THREEOF-YOU. The only limitation is the practical one set by the number of fingers on both hands, so that this device is limited to denoting 2–10 referents.9 Finally, the system makes a grammatical distinction in the plural between ‘all’ and ‘each’. This contrasts with English, in which the pronoun you (plural), in a sentence like Class, you flunked the test, for example, can have an exhaustive interpretation, ‘all of you’ (as an all-inclusive pronoun indicating a group) or a multiple reading, ‘each of you’ where the pronoun refers to individuals within a group. Each of these meanings has a different sign in ISL. The exhaustive pronoun is expressed using a broad horizontal arc movement, as shown in Figure 4–8a. The pronoun with the multiple interpretation is signed by pointing repeatedly in a sequence of arced movements, as demonstrated in Figure 4–8b.

9 Other signs in the language also rely upon the number of extended fingers to indicate number distinctions, for example signs indicating time units: DAY, HOUR, WEEK, INSTANCE (e.g., ‘once’, ‘twice’, ‘three times’). See Chapter 6.

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FIGURE 4–8. 2nd person plural pronouns: exhaustive and multiple.

INDICATING REFERENCE WITH THE BODY: ROLE SHIFT In addition to the various signs used to represent pronouns, ISL has another, non-manual means of indicating the identity of referents participating in a discourse, one that uses the whole body. In role shift, also known as referential shift, the torso of the signer is shifted in the direction of a reference point assigned to a particular noun. Through role shift, the signer in a sense assumes the identity of one of the participants in the discourse, and shifts his or her body toward another reference point. This technique is commonly used in narrative texts with a number of characters. An example will be useful here. The story of The Snowman (Briggs, 1998) has two main protagonists—the snowman and the boy. When Meir Etedgi told this story in ISL, he assigned the boy a point on his left side and the snowman a point on his right (Figure 4–9a). In dialogues between the two protagonists, the signer did not repeatedly sign ‘the boy said . . .,’ ‘the snowman answered,’ and so on. Instead, when the boy was speaking to the snowman, the signer shifted his body to assume the R-locus assigned to the boy, while his face was directed towards the R-locus for the snowman (Figure 4–9b, Figure 4–10a), and when the snowman was speaking, the story-teller shifted his torso to the right (towards the R-locus of the snowman, facing the reference point for the

(a) signer boy snowman

(b) signer=boy

FIGURE 4–9. Role shift diagram.

(c) signer=snowman

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(a) Narrator speaking as the boy


(b) Narrator speaking as the snowman

FIGURE 4–10. Using role shift in narrative: The Snowman.

boy (Figure 4–9c, Figure 4–10b). The orientation of the signer’s body transmitted information regarding the identity of the speaker and the addressee, eliminating the need to add the pronouns INDEXa and INDEXb. The use of role shift is something like the use of direct speech in spoken languages. In the sentence Adam said to me, ‘I don’t want to eat ice cream,’ the clause in quotation marks was articulated by the speaker in Adam’s name. In direct speech, the speaker ostensibly takes on the identity of another referent (in this case, Adam), so that the referent of the pronoun I in the subordinate clause of this sentence is not the speaker but rather Adam. Direct speech is only one of the grammatical functions served by role shift. By shifting the body in a kind of conventionalized change of identity, signers can also transmit the thoughts, emotions, or point of view of a referent. Usually the signer’s body (primarily the upper torso) is shifted toward a particular reference point, but sometimes a slight nod of the head, a shifted glance or a characteristic facial expression is sufficient to indicate what identity the speaker has assumed. This rhetorical technique is prevalent in other sign languages, and has been the subject of rigorous investigation in American Sign Language (see Lillo-Martin, 1995 and citations there), Danish Sign Language (Engberg-Pedersen, 1995), Quebec Sign Language (Poulin & Miller, 1995), and others as well. PRONOUNS IN OTHER SIGN LANGUAGES Many sign languages known to us take advantage of space to identify the referents participating in a discourse and to monitor them throughout the discourse. This is another example of the impact of modality of transmission on the structure of language. Spoken languages do not have a similar mechanism

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because the auditory medium does not lend itself to it. Yet, despite this basic structural similarity among different sign languages, they also exhibit some interesting differences. First, different sign languages use different handshapes to express possessive and reflexive pronouns. In ISL, the handshape used for the possessive pronoun is

, while the handshape in American Sign Language is

Sign Language it is

, and in British

. For the reflexive pronoun, ISL uses the handshape

and American Sign Language uses . Second, personal pronouns such as I/WE are, to the best of our knowledge, represented by the handshape in many, possibly all, sign languages. Yet even these signs are not totally identical in different languages. In Japanese Sign Language, the sign for I is executed by pointing toward the nose rather than toward the chest. In the sign language of India and Pakistan, when pointing to places, esteemed people or municipal or government authorities, the signer points to the upper part of the signing space (Zeshan, 2000). Furthermore, the plural forms of pronouns vary among different sign languages. Sign languages differ not only in the forms of pronouns, but also in the grammatical categories encoded in their pronominal systems. Some sign languages of East Asia, e.g., Taiwan Sign Language and Japanese Sign Language (Nihon Shuya) mark gender distinctions in their pronominal systems. A pronominal sign with a

handshape refers to male referents, while a pro-

nominal sign with a handshape refers to female referents (see Smith, 1990 for Taiwan Sign Language and Fischer & Osugi, 2000 for Japanese Sign Language). A grammatical distinction encoded in ASL but not in ISL is the distinction between inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, a distinction made in some spoken languages as well. For instance, in Malay the first person plural pronoun kita is understood as including the speaker and the addressee, while the first person plural kami includes the speaker and a third person referent, to the exclusion of the addressee. Such languages differ from English, for example, where we can be interpreted either as inclusive or exclusive; there is only one form. Cormier (2000) reports that ASL, like Malay and other languages, encodes this distinction, by displacing the sign WE to one side of the signer’s chest. A displaced sign marks first person exclusive pronoun; a non-displaced sign is unmarked as to whether it is inclusive or exclusive.

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CONCLUSION The syntactic structure of sign languages makes use of space. Reference points used to represent participants in a discourse form the scaffolding for this syntactic structure. After the reference points have been assigned, other syntactic systems can be built upon them. Sign languages commonly make use of three such systems. One is the rich pronominal system described in this chapter. Another is the system used to express spatial relations and motion among objects in space using classifiers (see Chapter 7). The third important system is the system of verb agreement. In sign language, a large group of verbs encodes reference points to identify participants in an event—specifically, referents corresponding to the subject and object of the verb. This system is discussed in detail in the next chapter. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Poizner, H., Klima, E. S., & Bellugi, U. (1987). What the hands reveal about the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

For those with a linguistics background Ahlgren, I. (1984). Deictic pronouns in Swedish and Swedish Sign Language. Scandinavian Working Papers on Bilingualism, 3, 11–19. Emmorey, K., & Reilly, J. (1995). Language, gesture, and space. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Liddell, S. K. (2000). Indicating verbs and pronouns: Pointing away from agreement. In K. Emmorey & H. Lane (Eds.), The signs of language revisited: An anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima (pp. 303–320). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Lillo-Martin, D., & Klima, E. S. (1990). Pointing out differences: ASL pronouns in syntactic theory. In S. D. Fischer & P. Siple (Eds.), Theoretical issues in sign language research, vol. 1: Linguistics (pp. 191–210). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Meier, R. P. (1990). Person deixis in American Sign Language. In S. D. Fischer & P. Siple (Eds.), Theoretical issues in sign language research, vol. 1: Linguistics (pp. 175–190). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006) (Chapter 21). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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5 Grammar in Space: Verb Agreement

Journalists consider the headline, Dog Bites Man to be ordinary, while the headline Man Bites Dog is a scoop. What is the difference between them? Each sentence conveys an event with two participants, a man and a dog, and the same action, biting. But as Steven Pinker explains in his book The Language Instinct,1 the sentences are distinguished by “who did what to whom”. The sentences of a language convey not only events and participants, but also the particular role that each participant takes in the event. In the first sentence, it’s the dog that performs the action on the man, while in the second, the roles are reversed, creating the newspaper sensation. How do languages encode the grammatical roles of participants in an event? The examples above show one way: word order. In some languages, word order is relatively strict, and the role of each noun is determined by its position in the sentence. English is such a language. In the two sentences, Mary saw John and John saw Mary, we know who saw whom by the order of the words in each sentence. In Hebrew an additional grammatical device is used: the form of the verb. The form of the Hebrew verb includes a morpheme—a meaningful subpart of a word—that encodes agreement with the subject for person, gender, and number. The –a ending in example 13 marks agreement with a feminine singular subject.2 12. pil darax al nemala elephant tread-he-past 13. nemala darxa al pil ant tread-she-past on

‘An elephant stepped on an ant.’ on ant ‘An ant stepped on an elephant.’ elephant

Agreement markers function like pronouns planted inside the verbs. As we explained in the previous chapter, pronouns make it possible to keep track 1

Pinker, S. (1994) The language instinct. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. The vowel pattern indicates tense, and the difference in vowel pattern between the two examples shown here (i.e., the absence of the second a in the feminine form) is related to syllable structure. 2


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of participants in a discourse without having to repeat the full noun each time. Agreement morphemes perform a similar function. Some languages use a third device: the form of the noun itself. In such languages, each noun in a sentence is marked with a particular morpheme, called a case marker, which encodes the role of the noun in the sentence. In Standard Literary Arabic, for example, the subject of a sentence is marked with the nominative suffix -u, while the direct object gets the accusative suffix -a as examples (14) and (15) show.3 14.

raʔa l-walad-u l-kalb-a ‘The boy saw the dog’ see-he-past the-boy-nominative the-dog-accusative


raʔa l-kalb-u l-walad-a ‘The dog saw the boy.’ see-he-past the-dog-nominative the-boy-accusative

Israeli Sign Language must convey this kind of information, like any other language. The language does this primarily by changing the form of the verb, as Hebrew does. But unlike Hebrew, ISL exploits space in order to express these relations. In Chapter 4, we saw that sign languages use space to establish reference points for tracking the identity of participants in a discourse. In the present chapter, we will describe how these reference points are exploited to express the syntactic roles of nouns in the sentences of the language. This kind of mechanism characterizes many sign languages. In fact, it seems to be a near-universal property of sign languages, and one that distinguishes them from spoken languages. WHAT IS VERB AGREEMENT? In some languages, the form of the verb changes according to the nouns that are associated with it—the subject, the object, or both. In Hebrew, the verb changes to encode properties of the subject, as in examples (12) and (13) above and (16) below: 16.

ani katav-ti. ‘I wrote’ ha-yalda katv-a. ‘The girl wrote’ I write-I-past the-girl write-she-past

The verb’s suffixes are determined by its subject. If the subject is first person singular, ‘I’, then the suffix in the past tense form of the verb is –ti. If the subject is third person singular feminine, ‘she’, then the suffix on the past tense 3

Of course, languages may have more than one device for encoding grammatical role. Literary Arabic has verb agreement in addition to case marking, and in both Hebrew and Arabic, certain word orders are standard, although both languages have more freedom of word order than English does. Even English has a little bit of agreement, marking third person singular in the present tense, demonstrated in the next section.

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form of the verb is –a.4 The Hebrew verb has nine different past tense and eight future forms, determined by the person, gender, and number properties of the noun functioning as its subject. If the agreement marker and the subject noun do not match for these properties, the resulting form is ungrammatical, as shown in (17) and (18). In (17), the subject is first person, while the agreement marker is third person (feminine), and in (18), the subject is third person (feminine), and the agreement marker is first person. Both mismatches result in ungrammatical sentences. 17. 18.

*ani katv-a *‘I write-past (3rd feminine singular)’ *hi katav-ti *‘She write-past (1st feminine singular)’

When the form of the verb is determined by properties of its subject, we say that the verb in that language agrees with its subject, or is marked for agreement with its subject. In Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Turkish, and many other languages, verbs agree with their subjects. In other languages, verbs are marked for agreement with their subjects and their objects as well. Standard Literary Arabic has such marking. For example, the form zur-tu-hu—‘I visited him’—marks agreement with the first person singular subject, ‘I’ (with the suffix –tu), and with the third person masculine singular object ‘him’ (with the suffix –hu).5 Swahili, Hungarian, and dialects of Neo-Aramaic, among other languages, mark agreement with both the subject and the object. There are even some languages whose verbs are marked for agreement with the subject, direct object, and indirect object. Not all languages mark agreement on verbs. In English, agreement is very limited, appearing only when the subject is third person singular in the present tense. 19.

I walk You walk He/she/it walks

We walk You walk They walk

In the simple past in English, agreement is not marked at all; a single form of the verb suffices: I/we/you/he/she/it/they walked.6 Other languages, for example Chinese and Thai, have no agreement marking whatsoever.

4 In Hebrew past and future tenses, gender is marked for second and third persons, but not for first. 5 Strictly speaking, the suffix -hu is a pronominal clitic attached to the verb. However, for our purposes here, we are ignoring this distinction. 6 The verb to be is an exception: three forms exist in the present (am, is, are) and two in the past (was, were).

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VERB AGREEMENT IN SIGN LANGUAGES If the verbs of a language retain the same form regardless of what subject and object is associated with them, then in that language verbs do not mark agreement. If, as we’ve seen, the verb does change in accordance with properties of subject and/or object, then that is a language with verb agreement. By that definition, Israeli Sign Language, together with most sign languages studied to date, present a complex picture. In these languages, there are three classes of verbs, first identified by Padden (1988). One type does not mark agreement at all. The verbs of this type, called plain verbs, always have the same form, whatever the subject or object. The ISL verb HAVE-A-GOOD-TIME is such a verb. The verb illustrated in Figure 5–1 is used with different pronouns to represent all of the following meanings: ‘(I) have a good time; (you) have a good time; (we) have a good time; (they) have a good time’. The form of the verb itself does not change. Other verbs in this category include SLEEP, EAT, READ, LOVE, CHECK/EXAMINE, LIVE, WANT.

FIGURE 5–1. The plain verb HAVE-A-GOOD-TIME.

The second group encodes agreement with both subject and object. This group of verbs is called agreement verbs or agreeing verbs. The form of these verbs is partly determined by the spatial loci of the subject and object. The verb SHOW is an example of such a verb. Example (20) gives four forms of this verb, three of which are illustrated in Figure 5–2. 20.

a. b. c. d.


‘I show you’ SHOW ‘you show me’ 2 1 ‘I show him/her’ 1SHOW3 SHOW ‘he/she shows you’ 3 2

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(a) 1SHOW2 ‘I show you’

(b) 2SHOW1 ‘you show me’

(c) 3SHOW2 ‘he/she shows you’ FIGURE 5–2. Inflected forms of the verb SHOW.

All forms of the verb SHOW have the same hand configuration and are signed in the same general location (the space in front of the signer at chest level), and each has a slightly arc-shaped movement. The forms are distinguished by the direction of movement. The first example, translated, ‘I show you’, begins close to the body of the signer and ends at the locus for the addressee. The verb meaning ‘he shows you’ begins at the locus associated with the person being referred to (‘he’) and ends at the locus of the addressee. The direction of movement is indicated in the transcription with subscript numbers, ‘1’ for first person (‘I’); ‘2’ for second person (‘you’), ‘3’ for third person (‘he/she’). The first subscript indicates the initial location of the sign, and the second its final location. We can say then that verb agreement in ISL, as in other sign languages, is expressed through the direction of movement of the verb. The direction is determined by beginning and endpoints, which are loci

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associated with the subject and object of the verb. Other examples of agreeing verbs are SEND, GIVE, HELP, TEACH, LOOK-AT, ASK, TAKE, SUMMON, COPY. Verbs of the third group are characterized by the fact that the direction of movement represents the path traversed by the entity. These are called spatial verbs because they represent the spatial relations among objects and motion in space. Examples of verbs in this category are MOVE, PUT, CARRY, TRANSFER. As with agreeing verbs, these spatial verbs have no set direction of movement. Instead, the direction of movement varies. But unlike agreeing verbs, the direction of movement of spatial verbs is determined by the starting and ending points of the path traversed by the object, rather than by the R-loci of the subject and object of the verb. To clarify the distinction, we compare two sentences in examples (21) and (22) and Figure 5–3. The first contains an agreeing verb (SHOW), and the second a spatial verb (MOVE). 21. 22.

BOOK INDEXa I 1SHOW2 ‘I showed you a book.’ BOOK INDEXa I aMOVEb ‘I moved a book from point a to point b.’

(a) 1SHOW2

(b) aMOVEb

FIGURE 5–3. An agreeing verb and a spatial verb.

In sentence (21), the direction of movement of the verb is from the R-locus of the subject (‘I’) to that of the object (‘you’). In sentence (22), the direction of movement of the verb is from the point at which the book is located before it is moved, to the point at which I placed the book. In the spatial verb MOVE, points (a) and (b) are not associated with the subject and object of the verb, as they are in the agreeing verb SHOW. Rather, they represent the initial and final location of the book. Spatial verbs are common to all sign languages, but have no counterpart in spoken languages. In spoken languages, there is no direct way to encode the path

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that an object traverses in the form of the verb, because spoken words are made up of a sequence of sounds, which cannot represent spatial relations directly. Agreeing verbs do represent agreement with subject and object, and in this way they are similar to spoken languages whose verbs show this type of syntactic marking. But is the comparison merely metaphorical, or are we really talking about the same kind of thing in spoken and signed languages? Is it possible to characterize agreement in both language modalities according to the same linguistic/structural principles? The answer to this question is not simple. Verb agreement in sign language is a complex linguistic phenomenon, at once similar to and different from agreement in spoken languages. We come closer to understanding this issue by examining in more detail what linguists call the ‘behavior’ of agreeing verbs—what forms they take, and why. THE FORM AND MEANING OF SIGN LANGUAGE VERB AGREEMENT7 We’ve said that in agreeing verbs, agreement is expressed by the direction of movement of the verb. In a verb like SHOW (Figure 5–3), the movement is from the R-locus associated with the subject to the R-locus associated with the object. Informally, we can say that the sign for the verb moves from subject to object. But the story is more complicated than that. Agreeing verbs not only represent the subject and object of the verb, they also depict the spatial trajectory of the entity that is transferred—in particular, the trajectory from the source of the motion to the goal. In so doing, they encode two types of roles at once: syntactic and semantic. How do they do this? In order to understand the complexity of agreeing verbs, it is first necessary to understand what they mean. What Do Agreeing Verbs Mark? Agreeing verbs are verbs that denote the transfer of some object from one person to another. This object can be concrete, like ‘a book’ in the sentence, I gave her a book. Or it can be abstract, like ‘history’ in the sentence, He taught me history, in which the ‘object’ that is being transferred is information related to history. Transfer events include three participants: the thing being transferred, and the two possessors. The object is transferred (literally or metaphorically) from its former possessor to its future possessor. Verbs that denote transfer, such as GIVE and TAKE, encode two aspects of a transfer event at once: the direction of the transference of the object that changes ownership, and the causation or instigation of the transfer by one of the possessors. Let’s first have a look at the direction of transfer of the object that changes hands. The two sentences I gave you a book and I took a book from you differ from each other precisely in this respect: the direction of transfer of the object, ‘book’. 7

This section is based on Meir (1998a; 1998b; 2002).

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In the first sentence, the book passes from me to you, and in the second, the book passes from you to me. We portray this graphically in example (23). 23.

Direction of transfer of the object that changes hands:

Simple enough. But the situation becomes more complex when comparing the following two sentences: I gave you a book; you took a book from me. In both cases, the book goes from me to you; the direction of transfer is the same. What, then, is the difference between these sentences? They are distinguished by the identity of the causer or initiator of the event. In the first, the causer of the event of transfer is ‘I’. In the second, it is ‘you’. This seems like a fine distinction, but it can be quite significant, as the child who wishes to let her parents know who’s boss understands when she says, ‘You’re not taking it—I’m giving it!’.8 The fine difference here is one of control—who initiates and controls the event. This difference between I gave you a book and You took a book from me is conveyed in English by the syntactic structure of the sentence: the noun (or pronoun) in subject position is the initiator of the action. The distinction between these two sentences is portrayed graphically in example (24). 24.


The initiator in giving and taking actions:

Thanks to Lee Meir for this example.

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The Morphological Structure of Agreeing Verbs Agreeing verbs in sign language simultaneously convey the two aspects described above: the path in space of the transferred object, and the causation of the transfer event. But how? The secret lies in the fact that agreement in these verbs is encoded not only by the direction of the movement of the verb, but also by the direction in which the hands are facing. Let’s compare two forms of the verb HELP, in examples (25) and (26), illustrated in Figure 5–4. 25. 26.


‘I help you.’ ‘You help me.’

The examples show that in addition to the direction of movement of the whole hand, there is a difference in the direction towards which the fingertips are facing. In 1HELP2 in (25), the fingertips point forward, toward the locus of the addressee, while in the verb 2HELP1 shown in (26), the fingertips point inward, toward the body of the signer.

(a) 1HELP2 ‘I help you.’

(b) 2HELP1 ‘You help me.’

FIGURE 5–4. Direction of movement and of facing in two forms of the verb HELP.

In some verbs, facing is encoded not by the fingertips but rather by the palm. An example is the sign SEND, pictured in Chapter 2, Figure 2–7. In verbs like HELP or SEND, the direction of movement and the direction of the facing of the hands are one and the same: if the movement is outward, so is the facing, and vice versa. But there is a sub-class of agreeing verbs in which the direction of movement is opposite to that of the facing. TAKE is such a verb. When the hand moves toward the signer, the facing is outward, toward the addressee; and when the hand moves outward, the facing is toward

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the signer. Such verb are called backwards verbs (Padden, 1988); it feels as though the hand is ‘looking’ forward, but moving backward. Compare the agreement behavior of TAKE in Figure 5–5 below with that of HELP in Figure 5–4 above.

(a) 2TAKE1 ‘I take from you.’

(b) 1TAKE2 ‘You take from me.’

FIGURE 5–5. Direction of motion and direction of facing are opposite in TAKE.

Comparing the two types of verbs shows that the direction of movement and the facing have two separate functions in the language. The direction of movement represents the motion of the transferred entity in space. It is always from the previous possessor, the source, to the new possessor, the goal. The facing of the hand, however, marks the syntactic relationship between the participants: the hand is facing the (indirect) object. We can formulate these generalizations in the following two principles (Meir, 1998a, 1998b): i. The direction of movement in agreeing verbs is from source to goal. ii. The direction of facing in agreeing verbs is toward the syntactic object. As we said at the outset, agreeing verbs are complex. Their form reveals both the direction of transfer of the object (from source to goal) by its beginning and end points, and the syntactic role of the participants in the event, through the facing of the hand. (The facing actually marks the object, while the subject can be inferred: it is the possessor participant that is not marked by the facing). In addition to marking agreement with source, goal, and the syntactic object, agreeing verbs of ISL also encode the category of number—singular and plural. Plural is marked by a particular type of movement, and in some cases by a particular nonmanual marker as well. But before turning to plural marking, we present a comparison of agreement in signed and spoken languages.

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VERB AGREEMENT: SIGNED VERSUS SPOKEN LANGUAGES In Chapter 1 and in the introduction to Part 1 of the book, we explained that signed and spoken languages ‘do the same thing’, that they fulfill the communicative and mental needs of the people who use them. Sometimes they do this in a similar way, and sometimes differently. Similarities and differences in the verb agreement systems of languages in the two modalities have something to teach us in this regard. We have said that agreeing verbs in sign languages encode two systems simultaneously: the syntactic system (marking the object) and the spatial-semantic system (marking the source and goal). In spoken languages that have verb agreement, such as Hebrew or Italian, the agreement affixes that attach to the verb encode only syntactic roles. The verb agrees with its subject and sometimes its object, where subject and object are syntactic notions. Semantic categories like source and goal do not play a role in the verb agreement systems of spoken languages. If that is the case, then how do spoken languages convey the semantic and spatial notions? How do English speakers, for example, know that in the verb give, the syntactic subject is the source of transfer and the indirect object is the goal, while in take the reverse holds? In many cases, the spatial relations among the arguments of the verb are part of its inherent meaning, and in these cases there is no problem of interpretation. This can be seen in the many verbal pairs that are distinguished precisely by such differences, such as give/take; sell/buy; lend/borrow. In each of these pairs, the subject of the first member of the pair is the source and the object is the goal, while in the second member, the subject is the goal and the object is the source. But for some verbs, the meaning does not give us any spatial-semantic information. The English verb rent is such a verb. Consider the examples in (27). 27.

a. I rented the house to your cousin. b. I rented the house from your cousin. c. I rented the house.

In all three sentences, ‘I’ is the syntactic subject. As such, its referent is the causer or initiator of the renting event. But how do we know which of the two participants is the renter and which is the rentee? This information is encoded by the preposition preceding the syntactic object. We know that in the first sentence, the ownership of the house is temporarily transferred from me to your cousin, because the syntactic object—‘your cousin’—is marked as a goal by the preposition to. In the second sentence, ‘your cousin’ is preceded by the preposition from, marking it as the source of the transfer; the house, then, is transferred from your cousin to me. In the third sentence, the syntactic object

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is missing together with the preposition marking it as source or goal. Here, there is no way to deduce what the semantic role of the subject is. Without the prepositions to and from, it is not clear whether the syntactic subject ‘I’ is the original possessor of the house (the source), or the person that becomes the possessor as a result of renting (the goal). What can all this teach us about signed and spoken languages? In the English sentences, if the spatial semantic roles are marked, they are marked only partially. In (27a), only the goal is explicitly marked, by the preposition to, and in (27b), only the source is explicitly marked, by the preposition from. In both cases, it is only the object whose spatial semantic role in the transfer event is indicated by the prepositions. The role of the subject can only be inferred: if the object is the goal, then the subject must be the source, and vice versa. So if the sentence does not include an object, like (27c), for example, there is no way that we can infer the semantic role of the subject in the transfer event, and the sentence is ambiguous; either interpretation is possible. In sign languages, the situation is different. The form of the verb marks both the source and goal participants through the direction of movement, and it marks the subject and object as well, through the facing of the hand. This means that the verb agreement system morphologically encodes conceptual information about the semantic/spatial roles of the participants, as well as information about their syntactic roles. Spoken language agreement systems encode only syntactic roles, leaving the semantic information to prepositions, inherent lexical semantics (as in buy and sell), or context. The comparison teaches us that languages in both modalities encode syntactic roles through agreement morphemes attached to verbs. But sign languages also exploit the physical channel in which they are transmitted to convey clearly the spatial-semantic relations among the referents participating in the event.

MARKING NUMBER WITH AGREEMENT MORPHEMES Like pronouns, verbs are not restricted to singular number. Rather, the form of agreeing verbs can distinguish singular from plural. Also like pronouns, agreeing verbs distinguish further between two types of plural: exhaustive (‘to all’), and multiple (‘to each’). The exhaustive plural is made by producing the movement of the sign in the shape of a horizontal arc. The multiple is formed by several short, quick repetitions of the verb’s movement trajectory along the path of a horizontal arc. Each is illustrated in Figure 5–6. Not all verbs can be inflected for the exhaustive form. Sometimes it is prevented by the meaning of the verb. For example, it is impossible to visit many people in different places at one time, so the exhaustive cannot occur for the verb VISIT; only the multiple can occur. Sometimes the restriction stems from the form of the verb itself. Verbs with complex movement, such as arc, circular or doubled movement, cannot tolerate the additional horizontal arc move-

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(a) SHOW exhaustive

(b) SHOW multiple

FIGURE 5–6. Exhaustive and multiple forms of the verb SHOW.

ment of exhaustive plural agreement (Sandler, 1996). In some verbs, the horizontal arc is superceded by a very different type of movement: movement of the tongue. In these verbs, a rapid tongue movement that looks like ‘lalalalalala’ occurs in the exhaustive form. The verb APPROACH takes this type of plural marker, for example. The singular-plural distinction is made only with respect to the object of ISL verbs; plural subject has no marker. The verb in a sentence We showed them a picture does not include two arcs, although both the subject and the indirect object are plural. In this sentence, the pronominal sign WE will be signed independently, followed by the verb with the exhaustive arc to indicate the plural indirect object, ‘them’. CONCLUSION A common way for languages to mark the roles of participants in an activity or event, and to keep track of them throughout a discourse, is through agreement morphemes on verbs, as we’ve explained. As a visual language transmitted in space, ISL efficiently exploits the modality of its transmission to simultaneously encode both syntactic and semantic roles. Many other sign languages have similar systems. This may not seem surprising, since the verb agreement system is clearly motivated by the transfer and movement of objects in the real world. But verb agreement systems in different sign languages are not identical to one another and, perhaps even more interesting, they are not present in new sign languages. Verb agreement is a grammatical system, and as such it takes time and experience to become encoded and conventionalized in a language community. We deal with this issue and describe some of the differences across sign languages in Part III of the book.

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In the coming chapters, we will see how visual languages exploit the physical channel for other purposes besides agreement: to express temporal and other characteristics of verbs, and to encode the location and motion of people and things. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING FOR THOSE WITH A LINGUISTIC BACKGROUND Aronoff, M., Meir, I., & Sandler, W. (2005). The paradox of sign language morphology. Language, 81(2), 301–344. Janis, W. (1995). A crosslinguistic perspective on ASL verb agreement. In K. Emmorey & J. Reilly (Eds.), Language, gesture, and space (pp. 195–223). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Liddell, S. K. (2003). Grammar, gesture, and meaning in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mathur, G. (2000). Verb agreement as alignment in signed languages. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Meir, I. (1998a). Syntactic-semantic interaction of Israeli Sign Language verbs: The case of backwards verbs. Sign Language & Linguistics, 1(1), 3–37. Meir, I. (2002). A cross-modality perspective on verb agreement. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 20, 413–450. Padden, C. (1988). Interaction of morphology and syntax in American Sign Language. New York: Garland. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006) (chapter 3). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press. Taub, S. F. (2001b) (chapter 9). Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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6 Tenses and Aspects

In the previous chapter, we showed that different forms of the verb, in ISL as well as in Hebrew (and to a lesser extent in English), encode agreement with the verb’s arguments. In Hebrew and English, the different verb forms express not only verb agreement, but also tense differences. Forms such as talk, talked and will talk denote an action that occurred in the past, present or future. In many of the more familiar languages, such as English, French, German, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, verbs encode, we say inflect for, tense. Tense seems to be a universal category, and it is difficult to imagine how a language can get by without tense. But as soon as we compare the way in which time is encoded in the verb system of English to the way it is encoded in Hebrew or Arabic we realize that the simple three-way division into past-present-future tense is not uniform cross-linguistically. The English system is more complex than that of Hebrew. In addition to tenses, English also encodes distinctions between an ongoing event (the progressive aspect), and a completed event (the so-called ‘perfect tenses’). Hebrew has three tenses—past, present and future—but it does not encode morphologically the distinction between an ongoing event and a completed event. Standard Literary Arabic encodes a two-way distinction: past and nonpast. The non-past forms are used to refer to both present and future events. There are spoken languages which lack tense inflection altogether, leaving temporal distinctions to be expressed by time adverbials, like tomorrow or last year.1 Chinese is an example of such a language, as are several languages in western Africa, like Yoruba and Igbu (Comrie, 1976, p. 82). These few examples show that what seems to be a simple, straightforward grammatical system is actually a complex system, which varies greatly from language to language. ISL verbs, as far as we can tell, do not inflect for tense. Different verb forms like eat, ate, will eat, are translated to ISL by a single form, glossed EAT. The time frame in which the event takes place is expressed by adverbials, such as NEXT WEEK, LONG-TIME-AGO etc., as we demonstrate in the section 1

By inflection we mean a change in the form of a word (often by adding a suffix in spoken languages) to indicate a change in its grammatical function. The regular past tense inflection in English is -ed.


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on the expression of tense below. On the other hand, ISL does encode aspectual distinctions in its verbs, such as a continuative action and iterative action, also illustrated below. In order to explain the verbal system of ISL, we first draw a distinction between two grammatical categories related to time—tense and aspect. Then we turn to explore the aspectual system of ISL, the expression of time in the language, and some characteristics of lexical items denoting temporal concepts. TENSE VERSUS ASPECT2 Conceptions of time play a prominent role in human thought, cognition and culture. Languages have several means of expressing time concepts, divided into two major grammatical categories: tense and aspect. In order to explain the difference between them, we can start by representing time as a unidirectional line: 28.


Tense is a grammatical category which locates an event on the time line with respect to another point, called a reference point. The reference point of a sentence is usually the moment of speech, but it may also be another point specified by the context. A tense marker—a morpheme encoding tense in the verb—indicates the temporal relations which hold between the reference point, ‘R’ in the graph shown in (29), and the situation denoted by the sentence, ‘S’ in (29). It may denote that a situation took place at a specific point in time prior to a reference point, simultaneously to that reference point, or subsequent to that reference point. If the reference point is taken to be the moment of speech, then these tense markers denote past tense, present tense or future tense, respectively. 29.

———————————-R———————————> S S S (past) (present) (future) R—reference point (here—the moment of speech) S—situation time

The grammatical category of aspect, on the other hand, focuses on the internal temporal structure of an event. The main dichotomy in this category is between perfective and imperfective aspects illustrated in sentences (30)–(31) respectively. 2

The sections on tense versus aspect and on aspects in ISL are based on Meir (1999). As in that article, the discussion of the concepts of tense and aspect here in language relies mainly on Comrie (1976) and Smith (1991).

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30. 31.


John wrote a letter. John was writing a letter.

Since both sentences denote an event that took place in the past, the distinction between them cannot be a tense distinction. Rather, they differ in the way they represent the event. Sentence (30) presents an event as a whole— consisting of both its beginning and its endpoints. In other words, the whole event of John writing a letter is presented as completed. One of the implications of this sentence is that John finished writing the letter. Sentence (31), on the other hand, focuses on the internal structure of the event, from a viewpoint internal to the event. The event is presented as ongoing. This point of view does not highlight the initial (I) and final (F) points of the event, but rather the occurrence of the event. Such a sentence implies that the action was not yet completed in the situation being discussed: John was in the midst of writing the letter, and hadn’t finished it yet. The difference between the two sentences is represented graphically in (32) and (33) (following Smith, 1991, p. 95): 32. 33.

The perfective aspect: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I . . . . . . . . . . F //////////////////////// The imperfective aspect: . . . . . . . I . . . . . . . . . . . . F ////////////// I—represents the initial point of the situation. F—represents the final point of the situation.

The slashes indicate the span of the situation which is highlighted by the aspectual marker: the entire event including the initial and final points in the case of the perfective, and the internal stages of the event, to the exclusion of its end points, for the imperfective. In addition to the distinction between a perfective and an imperfective event, many languages grammatically encode other aspectual distinctions, such as a continuative event (an event continuing over a period of time), an iterative event (an event occurring over and over again), and a habitual event (an event which occurs regularly). THE ASPECTUAL SYSTEM OF ISL As mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, ISL verbs do not inflect for tense. However, ISL has a rich and complex aspectual system. In this section, we describe three aspectual distinctions: the iterative aspect, the continuative aspect and the perfect. The first two are encoded in ISL by morphological means, by modulating the basic form of the verb. The perfect is expressed by syntactic means, in the sense that the aspectual marker is an independent

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word. We’d like to say at the outset that the research reported here is preliminary, and it very well may be that the aspectual system of ISL is richer than what we describe below. What’s more, the way these aspects are encoded in the form of the sign has not been investigated for all types of verbs in the languages. There may be variation in the types of aspectual inflection used for different kinds of verbs, a topic that should be taken up in future research. Morphological Modulations Marking Aspectual Distinctions Consider the following sentences: 34. 35.

I’ve been looking at the picture for a long time. I looked at him again and again, but didn’t notice that he’d dyed his hair.

Sentence (34) expresses a continuative action, an action continuing over a period of time. In sentence (35), the action is reiterated; it is performed over and over again. In English, the distinction between a continuative action and an iterative action is expressed both by morphological means (the progressive form of the verb in 34), as well as by adverbials such as again and again. Other languages, such as Hebrew, express this distinction only by means of adverbials. ISL uses morphological means to encode these aspects. An iterative action is encoded by several (usually three) repetitions of the verb. If the verb has a double movement in citation (dictionary) form, as EAT and LEARN do (see Chapter 2), then the double movement is retained in the iterative inflection. That is to say, each double movement is repeated several times. Figure 6–1 shows the iterative form of the sign LEARN, whose citation form appears in Figure 2–2:

FIGURE 6–1. An iterative action: LEARNiterative

A continuative action is also expressed by means of repetitions, but in a slightly different manner. The motion of the verb is slower, and the hands are held

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in place briefly at the end of each iteration. If a verb has a double movement in citation form, that double movement is not preserved under the continuative inflection as it is under the iterative inflection. The continuative aspect is also characterized by a particular facial expression, illustrated in Figure 6–2:

FIGURE 6–2. A continuative action: LEARNcontinuative

In addition to the difference in movement, the two types of inflection may differ in the timing of facial expressions accompanying the verb. The verb CRY, for example, is a two-handed sign, consisting of a handshape and an alternating movement in which the fingertip traces a path from the eyes downwards on the cheeks. The manual sign is accompanied by the opening of the mouth. In the continuative aspect, the mouth opens at the beginning of the sign, and remains open during the entire production of the sign. In the iterative inflection, the mouth opens and re-opens with each iteration of the sign; in other words, the entire sign, including both its manual and non-manual components, is repeated. Here, the non-manual component mirrors the timing of the hands. Since alternating movement is by definition doubled (each hand produces the sign, one after the other), the two movements together with the accompanying facial expression are all repeated in the iterative inflection. In the continuative aspect, by contrast, it is as if the movement of the basic verb sign is replaced by the movement of the aspectual inflection, so that the individual elements of the base sign are distributed across the aspect’s movement pattern in a different way. At first glance, these inflections may be reminiscent of English sentences containing repetitions of the verb in order to convey an aspectual flavor: 36. 37.

I ate and ate. He walked and walked until he got tired.

In both English and ISL, repetitions are used to convey aspectual information. But despite these similarities, the two structures are different. First, in

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English, repetition does not create a new form of the verb; rather, the two occurrences of the verb are conjoined to create a new syntactic structure. In ISL, we find a new form of the verb instead. This is especially noticeable in the continuative inflection, where some phonological features of the verb do not appear in the inflected form (such as double movement). A hypothetical equivalent form in English could be *walkwalked, where the verb is repeated to form a new word with aspectual inflection, which then gets the past tense marker -ed on it. Words like this don’t occur in English. The repetition in example (37) is just that, repetition of the whole word, and not aspectual inflection. Another difference is in the interpretation. The reduplicated forms in English have a continuative interpretation. Sentence (37) expresses a single event of walking which lasts over a long stretch of time.3 ISL, on the other hand, uses two different types of repeated movement in order to encode an aspectual distinction. Research on other sign languages, such as ASL, found a wider array of morphological modulations encoding aspectual distinctions.4 The research on aspects in ISL is still in its infancy, and it may well be that there are other aspects which have not been discovered yet. The aspectual inflections described so far focus on the internal temporal structure of the event, and they employ morphological means, especially changes in the movement pattern, to express these distinctions. We now turn to another aspect in ISL, which differs from the continuative and the iterative in both its meaning and its grammatical form. The Perfect A special aspectual marker is that of the so-called ‘perfect tenses’. The perfect is a perfective aspectual marker, which is different from other aspectual markers in a specific way: it does not reflect the internal temporal structure of the event, but rather relates one event to a preceding event (Comrie, 1976, p. 52). Look at the English sentences in (38) and (39). 38. 39.

I lost my keys. I have (I’ve) lost my keys.

These two sentences are very similar in meaning, but they differ in a subtle way: sentence (39) (the perfect) has the implication that the keys are still lost at the present moment, whereas (38) (the non-perfect) does not have such 3 When the verb is a punctual verb, then the construction has an iterative meaning, as in He jumped and jumped. However, it is the meaning of the verb (non-punctual vs. punctual) that determines whether the construction is interpreted as continuative or iterative in English. In ISL, on the other hand, the interpretation is determined by the type of morphological inflection on the verb. 4 For a survey of aspectual inflections in ASL, see Klima and Bellugi (1979); Liddell (1984b); Sandler (1990; 1996); Brentari (1998).

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an implication (ibid. p. 52). In other words, the perfect sentence presents an event from the point of view of the present; the state resulting from a preceding event is relevant for the present moment. Non-perfect sentences (like (38)) have the point of view of the past, making no statement about the relevance of that past event to the present moment. This means that the perfect encodes two things at once: both the complete event and the state resulting from the completion of the event, as illustrated in (40): 40.

. . . . . . .I . . . . . . . . . . . . . F. . . . . . . . . . . . . (Reference Time) /////////////////////////////

The shaded part of the illustration in (40) shows that perfect constructions relate the situation that results from the final point of a preceding event to the reference time (in our case, the speech time). Perfect constructions generally have the following characteristics: a.

The situation is presented from the point of view of its final point; i.e., there is a strong emphasis on the final point of the situation. b. The final point of the situation precedes the reference time. In other words, perfect sentences locate an event prior to the reference time of the sentence, denoting anteriority. c. The construction has the point of view of the state which resulted from that situation. If the reference time of a sentence is the present moment (as in (39)) the perfect construction denotes that the event occurred and was terminated prior to that moment, but the results of it are still relevant for the present moment. Yet the reference point need not necessarily be that of the present; it can be a past reference time, as in (41), or a future reference time, as in (42) (from Smith, 1991, p. 147): 41. 42.

Last Saturday John had (already) arrived. Next Saturday John will have already arrived.

These sentences convey the meaning that an event (John’s arrival) is anterior and relevant to reference time, whether in the past (41) or the future (42). The Perfect Aspect in ISL The perfect aspect is expressed in ISL by a specific marker, the sign glossed as ALREADY (Figure 6–3). Its occurrence adds a perfect reading to the sentence: 43.


‘I have (already) eaten.’

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FIGURE 6–3. The perfect aspect marker: ALREADY.

44. 45.

ROOM INDEXa—I ALREADY CLEAN. ‘I have cleaned this room.’ (and it is clean, no need to clean it anymore). BUS TEL AVIV INDEXa ALREADY GO-AWAY. ‘The bus to Tel Aviv has already left.’

The sign ALREADY occurs quite often in past tense contexts, and for this reason it’s sometimes thought of as denoting past tense. There is a strong connection between the perfect and the past tense, since the perfect locates an event prior to the reference time of the sentence, and it’s not uncommon for a perfect construction to develop over the years into past tense markers in a given language. Such diachronic changes have been attested in French and German, for example. How, then, is it possible to determine whether the ISL sign ALREADY is a marker of the perfect or a marker of past tense? The answer emerges through a closer examination of the function and patterning of ALREADY. The differences between the perfect and the past tense that were described above reveal several properties of ALREADY that are characteristic of perfect constructions, but not of past tense markers. First, ISL sentences containing the sign ALREADY express a state which resulted from a situation prior to the reference time of the sentence. A comparison between sentences with and without ALREADY reveals a distinction very similar to the one found between English perfect and simple past sentences (illustrated by sentences (38) and (39) above). 46. 47. 5


‘(I) have eaten’.

Since in ISL verbs do not inflect for tense, this sentence could also have the reading of an event taking place in the present moment, i.e., ‘I am eating (now)’. The context will make clear whether the sentence denotes a past event or a present event.

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Sentence (46) conveys the meaning that a situation of me eating took place at a point in time prior to the reference time of the sentence. Sentence (47), on the other hand, has the point of view (the reference) of the present, and it denotes a state that resulted from the fact that an event of eating took place prior to the present moment. So, (47) but not (46) has the implication that I am not hungry right now, and only (47) is possible as an answer to a question such as ‘are you hungry?’, or in a context such as ‘I’m not hungry now, I have (already) eaten’.6 The second property of the perfect aspect that ALREADY has is that it co-occurs with time adverbials that denote not only past time, but also the present or the future, as shown in (48) and (49). If ALREADY were a past tense marker, its co-occurrence with present and future time adverbials is rather unexpected; we would not expect a verb inflected for past tense to appear with an adverbial denoting the future (as the ungrammatical sentence *I went tomorrow shows). 48. 49.

ALREADY EAT NOW. ‘I have just eaten now’. WEEK FOLLOWING THEY(dual) ALREADY MARRIED. ‘Next week they will already be married.’

A third argument supporting the claim that ALREADY does not mark past tense is related to its distribution, or patterns of occurrence in the language. ALREADY tends to occur much more in conversations than in narrative texts. If ALREADY were a past tense marker, it would be difficult to explain why it is quite rare in narrative contexts, especially narratives describing events in the past. But if ALREADY is regarded as a perfect marker, this behavior finds a natural explanation. In conversations, past events are frequently referred to from the point of view of their relevance to the moment of speech. Therefore, perfect constructions are very natural in such contexts, since their core meaning is the relevance of past situations to the moment of speech. Narrative contexts, on the other hand, describe the course of events which all took place in the past, without necessarily highlighting their relevance for the speech time. Perfect constructions are expected to be much rarer in such contexts. The interpretation of the following two sentences illustrates this distinction. 50. 51.


I JERUSALEM INDEXa 1GO-TOa MEET FRIEND POSS1. ‘I went to Jerusalem and met my friends.’ I JERUSALEM INDEXa ALREADY 1GO-TOa ALREADY MEET FRIEND POSS1. ‘I have gone to Jerusalem and I have met my friends (there).’

Not all dialects of English use the perfect aspect in the same way. In some dialects of American English, for example, the English translation of sentence (46) is an appropriate answer to the question ‘Are you hungry?’

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Example (50) is appropriate in a context where I tell the story (the course of events) of my traveling to Jerusalem. But when ALREADY is added to the sentence (as in (51)), it is understood to be part of a conversation. For example, (51) is appropriate as an answer to a question such as ‘When are you going to Jerusalem?’ asked by a friend who knows I intended to go to Jerusalem, but did not know that this event had taken place already. Here are some additional sentences illustrating the use of ALREADY in the two conversations shown in (52) and (53). 52.

a. I LEG BREAK WEEK-AGO. ‘I broke my leg last week.’ b. I ALSO LEG ALREADY BREAK. ‘I have also broken my leg.’ (some time in the past).

It can also occur as an answer to a question like the one in (53). 53.

a. YOU LEARN YOU? ‘Did you study?’ b. ALREADY, ALREADY. ‘I have already done it.’ (I have completed the task).

In sum, three properties support the claim that ALREADY is a perfect marker, and not a past tense marker: (a) It relates a resultant state to a prior event; (b) ALREADY can co-occur with past, present and future time adverbials; and (c) it occurs much more in conversations than in narrative contexts. ALREADY can co-occur with other aspectual markers and time adverbials in the language. For example, it can co-occur with verbs inflected for the continuative aspect. In such cases, the sentence denotes an event that lasted over an extended stretch of time, is terminated, and is relevant from the point of view of the reference point, as in sentence (54). 54.

‘I was engaged in studying I ALREADY STUDY(durational) EXAM. for a long time’ (and I’m prepared for the exam).

As sentences (48)–(49) above show, ALREADY can co-occur with adverbials denoting present and future time frames. In such cases, the verb denotes an event which was completed prior to a present or future reference point, parallel to the English present perfect and future perfect. These uses show that ISL has a rich, complex aspectual system, consisting of at least the following aspects: continuative aspect; iterative aspect; the perfect aspect, including present and future perfect; and a continuative perfect aspect. Since the spoken language surrounding ISL, Hebrew, does not have such a complex aspectual system, the development of this system must be attributed to independent processes within the language. Hebrew also has special uses for the word kvar, ‘already’, but these differ from ISL usage. The following section compares the use of ISL ALREADY and the parallel adverbial in Hebrew, emphasizing the differences between the two systems, which are

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taken as evidence that the aspectual system of ISL has not been borrowed from Hebrew, but rather developed on its own within the language. ISL ALREADY and Hebrew Already Compared The rich aspectual system of ISL presented in the preceding sections is independent of the Hebrew aspectual system. Though the mouthing accompanying the ISL sign ALREADY is ‘kvar’, which is the Hebrew word meaning ‘already’, the function and use of the two words are not equivalent. To clarify this point, let’s look at a few examples where there are striking differences in the grammatical function and meaning of this word in the two languages. 55.

a. YOU PREPARE HOMEWORK YOU? ‘Did you do your homework?’ b. ALREADY, ALREADY. ‘I’ve already done it.’

Interestingly, a similar conversation in Hebrew would have a totally different meaning: Already as an answer to a question such as ‘Have you done your homework?’ means ‘not yet, but soon, (I’ll do it) in a minute’. The use of this marker in the two languages results in almost opposite interpretations. In ISL it expresses a complete action, while in Hebrew it denotes an action that is not yet done or completed. Sentence (56) exemplifies the co-occurrence of ALREADY with a continuative adverbial meaning ‘for a certain stretch of time’, where ALREADY retains its core meaning, denoting the termination of an event. 56.

BOOK INDEXa—I ALREADY READ THREE-DAY. ‘It took me three days to read this book’.

In Hebrew, on the other hand, already  a continuative adverbial conveys the meaning of an incomplete action: 57.

ani kvar kore et ha-sefer ha-ze shlosha yamim. I already read acc the-book the-this three days. ‘I have been reading this book for three days already’ (and haven’t finished it yet).

These examples highlight the fact that the Hebrew word kvar (‘already’) is not always associated with the termination or completion of an event, and therefore cannot be analyzed as a perfect tense marker. In fact, Hebrew does not have a fully grammaticalized perfect construction, and has to resort to different paraphrases to convey the wide array of meanings denoted by the perfect.

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THE EXPRESSION OF TIME If ISL doesn’t have tense inflection, how is the concept of time expressed in this language? Like other languages with no grammatical tense, ISL relies mainly on temporal adverbials to set the temporal frame of events. For example, information concerning temporal relations is encoded by words denoting time concepts, such as YESTERDAY, THE-DAY-AFTER-TOMORROW, NEXT-MONTH, FUTURE, as is illustrated in sentences (58)–(59): 58. 59.

‘Yesterday I visited my family.’ YESTERDAY I VISIT FAMILY POSS1. NEXT-YEAR I FLY USA INDEXa. ‘Next year I’ll fly to the USA.’

Not every sentence contains a time adverbial—not every sentence needs one. The time adverbial appears at the beginning of the discourse, and provides the general temporal frame. Subsequent events in the discourse are perceived as part of the same temporal frame, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary, like inserting a different time adverbial. The discourse stretch we’ll use as illustration, shown in (60) below, is taken from the story ‘The Little Bush’ (by Osnat Yoshfe), told in ISL by Orna Levy. The story opens with a general temporal adverbial phrase DARK NIGHT NIGHT (‘Every night, in the dark . . .’). All the sentences that follow belong to this time frame, and tell about events that happened every night. After several sentences, a new time expression is introduced—NIGHT ONE (‘one night’), indicating a change in the temporal frame. All subsequent sentences tell about events that took place on that particular night. 60.

DARK NIGHT NIGHT, MAN LORD FOREST WALK . . . HIMSELF WOODS. WALK(x2) SEE TREES, GRASS, SKY. INDEX3 SEE LOOK STROKE, WHISPER . . . STROKE, SAY WORD GOOD, WALK(x3). NIGHT ONE, MAN LORD FOREST, INDEX3 WALK, SUDDENLY HEAR SOMETHING SUSPICIOUS . . . ‘Every night, in the dark, the Lord of the Forest used to walk in the forest. He would walk in the woods, look at the trees, the grass, the sky. He would look [at the trees and leaves], stroke them and whisper kind words to them, and then he would walk away. . . . One night the old Lord of the Forest heard something suspicious.’7

Languages with grammatical tense inflection usually mark tense on each verb. In contrast, ISL expresses the temporal frame only when needed to introduce it. Actually this kind of structure is not as unusual as it seems, as example (61) from informal English shows. 7

We thank Ofra Rosenstein for this example.

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So yesterday, I’m on my way to the post office. I walk down the street, humming something to myself, in my own world. Suddenly I bump into somebody and practically get knocked off my feet. Who do I see looking down at me? My best friend from grade school. Twenty years I hadn’t seen her.

The first sentence contains the time adverbial yesterday, but the verb is in the present tense, even though the events took place in the past. The use of present tense in a narrative telling of past events has a specific discourse function.8 What is important for our purposes here is that the temporal frame of the sentence, the past, is expressed only in the first sentence. The other sentences are assumed to belong to the same frame, until there is an explicit indication of a temporal change. In short, ISL can certainly express temporal relations, but it utilizes means that are different from those of languages like English. Temporal relations are expressed by lexical means and not by inflection on the verb. Temporal adverbials need not appear in each and every sentence. They usually occur at the beginning of the discourse, and afterwards only occur to mark a change in the temporal frame.9 Formational Characteristics of Words Denoting Time concepts Some words denoting time concepts and relations are characterized by formational characteristics that are unique to sign languages, since they make use of a spatial axis. Other properties found in words denoting time concepts are related to the expression of the grammatical category of number. Time line: direction of movement. A few of the words denoting time concepts in ISL use space in order to express temporal relations. These words are articulated on an imaginary time line, a horizontal line located at cheek or shoulder height.10 On this line, illustrated in Figure 6–4, the signer’s body constitutes a reference point corresponding to the present. The past is conceptualized as the area behind the shoulder or cheek, while the future occupies the area in front of the signer. The direction of the movement in signs denoting time concepts expresses temporal relation. An example will help. The signs 8 The use of present tense in narratives relating past events is called ‘historic present’. It is usually used in the more dramatic parts of the story, in order to present the events as if witnessed by the speaker. See, e.g., Schiffrin (1981, p. 46), and Comrie (1976, pp. 73–78). 9 Aarons et al. (1995) argue that several time adverbials in ASL have grammaticized into tense markers. We have not found any consistent use of such means in ISL. However, there is still much unknown about the expression of temporal relations in the language. 10 Other sign languages also make use of a time line. The first mention of this concept was in a manuscript by Frishberg about ASL, later published in Frishberg & Gough (2000).

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FIGURE 6–4. The time line.


(c) WEEK-BEFORE (‘last week’)


(d) WEEK-AFTER (‘next week’)

FIGURE 6–5. Use of the time line in signs denoting time expressions.


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YESTERDAY and TOMORROW in Figure 6–5a–b have the same hand configuration and location, but differ in the direction of movement. In YESTERDAY the hand moves backwards, and in TOMORROW the hand moves forwards. The sign WEEK is usually articulated in the signing space in front of the signer; the sign YEAR is articulated near the mouth. However, in order to express temporal relations, such as ‘last week/last year’ or ‘the following week/year’, these signs will be located along the imaginary time line, and the direction of the movement will express anteriority or posteriority (see Figure 6–5c–d). ISL uses space metaphorically in such constructions: it employs spatial relations in order to conceptualize temporal relations. This phenomenon is prevalent among sign languages generally (e.g., ASL, BSL, Swedish SL, Danish SL, Italian SL and others; see Frishberg and Gough, 2000, p. 123). In fact, many spoken languages also use words and expressions denoting spatial relations metaphorically to convey temporal relations, for example, in (in three days), on (on Monday) and ahead (the years ahead). This use is so widespread that it led some researchers to develop a theory which views the linguistic expression of spatial relations as more basic, and the expression of temporal relations as a secondary, or derived use, based on a metaphorical view of time as one-dimensional space (see, e.g., Clark, 1973). Even the conceptualization of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us has parallels in spoken languages, exhibited by expressions such as the years ahead, bad times are behind us, which refer to the past and the future as occupying areas in space.11 Not all words denoting time in ISL express temporal relations by the direction of movement. Words such as HOUR, MINUTE, MONTH use the nondominant hand as a location, so that the dominant hand moves with respect to the base hand. In order to express concepts such as ‘an hour ago’ or ‘next month’, the signers need to make use of the signs BEFORE and AFTER: BEFORE HOUR (‘an hour ago’), AFTER TEN MINUTE (‘ten minutes later/in ten minutes’). Number of fingers to indicate number of temporal units. Signs denoting certain time concepts in ISL have another systematic characteristic: they express quantity by the number of fingers in the handshape. The basic signs MINUTE, HOUR, DAY, WEEK, MONTH and YEAR have a


By using , , , or handshapes, the number of units is expressed. However, this incorporation of number in the sign is limited to 5 in signs with one active hand (the non-dominant hand being used as the base hand, e.g., MINUTE, HOUR, WEEK), and to 10 in symmetrical two-handed 11 Kyle and Woll (1985, p. 143) point out that in Urubu Kaapor Sign Language, a sign language used by hearing members of indigenous tribes in Brazil, there is a different use of the imaginary time line: the past is located in front of the signer, while the future is behind. According to the worldview reflected in this conception of the time line, the past is perceived as known, and therefore visible, while the future is unknown, hence invisible.

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signs (DAY, YEAR, MONTH12). Figure 6–6 illustrates the signs YEAR and SEVEN-YEARS, in which the base sign YEAR is articulated with seven fingers. This construction, called number incorporation, is not entirely foreign to English speakers. Forms such as twice, and for British English speakers, thrice, twopence, incorporate quantity as part of the form of the word. But such forms are very rare in English, whereas in ISL (and other sign languages) number incorporation is much more complex and productive.13

(a) YEAR


FIGURE 6–6. Number incorporation in words denoting time expressions.

It is possible to combine number of fingers and direction of movement in one sign, in order to express more complex notions, such as TWO-YEARSBEFORE, illustrated in Figure 6–7.

FIGURE 6–7. Combined use of time line and number incorporation: TWO-YEARSBEFORE (‘two years ago’). 12 The sign MONTH is actually a non-symmetrical two-handed sign, where the nondominant hand is used as the base. However, this sign has a symmetrical two-handed version used to denote quantities higher than 5. 13 Number incorporation is used in pronouns in ISL as well, see Chapter 4.

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The Vocabulary of Time in ISL The vocabulary of time in ISL differs from that of the ambient spoken language, Hebrew, as well as from other spoken languages like English. Take, for example, the word year/years. ISL has several signs that can be translated as ‘year(s)’. In ISL translations of each of the sentences (62)–(66), the English word year is represented by a different ISL sign. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66.

He is a second year student. He studied in this school for seven years. He studied in this school for twelve years. I haven’t seen him for years. He has to pay a membership fee for one year.

In sentence (62), ISL uses the base sign YEAR (see Figure 6–6a). In order to express ‘seven years’, as in sentence (63), ISL makes use of the number


(b) LONG-TIME (‘for years’)

(c) YEAR + PERIOD (‘one-year period’) FIGURE 6–8. Different words translating the English word year.

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incorporation construction, where the number of years is expressed by the number of extended fingers (Figure 6–6b). However, when referring to a period longer than ten years, as in (64), number incorporation cannot be used. In such cases, one has to sign the number (here, TWELVE), and then use a particular form meaning ‘years’ (‘more than ten’), whose form is unrelated to the base sign YEAR (see Figure 6–8a). Using words that have a completely different form from the related base is called suppletion. We see suppletion in the English forms go–went, for example (instead of go–*goed). In sentence (65), the word years denotes an extended but undefined period of time (‘many years’). This is expressed in ISL by yet another sign (Figure 6–8b). Finally, in (66), the word year denotes ‘a one-year period’. This meaning is conveyed in ISL by the compound YEARPERIOD (Figure 6–8c). CONCLUSION ISL makes use of a variety of grammatical means to convey temporal concepts and relations: aspectual inflection on verbs, grammatical markers such as ALREADY, a metaphorical time line, and number incorporation. These means, which differ significantly from those of many spoken languages, show that it is very misleading to examine one language through the grammatical structure of another language. English, for example, has to use three words (e.g., three weeks ago) to convey what ISL can express in one sign (THREEWEEK-AGO). The conclusion is that every language has the potential to express concepts and notions that are useful to the community that uses it, such as the wide array of temporal relations and concepts presented in this chapter, but each language may employ different grammatical means to do it. Languages are not “richer” or “poorer”; they are just different. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Klima, E. S., & Bellugi, U. (1979) (Chapters 11, 12). The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999) (Chapter 7). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Fischer, S. D., & Gough, B. (1999). Some unfinished thoughts on FINISH. Sign Language & Linguistics, 2(1), 67–77. Frishberg, N. & Gough, B. (2000). Morphology in American Sign Language. Sign Language & Linguistics, 3(1), 103–132. Meir, I. (1999). A perfect marker in Israeli Sign Language. Sign language & Linguistics, 2, 43–62.

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7 Shapes, Locations, and Motion In Space: Classifier Constructions

The two chapters before this one each dealt with verbs. It makes sense to pay so much attention to this part of speech, since the verb is often the heart of the event described in a sentence. And we’ve seen that the verbs of ISL have some of the same grammatical characteristics as verbs in many other languages. But there are differences too. In fact, when you try to translate certain verbs from a spoken language into a sign language, you may encounter the following problem: for one word, there are many possible translations in sign language, depending on what types of participants are involved in the event. Translating a verb meaning ‘put’, for example, depends, among other things, on the shape of the thing being put. In fact, in ISL there is a large number of sign forms corresponding to ‘put’, distinguished from one another by the shape of the hand: PUT-CYLINDRICAL-OBJECT, PUT-THIN-FLATOBJECT, PUT-THICK-OBJECT, etc. The handshapes in such forms—called classifiers—have a specific grammatical function. The classifier system pervades sign languages, lending them much richness of expression. The system exploits to the hilt the grammatical use of space, described in Chapter 4. The complexity of the classifier system presents a challenge to linguists investigating sign language structure; we are still trying to come to grips with the phenomenon, as a recent volume on the subject reveals (Emmorey, 2003). Classifiers play a central role in the structure of sign languages, but they are very difficult to master for many of us who study a sign language as a second language. One reason for this difficulty may be that in the languages many of us speak—English, Hebrew, and most European languages—there is no such grammatical animal as classifiers. But classifiers are not restricted to sign languages only. Many spoken languages have them, in such scattered parts of the world as Asia, Polynesia, and the Americas.1 1 There is a variety of classificatory mechanisms in Native American languages, some of them comparable in some ways to classifiers in sign language, and others different. See the reading list at the end of the chapter.


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Because of the importance of the classifier system in the grammar of sign languages, no book on the topic would be complete without it. In this chapter, we will try to describe the system clearly, relying as much as possible on comparisons with more familiar structures in other languages. The discussion that follows uses examples from Israeli Sign Language. However, the aspects of the system that we describe here are very similar to those that have been described in American Sign Language, Sign Language of the Netherlands, and other sign languages. We are describing a pervasive sign language phenomenon. WHAT ARE CLASSIFIERS? Let’s begin with a look at some ISL sentences with classifiers in them. The classifier forms are shown in Figure 7–1.2 67. 68. 69.


(a) ‘give a book’

(b) ‘give a cup’

(c) ‘give a document’

FIGURE 7–1. Three different constructions meaning GIVE-(some kind of ) OBJECT.

In English, these sentences are distinguished only by the noun that is the direct object of give: book, cup, and paper. In ISL, the sentences are distinguished both by the signs corresponding to their direct objects (the signs BOOK, CUP, and DOCUMENT, signed at the beginning of the sentences in 2

In sentences (67)–(69) we use the gloss HE instead of INDEX3 for simplicity.

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examples (67)–(69)), and by the form of the classifier-construction itself.3 The handshape, here representing the handling of objects of different shapes, varies from sentence to sentence, depending on the shape of the thing being given. When the thing is ‘book’, the handshape is

; when it is ‘cup’, the hand-

shape is ; and when it is ‘document’, the handshape is . That the shape of the object determines the form of the sign might seem strange at first. But in fact we can find comparable examples in English, in which physical characteristics of the object determine which verb is used. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74.

Jamie forked the steaks (onto the board). Jamie scooped the mashed turnips (into the ceramic bowl). Jamie poured the wine (into the goblets). Jamie spread the pâté (on the toast). Jamie sprinkled the rock salt (onto the salmon).

Even The Naked Chef would find it impossible to fork the wine or scoop the steak or sprinkle the pâté. These examples show that choosing the verb according to features of its object is not unique to sign languages.4 Still, there are at least two differences between English and ISL in this connection. First, in ISL, it is not the whole sign that changes but only one part of it, the handshape. Second, the number of handshapes that can participate in the system is typically larger than the number of verbs in any given domain. In sentences (67)–(69), the handshape changes according to the syntactic object of the verb. But it is not always the thing corresponding to a syntactic object that determines the handshape. Sentences (75)–(76), illustrated in Figure 7–2, denote the spatial relation of one entity to another. In these sentences, the handshape changes according to the entity that corresponds to the syntactic subject of a similar sentence in English, not the syntactic object. 75.



TABLE INDEXa CUP CYLINDRICAL-OBJECT-NEXT-TO-FLATOBJECT. ‘The cup is next to the piece of paper.’

3 Classifier constructions are given various linguistic labels in the literature, such as verbs of motion and location (Supalla, 1986) or classifier predicates (Schick, 1990a). Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2006) argue that these complex linguistic elements are not actually words, but are something in between a word and a sentence. 4 Many languages have similar phenomena. In Hebrew, there are several words for the English word ‘wear’ or ‘put on’, depending on what is being donned. For example, the verb lavash is used for putting on a shirt, pants or a dress; naʔal for putting on shoes; xavash for a hat; hirkiv for eyeglasses; and anad for jewelry.

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(a) ‘The cellphone is on the table.’

(b) ‘The cup is next to the piece of paper.’

FIGURE 7–2. Different classifier handshapes for entities corresponding to the subject of the translated English sentences.

The handshapes in these examples actually represent classes of objects with shapes such as cylindrical, flat, etc., and not specific objects such as a cup or a piece of paper. We use the glosses CELLPHONE, CUP, and PIECE OF PAPER here rather than CYLINDRICAL-OBJECT, FLAT-OBJECT, etc., informally, for clarity. It is certainly not the case that every subject or object noun has its own classifier handshape. Sentences (77)–(79) show clearly that this is not the case. They all use the cylindrical object classifier 77. 78. 79.



In each of these sentences, the subject denotes a different thing, yet the handshapes are all the same. The reason is that all of the things that the nouns stand for in these sentences have a common characteristic: all of them are cylindrical in shape. From these examples we learn that the handshapes in all the sentences we’ve considered do not represent specific nouns, but rather each of them represents a group of nouns that share a common characteristic. And this is the most important property of classifiers: Classifiers are morphemes that classify nouns into groups according to some shared characteristic. These characteristics may be physical properties of the object, like size and shape; they may represent the shape of the hand as it holds the object that the noun stands for; or they may be related to the semantics of the noun, for instance, whether it is a human, an animal, a vehicle, etc. In the sign language literature, these types are often referred to as Size and Shape Specifiers (‘SASSes’), Handling Classifiers, and Semantic or Entity Classifiers. Some examples are shown in Table 7.1.

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TABLE 7.1. Examples of Classifiers in ISL Illustration

Classifier Type A. Size and Shape Specifiers Cylindrical object (cup, bottle, telescope)

Small round object (coin, button)

Flat round object (plate, frisbee, record) B. Handling Classifiers Thin, flat object (disk, letter, paycheck)

Broad/thick flat object (book, videotape)

Very thin object (paper, fabric)

C. Entity Classifiers Upright human


Bicycle, bus, truck (transportation vehicle with salient length)

Group, troop, herd (of humans or animals)


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WHEN DO YOU USE CLASSIFIERS? Regular signs exist for most of the nouns that are represented by classifiers. For example, the signs BOOK and CAR are illustrated in Figure 7–3.

(a) BOOK

(b) CAR

FIGURE 7–3. Nouns that are not classifiers.

Similarly, there are numerous regular verbs involving similar concepts that do not involve classifiers, like TRAVEL and GIVE, shown in Figure 7–4.


(b) GIVE

FIGURE 7–4. Verbs that do not include classifiers.

If this is the case, why would we need classifiers in sentences about books, cars, traveling, and putting things somewhere? The answer lies in the visual na-

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ture of the sign language system. Sign languages have the capacity to represent the form of objects and the spatial relations among them directly, and they exploit this unique capacity—according to their own rules. In sign languages, classifier constructions are used to portray spatial relations between people, animals, or objects; the direction of motion; or the manner of movement of entities in a particular event. Ordinary nouns and verbs do not give information of this kind. When referring to the location of some object, or the motion path that it traverses, sign languages do not use the noun but the classifier, which combines with particular locations or movement paths to describe the event. An example will make this distinction easier to grasp. Let’s take the regular sign for BOOK, illustrated in Figure 7–3. This sign is used in sentences like those in (80)–(82). Example (82) is illustrated in Figure 7–5. 80. 81. 82.

YESTERDAY I READ BOOK GOOD. ‘Yesterday I read a good book.’ BOY INDEXa BUY BOOK. ‘The boy bought a book.’ BOOK INDEXa I LIKE. ‘I like that book.’




FIGURE 7–5. ‘I like that book.’

To describe the location of the book, in a sentence describing spatial relations like (83), a classifier construction is used. 83.


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In this sentence, the regular sign for BOOK is signed first. But after that, to convey placing the book on the shelf, the classifier handshape is used—the handling classifier for broad or thick flat objects. The other hand will represent the flat shelf in this sentence, to express the spatial relation between the two, which would be conveyed by the preposition on in English. In ISL, the notion of positioning a book can be signed in a number of ways, distinguishing different positions: upright (standing), horizontally (lying), or diagonally, for example. The first two of these are illustrated in Figure 7–6. Classifier constructions provide sign languages with a mechanism for conveying very specific information about the spatial properties of scenes and events.



FIGURE 7–6. Spatial information conveyed by classifier constructions.

Sentences (84) and (85) include classifier constructions that describe spatial relations between people. Notice that the ISL glosses for the classifier constructions include several words connected with hyphens. This indicates that all the words so connected are signed with a single sign. While ISL can transmit the information efficiently with a single classifier construction, several words are needed in order to translate the constructions into English. Typically, the identities of the participants in the event to be described are established first, using noun signs (CUP, BIRD, BUS, WOMAN, etc.), and then they are represented with classifiers combined with locations in space to show how they are situated. The classifier constructions used in (84) and (85) are illustrated in Figure 7–7. 84.

MEETING, TWO PERSON(x2) SIT-OPPOSITE-EACH-OTHER. ‘At the meeting, two people sat opposite each other.’

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BOX-OFFICE INDEXa, PERSON(plural), LONG-LINE-OF-PEOPLE. ‘There is a long line of people standing at the box office.’



FIGURE 7–7. Classifier constructions conveying spatial positions and relations.

These examples show how classifier constructions are used to describe static spatial relations. But these versatile constructions can also be used to depict the motion of an object in space, or the motion of two objects in relation to each other, as examples (86) and (87) and Figure 7–8 illustrate. 86.


CAR INDEXa CAR INDEXb RIDE-TOWARD-EACH-OTHER-PASSEACH-OTHER. ‘Two cars approached each other and passed each other.’ BRIDGE CAR INDEXa CAR-RIDE-UNDER-BRIDGE. ‘The car rode under the bridge.’

The movement in a classifier construction can be quite complex, representing motion that is complex in reality, such as ‘ride uphill winding its way along a meandering road’, ‘pull over and stop along the side of the road’, ‘spiral upward’. Manner of motion can also be conveyed by these constructions, as in the case of a car speeding along a road full of potholes, bouncing madly along the route. Comparing ISL sentences with their English counterparts in the domain of location and motion in space reveals a number of interesting differences. In English, spatial relations are generally conveyed with prepositions. The sentence, The book is on the table is distinguished from the sentence, The book is under the table only by the prepositions, on as opposed to under. The preposition you choose determines the spatial relation. But ISL generally does not use

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(a) ‘Two cars approached each other and passed each other.’

(b) ‘The car rode under the bridge.’ FIGURE 7–8. Classifier constructions depicting motion and relation in space.

prepositions for this. Instead, spatial relations betweens people or things are conveyed by the relation between the two hands. The handshapes represent the entities being depicted or the entity and the base (like the ground, a shelf, a table) according to the class that they belong to, as we’ve explained. The placement and movement of the two hands with respect to each other represents the spatial relation between the two entities, whether static or in motion. In sentence (87) and the second illustration in Figure 7–8, one hand represents the bridge and the other the car. If the hand representing the car moves over the other hand, then the expression means that the car rode over the bridge; if it moves beneath it, then the car went under the bridge. We can see from this that sign languages differ from spoken languages in the way in which they convey spatial relations. Sign languages, which are languages transmitted in space, convey spatial relations with a set of handshapes

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and the relation between the hands. Spoken languages, transmitted on sound waves, do not have the potential to convey spatial relations directly as sign languages do; therefore, they must use other means, such as prepositions and other function words or morphemes. Another obvious difference between ISL and English is that English needs many words in order to describe what ISL can put across with one or two signed constructions, at times making precise translation of classifier constructions nearly impossible. More specifically, in English, as in many spoken languages, the entity, type of motion, and direction of motion, are often all conveyed by separate words. The car ( the entity) rides ( type of motion) upward ( direction of motion) winding its way along a meandering road (manner of motion) is eleven words in English and only one classifier construction in ISL. In fact, sign language classifier constructions can be even more complex than those we have used for demonstration. The richness of expression that this system can convey, and the difference in structure from many spoken languages, present a real challenge to learners of sign language—and to linguists as well.

CLASSIFIERS IN DIFFERENT SIGN LANGUAGES The system of classifiers described so far is characteristic not only of ISL, but of many other sign languages. ASL, BSL, Danish Sign Language, Sign Language of the Netherlands, Australian Sign language, Indo-Pakistani Sign Language and Hong Kong Sign Language, among others, use specific handshapes to divide nouns into classes according to shared characteristics, and to express motion and location of entities in space. Yet despite these similarities, there are also interesting differences between the classifier systems of different sign languages. First, sign languages may differ with respect to the choice of handshape used to represent a specific class. For example, while ISL, ASL and many European sign languages use the handshape to represent ‘a person’, Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL) uses the handshape for that purpose. In that language, the orientation of the hand in space can represent different postures of the person: a pinky finger pointing down represents a person standing; a pinky finger pointing out represents a seated person. By orienting the palm downwards in various ways, the person is depicted as lying on their back, side or stomach (Tang, 2003, p. 151). Secondly, the types of classes that are represented by classifiers may vary from sign language to sign language as well. ASL has a few classifiers representing entities with a shared semantic property which is not visual. A handshape represents vehicles of any kind, including cars, trucks, and bicycles but also ships and submarines. ISL, in contrast, does not have a classifier for vehicles in

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general; rather, different types of vehicles are represented by different hand configurations, reflecting some salient visual property of the vehicle in question. Two of these are as illustrated in Table 7.1. ASL also has a general classifier representing an upright object in general (using a handshape, thumb pointing upward), whether this object is as big as a building or as small as a bottle or a small sculpture. ISL would use different classifiers to represent the different types of objects.5 Furthermore, not all sign languages have the same categories of classifiers. Zeshan (2003) argues that Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) does not have a grammatical class of handling classifiers, that is, handshapes representing the way a hand manipulates an object (see Table 7.1B). When describing an object being manipulated, an IPSL signer may use a gesture that is more mime-like in nature, or s/he may use a non-classificatory verb such as ‘give’, ‘offer’, ‘take’, or ‘throw’. With some nouns, it is possible in IPSL to move the hand, configured for the lexical sign itself, in order to show that it is being moved. For example, in order to sign ‘giving a flower to someone’, it is possible to sign the sign for ‘flower’ and to add a movement to that sign, showing that the flowing is being transferred (ibid., p. 123). This kind of sign manipulation is impossible in ISL. Finally, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, the sign language that evolved in a small Bedouin community in Israel, seems to use hand configurations together with noun signs to describe the size and shape of objects, but not to represent the motion or relation of objects in space. We will have more to say about this language in Chapter 15. As visuo-spatial languages, sign languages exploit the possibilities offered by the modality, representing visual properties of entities and spatial motion and relation in a more direct way than is possible in spoken languages. But the differences across sign languages demonstrate that within this general tendency, there is a wide range of ways in which such a system can be conventionalized to form the grammatical pattern of a given language. CLASSIFIERS IN SPOKEN LANGUAGES Sign languages are not the only languages that have classifiers. Although the visual modality seems to facilitate particular types of constructions, there are also spoken languages that use classifiers with certain similar properties. The examples below are from the language Haida, an American Indian language spoken in the northwest United States and southwest Canada. The verbs in (88)–(94) have common morphemes as a base: daal and da-hlaa. The mor-


For a more detailed comparison between the classifier systems of ISL and ASL, see (Aronoff, Meir, Padden, & Sandler, 2003).

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phemes that attach to the base are classifiers, classifying groups of nouns that the verbs relate to: human or small animal; inanimate object; long object; object made of fabric; heavy, compact object, etc. In the examples, the classifiers are printed in bold. As in Israeli Sign Language, in Haida too the verbal base marks the action or position in space, and the affix classifies the noun that moves or is placed.6 88. 89. 90. 91. 92. 93.

dla-daal xa-daal sq-daal dakihlaa daq’iihlaa daxunhlaa

‘(person or small animal) walks slowly’ ‘(small person or object) walks along slowly.’ ‘(stick-like object) moves along slowly’ (as hands of a clock) ‘hide (large cloth object)’ ‘hide (heavy compact object)’ ‘hide (a pile or stack of objects)’

Research on classifiers in spoken languages have shown that many of the categories that classifiers encode reflect visual characteristics of entities (Grinevald, 2000). Studies that have compared sign language and spoken language classifiers have found significant parallels in the categories that classifiers categorize in the two language modalities (McDonald, 1983; Supalla, 1986). Certainly there are differences as well (Schembri, 2003). But we can conclude that the parallels between classifier constructions in spoken and signed languages are all the more interesting because of the difference in modality. CONCLUSION Classifiers are morphemes that classify nouns into groups according to particular common characteristics. Classifiers combine with other morphemes, marking motion or location of an entity in space, or spatial relations between one entity and another. For this reason, Israeli Sign Language and other sign languages rarely need to use function words such as prepositions to represent such relations, opting instead for expressive and complex classifier constructions to do the job. Visually motivated though they may be, it is not only sign languages that have classifiers. Some spoken languages have them as well—a fact that reminds us yet again that sign languages belong to the greater family of human languages. Yet all sign languages studied so far have these forms, which is not the case with spoken languages, and these complex and expressive constructions are quite central to the grammatical structure of sign languages. From within this rich linguistic system a great deal can be learned about unique kinds of linguistic creativity and expressiveness that are the special province of visual languages. 6

The Haida data are from Lawrence (1977, p. 95).

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SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (1992). (pp. 219–227). Linguistics of American Sign Language: A resource text for ASL users. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Aronoff, M., Meir, I., Padden, C., & Sandler, W. (2003). Classifier complexes and morphology in two sign languages. In K. Emmorey (Ed.), Perspectives on classifier constructions in sign languages. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Benedicto, E., & Brentari, D. (2004). Where did all the arguments go?: Argument-changing properties of classifiers in ASL. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 22(4), 743–810. Emmorey, K. (Ed.). (2003). Perspectives on classifier constructions in sign languages. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006) (Chapters 5, 6, and 20). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press. Senft, G. (Ed.). (2000). Systems of nominal classification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Supalla, T. (1986). The classifier system in American Sign Language. In C. Craig (Ed.), Noun classes and categorization (pp. 181–214). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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8 Word Order

In the sentences in Israeli Sign Language presented so far with their English translations, one thing is immediately clear: the order of words in a sentence is completely different from that of English. It is also completely different from the word order of Hebrew. This is not particularly surprising; among other things, languages are distinguished from one another by the order of their words. In English, for example, the adjective comes before the noun it describes (a blue ball), while in Hebrew the opposite is the case (kadur kaxol ‘ball blue’). In Biblical Hebrew, sentences typically begin with the verb followed by the subject of the sentence, while in Modern Hebrew the subject tends to precede the verb, as in English. Languages are also distinguished from one another by the degree of freedom they have in determining word order. Hebrew, for example, is much more flexible in this regard, as illustrated by the following literally translated examples: 110a. All the neighborhood children ate sushi at the Japanese restaurant yesterday. (subject-verb-object: acceptable in Hebrew and in English) b. Falafel they eat only in the neighborhood. (object-subject-verb: common in Hebrew, unusual but acceptable in English) c. Yesterday ate all the neighborhood children sushi in the Japanese restaurant. (verb-subject-object: acceptable in Hebrew but decidedly ungrammatical in English) Because ISL is an autonomous language, entirely different from Hebrew, we can expect that its word order will also differ to some extent from that of Hebrew. Yet often the word order in ISL does not differ just ‘to some extent’ from the ambient spoken language. The ISL word order is sometimes so unusual and unfamiliar that it appears on first encounter not to follow any rules at all. A more precise linguistic analysis of ISL sentences reveals that this is not the case. Its word order is not at all random, and it can be described according to rules and conventions. But the principles that account for the order of the constituents in an ISL sentence in the most straightforward way are different from those usually used to describe standard word order in English, Hebrew and 121

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other familiar languages.1 These principles are related to how the message is constructed and how the information is organized within the sentence. To begin the discussion, we will first explain the concepts topic and comment. Then we’ll go on to explore, how these concepts can be used to describe word order in ISL. Specifically, we’ll show that ISL sentences often present the topic first, and then what is being said about that topic, the comment. We’ll show that these terms are relevant not only for understanding the order of major parts of a sentence—the constituents subject, verb, and object— they are also applicable to combinations of words in phrases, particularly those used to indicate possession. To conclude our discussion, we will again compare sign language and spoken language, demonstrating that despite the apparent differences between the two, the principles determining how the message is organized in the sentence actually share a common foundation. The linguistic structures explored in the previous chapters (2–7) focused on the internal structure of signs. As such, they belong to the areas of phonology and morphology. Though we were careful to point out differences where they exist, there are strong similarities among sign languages in their structures at these levels of analysis, so that a thorough examination of phonological and morphological structures in one sign language gives us insight and understanding about sign languages in general. The aspects of language to be presented in this chapter and the next are different in that respect. These two chapters deal with grammatical units larger than the word—phrases and sentences. We are moving into the level of syntax. Unlike phonology and morphology, in syntax we do not find such strong cross linguistic similarities among sign languages. The syntactic structure of languages seems to be less affected by the visuo-spatial properties of the sign modality, so that it is less likely for sign languages to be as similar to one another in this domain as they are in the domains of phonology and morphology.2 Therefore, although some aspects of these structures will be compared to other sign languages, the bulk of the material in chapters 8 and 9 is specific to ISL.

1 In their study of ISL in the 1970s, Namir and Schlesinger (1978, p. 122) claimed that it was impossible to describe word order in the language using ordinary syntactic terms such as ‘subject,’ ‘verb’ and ‘object’, because their investigation indicated that these syntactic components appear in no fixed order in the sentence. They proposed trying to characterize the word order according to different principles, such as the salience of an element in a given discourse. The analysis we propose in this chapter is in this spirit. We focus on a specific principle of discourse organization for determining word order, because the resulting sentence structure is very prevalent in ISL, and so different from the more familiar spoken languages. However, this analysis does not rule out a more standard syntactic account of some aspects of sentence structure in ISL. 2 An in-depth and formal investigation of the syntax of American Sign Language leads to the same conclusion (Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006).

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TOPIC FIRST, AND THEN COMMENT Example (111) demonstrates the word order typical of ISL: 111. HOUSE NEW INDEXa, BOX, UNTIL-NOW I NO UNPACK ZEROA. ‘I still haven’t unpacked the boxes in the new house.’ According to the gloss, it seems that practically none of the words in the ISL sentence are connected to the word next to it. The sentence looks more like a list of words dealing with a particular topic (moving to a new house) than a sentence expressing a complete thought. Reading the sentences in examples (112–116) only intensifies this feeling: 112. UNIVERSITY INDEXa , BUILDING RECTANGLE-LONG, ELEVATORS NOT-EXISTB. I GO-UPSTAIRS. ‘The elevators in the tall building at the university were not working. I climbed the stairs all the way up to the top.’ 113. MEDITERRANEAN-SEA, COUNTRIES, CHARACTER SPECIAL. ‘The Mediterranean countries have a special character.’ 114. BUS I ALONE. ‘I came by bus by myself.’ 115. STORY INDEXa, I ALREADY READ. ‘I already read the story.’ 116. I CAKE INDEXa, ALREADY I EAT. ‘I ate the cake.’ If we describe the word order in the above sentences using familiar syntactic terms, such as subject, object, adverb, it will be quite difficult to state generalizations about word order. Examples (111)–(116), reflect the order of words in sentences (111)–(116) above. 111. Locative adverb—object—temporal adverb—subject—verb. 112. Locative adverb (modifier?)—locative adverb—subject—predicate (negation word). 113. Locative adverb (modifier?)—Locative adverb—subject—predicate. 114. Locative adverb (?)—subject—predicate. 115. Object—subject—verb. 116. Subject—object—subject—verb. In many cases, the first constituent in the sentence is not the subject or the object but rather some kind of adverb, often a locative adverb. However, it is not always clear what the syntactic role of this constituent is. Is it an adverb

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or some other kind of modifier? It’s difficult to determine the syntactic roles of the signs UNIVERSITY (example (112)), MEDITERRANEAN-SEA (example (113)), and BUS (example (114)). Even the order of subject and object seems to vary; sometimes the object precedes the subject, but in other sentences it is the other way around. The only robust generalization is that the verb or predicate is in final position. It is possible, however, to arrive at a better generalization of the word order in these sentences, if we think in terms of how the information they contain is organized. If we examine the sentences from this perspective, we begin to find a pattern. Each of the sentences begins with something that serves as an anchor of sorts, an informational base shared by the interlocutors (the people involved in the conversation). The second part of the sentence then conveys the new idea or information. What, then, is the nature of this informational anchor? In some sentences, it is a description of time or of place, as in (117)–(119). 117. YESTERDAY I GO ERRANDS. ‘Yesterday I did some errands.’ 118. NEXT-YEAR I STUDY UNIVERSITY. ‘Next year I will study at the university.’ 119. TEL AVIV INDEXa I TRAIN 1PATHa. ‘I took the train to Tel Aviv.’ So far, this word order is familiar to us from a language like English, which often begins sentences with a time or place adverb (see example (135) below). Such adverbs anchor the events of the sentence at a certain time or place, which then serves as the information common to the interlocutors. Fairytales, for example, begin with a fixed formula describing time or place, or sometimes both: “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a king. And the king had a beautiful palace. . . .” The purpose of such descriptions is not to provide precise information about time and place. Instead, their role is to announce to the reader that the text is a fairytale and that all the subsequently introduced characters and events fit into that framework. The fixed formula serves as a common base for storytellers, upon which characters (here the king) and events can be placed. A different word order opening a fairytale would sound very odd: “A king lived many years ago, in a faraway land.” This sentence opens with a noun referring to a character not yet known to the storytellers, and the informational anchor, the basis of knowledge to be shared by storyteller and audience for further expansion, only appears afterwards. Actually, it’s not only in fairytales that time and place adverbs come first. This order is quite common in ordinary discourse in languages generally. In this, ISL is no exception. The informational anchor can also consist of information known to the interlocutors, either because it was mentioned previously in the discourse, or

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because it is in the shared extra-linguistic context, or simply from general knowledge. In Examples (114)–(116) above, the nouns BUS, STORY and CAKE can be interpreted as information expected to be known to the interlocutors or information mentioned previously in the discourse and shared by them. This anchoring element can also be the topic that the rest of the sentence is about. In English, for example, sentences such as the following are quite natural: As for his comments at the meeting yesterday, I have no doubt that he knows what he is talking about. The underlined first part of the sentence is a kind of title indicating the topic on which the rest of the sentence will comment; the second part presents the new information regarding this topic. Examples (120)3 and (121) show that a similar construction occurs in ISL, but without discourse markers like as for. 120. MOVIES INDEXa GO—I ‘SUM’ ZEROB. ‘As for going to the movies, up to now I haven’t gone at all.’ 121. CAKE EAT HOW—I EAT SLOW. ‘When it comes to eating cake, I eat slowly.’ Another guiding principle in determining word order in ISL was exemplified in examples (111)–(113). These sentences can be visualized as short screenplays, in which the camera first gives a general overview, then focuses on a more limited area, and finally converges on one particular event. Example (111) opens by introducing a place, HOUSE NEW (‘a new house’). Within this general location, the sentence narrows in on boxes, and then offers the new information—the fact that the signer has not yet unpacked these boxes. Example (112) also begins with a description of a general place—UNIVERSITY, in this case, The University of Haifa. Then, it focuses on a more specific place, the thirty-story ‘tower’ building on campus—TALL BUILDING, about which information is given—ELEVATOR NOT-EXISTB: the elevators were out. Example (113) is constructed in a similar way. So, we can see that the first element in ISL sentences, the informational anchor, can be a description of the situation, information shared by or known to the interlocutors, the topic that the sentence is about, or general background. The second element in the sentence presents the events that transpire in the sentence or the new information in some other sense. The word order here is not determined by the syntactic role of the elements in the sentence, but rather by their function in organizing the information flow. The linguistic terms used to describe these functions are topic and comment. ISL sentences built according to the information structure of the sentence are composed of two parts, and their order is determined according to their 3

The gloss ZERO B in example (120) stands for a particular negator, described in Chapter 9.

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role, with topic preceding comment. These two parts are usually separated by a very short break, often characterized by a rapid eyeblink (Rosenstein, 2001) and often also by a change in the position of the head. Many times the two parts of the sentence are also distinguished by different facial expressions, as can be seen in example (122), which means, ‘The garden outside my house burned.’ 122.

HOUSE MY—GARDEN AREA OUTSIDE raised eyebrows —————————————————

BURN. neutral eyebrows

BREAK & BLINK squinting eyes


eyes wide open

The topic here is accompanied by raised eyebrows and squinting eyes, while the comment in this sentence is marked by eyes that are wide open and eyebrows held in a neutral position. The break after a topic is a typical intonational break in ISL. The subject of nonmanual marking of prosody is discussed in detail in Chapter 10. The topic of a sentence is not necessarily a noun or a noun phrase. It can also be a combination of object  verb (example (120)), or even an entire clause (example (121)). What’s more, a sentence can include two topics. In example (111), the first topic is the new house, which sets the broadest background, the topic around which the sentence revolves. After that, a more limited topic is mentioned, one that is included in the first topic—the boxes. HOW IS THE TOPIC DETERMINED? We have already seen that in ISL the order of the parts of the sentence is straightforwardly described in terms of information structure, and that the topic precedes the comment. But the order of the constituents can vary, as in examples (123) and (124), both ISL translations of the Hebrew sentence, kaniti ofanayim— ‘I bought a bicycle’. 123. I BUY ALREADY BICYCLE. 124. BICYCLE MY—I ALREADY BUY.4 How can this be? The explanation lies in the fact that the speaker can make certain choices with respect to how the information in the sentence is 4

The sign for ALREADY indicates the perfect aspect, and often appears in the translation of sentences expressing past tense in Hebrew and English. See Chapter 6.

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organized. These two sentences convey identical content, but they organize the information differently. Example (123) focuses on an event that took place—the purchase of a bicycle; example (124) sets up the bicycle as shared information, and provides new information about it. The choice of one word order or another may be determined by how the speaker wishes to organize the information or to present the gist of the information in a particular context. If the discourse focuses on my bicycle, it is reasonable to assume that the word order will be as in (124). But if the discourse focuses on my actions, the natural word order will be as in (123). Nevertheless, in some contexts, the choice of the topic is fixed. This is the case for sentences conveying information regarding spatial relations among objects or the motion of objects in space. In such cases, the spatial organization of the objects must be signed first, and only afterwards can the new information or the event transpiring in space be signed, as illustrated in examples (125)–(128). 125. TABLE INDEXa—BOOK FLAT-OBJECT-PLACED-ONa. ‘The book is (placed) on the table.’ (Figure 8–1) 126. ROAD INDEXa—I ALREADY aWALKb. ‘I crossed the road.’ 127. BUS INDEXa—I GOT ONa ALONE I. ‘I got on the bus by myself.’ 128. BENCH INDEXa—I SITa. ‘I sat on the bench.’ It is impossible to locate the book with respect to the table before the table itself is located in the signing space. And it’s impossible to cross the street or to get on the bus without situating the street or the bus in the signing space. If we translate a sentence like ‘The book is on the table’ (in Figure 8–1) into ISL and preserve the English word order, an absurd situation arises in the visual language. It would be like a cartoon in which the hero begins climbing up the stairs and suddenly discovers that there are no stairs. Only after he has discovered that he is performing the action without the suitable props does someone push a stairway in his direction so he can continue his climb. If we extend the metaphor of the sign language sentence as a screenplay in miniature, we can compare the topic to the set, that is, to the situational anchor without which the event cannot take place. WORD ORDER IN POSSESSIVE CONSTRUCTIONS The principle determining that the informational anchor precedes other elements in ISL is applicable not only at the level of the major sentence

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FIGURE 8–1. ‘The book is on the table.’

constituents, but also at the level of phrases, such as possessive constructions, e.g., my husband’s brother, my son’s dog, Ruthie’s book. Such constructions are composed of two nouns, where one is the possessed entity and the other is the possessor, or owner. In the phrase my son’s dog, the dog is the thing possessed and my son is the owner of the possession. Of course, different spoken languages have different word orders at this level too. In English, the order is possessor-possessee—my son’s dog, for example. In Hebrew, the order is reversed: ha-kelev shel bni (literally ‘the dog of my son’). If we examine possessive constructions according to the criteria of message organization, it becomes clear that in most cases the possessor is the element known to both interlocutors, making it the informational anchor. The entity possessed, in contrast, is less known, and, from the perspective of the information it conveys, relies on the possessor. In the phrase my husband’s brother, the noun husband is presumably more known to the addressee than is the other noun, brother, so that husband serves as the frame of reference for transmitting the information. The difference between the two parts of the construction becomes sharper when one is a proper noun, a name. A proper noun used without explanation is always definite or known. It also represents one particular person, rather than a group of people or things. It follows that in possessive constructions, proper nouns frequently represent the possessors, as in the phrase Danny’s brother. In most dialects of English, proper nouns seem very odd in the role of the possessed entity, as the phrase (my) brother’s Danny shows. Typically, a proper noun can act as the possessed entity only if both nouns are proper nouns: Ruthie’s Danny. From this phrase, we understand that there are several ‘Dannys’ and that we have chosen to refer to one of them, the one belonging to Ruthie. In any event, the possessor is more definite or known than is the possessed entity. Let’s now return to ISL. The word order in possessive constructions is determined according to the principle of ‘topic first.’ This means that the possessor precedes the possessee. In this regard, as shown in (129)–(132), the order of the nouns in ISL happens to resemble that of English.

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129. SON POSS1 INDEXa DOG POSSa. ‘My son’s dog.’ 130. GIRL INDEXa MOTHER POSSa. ‘The girl’s mother.’ 131. BROTHER POSS1 INDEXa WIFE POSSa. ‘My brother’s wife.’ 132. ORNA INDEXa MOTHER POSSa. ‘Orna’s mother.’ The possessive pronoun (glossed as POSS, meaning ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’) is directed toward the reference point assigned to the possessor, creating the relationship between the possessed entity and its possessor. In the examples above, this reference is indicated in sign language transcription through the use of subscripts: POSSa. TOPIC-COMMENT IN OTHER LANGUAGES In spoken languages like English, topic-comment structure can also be found, as sentences (133)–(135) illustrate. We will see that despite the syntactic differences between the two languages, the principles governing information structure in English and in ISL are not that different. 133. That guy I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. 134. On that you can rely. 135. Into the room ambled a tall young man. In each of these sentences, the first underlined element is the known information or the frame of reference to which a new comment is added. This element can be a noun phrase functioning as a direct object (sentence (132)), a prepositional object (sentence (134)) or a locative adverb (sentence (135)).5 The order of the elements in these sentences is, in fact, determined according to the principle of ‘topic: comment,’ as is the word order more generally in ISL. But there is a difference between the two languages. In English, the element serving as the topic is still syntactically related to the rest of the sentence and is encoded as part of the sentence, for instance by means of a preposition (on that . . . into the room . . .). In sign language, the topic is an independent element, and is not connected to the sentence by means of any grammatical particle or morpheme. The words UNIVERSITY, MEDITERRANEAN-SEA


This element can also be a verb phrase, as in the following example: Having a picnic— I don’t feel like it today.

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and BUS in sentences (112)–(114) have no preposition, prefix, or suffix to mark them as adverbials or as playing any other syntactic role in the sentence. English, Hebrew, Arabic, French and many other languages belong to the category of languages called subject prominent languages—languages in which the order of the words and constituents in a sentence is determined primarily by their syntactic function. ISL, on the other hand, belongs to a group known as topic prominent languages, in which the order of words and constituents is determined primarily according to information structure. The category of topic prominent languages includes Chinese and Lao (spoken in Thailand and Laos), among others (Li & Thompson, 1976), in addition to ISL and apparently other sign languages. Examples (136)–(138) are English renderings of Chinese sentences:6 136. That tree leaves big. 137. That piece land rice grow very big. 138. That house, fortunate last-year not snow. These Chinese sentences would be completely acceptable sentences in ISL. Sentences in topic-prominent languages convey the impression that the division into two types of languages is a dichotomous one, and that each and every language falls neatly into one of these two categories. But some linguists claim that such a division is too absolute. It is more accurate to say that languages can exhibit features of each of these types but to different degrees. We have seen how in English, a subject-prominent language, sentences constructed according to the topic-comment principle can occur, and the order of the elements in sentences in a particular context are to a large extent determined by the information packaging of the sentence. The major difference between the two types of languages, then, is not in the order of the elements in the sentence but rather in whether or not these elements are marked syntactically, as explained above. In ISL, the topic is an independent element apart from the syntactic construction of the comment, while in English the topic typically plays a syntactic role within the sentence. The examples from English and Chinese demonstrate that spoken languages can be subject-prominent languages or topic-prominent languages. Can the same be said about sign languages? Are some sign languages characterized as topic-prominent, while others are subject-prominent? In fact, there is a controversy in the ASL literature on this issue. Some researchers maintain that much of its sentence structure can be explained on the basis of the notions of topic and comment (Friedman, 1976; Janzen, 1995, 1998). Other investigators

6 These sentences are taken from Li & Thompson (1976, p. 468, sentence (23), p. 469, sentence (28) and p. 479, sentence (61)). Grammatical markings not relevant to our discussion here have been omitted.

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have provided convincing evidence to show that the basic word order in ASL can only be described in terms of the syntactic roles, subject-verb-object (Fischer, 1975; Liddell, 1980; Lillo-Martin, 1991; Padden, 1988; Sandler & LilloMartin, 2006), and that ASL abides by universal constraints on sentence structure as well. In any case, even those advocating a syntactic analysis of ASL allow that the basic word order construction of subject-verb-object is often subject to change based on discourse principles, among them the function of the elements in information structure, as described in this chapter. This means that while the basic structure is syntactically determined, discourse principles like ‘topic first’ can rearrange that structure, making topic-comment sentences frequent in the language. These findings raise an interesting question. Do all sign languages favor topic-comment structure? If so, why? A comprehensive investigation of many sign languages is needed to answer the first question. If such an investigation reveals that different sign languages operate according to similar principles, we can then develop hypotheses about the principles that determine word order in this particular type of language. Several directions of inquiry have already been considered. Based upon an analysis by Givón (1979), Rosenstein (2001) addressed this question by pointing out that the interaction in sign languages is almost always via face-to-face dialogues. The language is never written, and only occasionally performed, as in story-telling. It is very common for face-to-face interaction—be it spoken or signed—to be characterized primarily by word order that is determined according to information structure. Another direction of inquiry is related to the visual channel in which sign languages are transmitted. There seems to be at least one type of sentence in which the visual-spatial channel explains the preference for ‘topic-comment’ structure. It’s the type of sentences expressing spatial relations, as in examples (125)–(128). As we indicated, in these sentences, the background—the spatial setting anchoring the event—must be signed first, and only afterwards can the event taking place in that space be signed. It’s impossible to begin with the event and only afterwards sign the spatial background. Might it be the case that this principle is generalized and applied to all the sentences in a sign language? At this point, we can’t answer this question with any certainty. When we take in visual information, we absorb the background and the event itself simultaneously, but we are aware that the physical background is in a sense prior to what takes place there. It may be that visual languages tend to build their linguistic message according to this background/foreground principle, not only when describing spatial relations and events, but in other cases as well. CONCLUSION ISL, like any other language, adheres to rules for ordering words in a sentence. This regularity is determined by principles of information structure, according

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to which the first element in the sentence is the topic, or information anchor, presenting known or given information, or general background, while the comment comes next, offering new information. In this regard, ISL differs from languages like English in which word order is determined primarily in terms of syntactic function—subject, verb, or object. Yet we also saw that even in such languages, this order is not absolute, and that considerations of information structure may have an impact upon the order of the elements in the sentence. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999) (chapter 3). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Li, C., & Thompson, S. (1976). Subject and topic: A new typology of language. In C. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 457–489). New York: Academic Press. Namir, L., & Schlesinger, I. M. (1978). The grammar of sign language. In Sign language of the Deaf : Psychological, linguistic, and sociological perspectives (pp. 97–140). New York: Academic Press. Rosenstein, O. (2001). ISL—A topic prominent language. MA Thesis, University of Haifa, Haifa. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006). (Chapters 18–19). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Word order in different sign languages Fischer, S. D. (1975). Influences on word order change in American Sign Language. In C. Li (Ed.), Word order and word order change (pp. 1–25): University of Texas Press. Friedman, L. (1976). The manifestation of subject, object, and topic in American Sign Language. In C. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic. New York: Academic Press. Janzen, T. (1995). Differentiating topic from subject in ASL. In M. C. Aubin (Ed.), Perspectives D’venir en Traduction (pp. 57–74). Winnipeg: Presses Universitaires de Saint Boniface. Janzen, T. (1998). Topicality in ASL: Information ordering, constituent structure, and the function of topic marking. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zeshan, U. (2000). Sign language in Indo-Pakistan: A description of a signed language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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9 Negative and Interrogative Sentences

One of the traits of human language that distinguishes it from other kinds of communication is the ability to perform different functions through the use of particular linguistic expressions. Language can be used simply to convey information, as in the sentence, My dog loves to eat falafel. It can also negate part of the information in a sentence, as in, My dog does not like to eat falafel or My dog has never eaten falafel. Through language, we can also request information: What kind of food does your dog like? Does your dog like to eat falafel? The way we use language can cause people to do things with sentences like, Please close the window, or Can you pass the jam? Languages have different structures for conveying information, negating a message or part of it, requesting information, and causing others to act. The structures we use for these particular functions are called declaratives, both affirmative and negative, questions (interrogatives), and imperatives. While there is a correlation between the syntactic structure of a sentence and its communicative function, this correlation is not absolute. Interrogative sentences are usually used in order to request information, but they can also be used for other purposes, as a rhetorical device, for example. When a prosecuting attorney asks the jury, Why would the accused have doubled the value of his fire insurance the week before his casino burned down?, s/he is not requesting information, but is drawing attention to the answer s/he is about to give her/himself. In this chapter, we deal primarily with the most common correlations between communicative function and linguistic form in ISL. In the process, we will touch on some of the interesting fuzzy edges where the correlation is not perfect. Like any other language, Israeli Sign Language can convey assertions, negate them, and ask questions, using particular kinds of sentences. As declarative sentences were discussed in the previous chapter, we will concentrate now on how they are negated—the language has a large number of negating words as well as a negative suffix. After that, we turn to questions.1 Much of 1

The data and analyses presented in this chapter are largely based on Meir (2006), adapted for a general audience.


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the material in this chapter is specific to ISL, and can provide a basis for comparison across sign languages. NEGATIVE SENTENCES Negative sentences are sentences that have negating words in them. The linguistic term “negative” should not be confused with the word in ordinary usage. A sentence with a negating word in it does not necessarily have a negative connotation, and a sentence with a negative connotation is not necessarily a negative sentence in the linguistic sense. Words like angry, disappointed, cheat, hurt have negative meanings. But the sentence He disappointed me is not a negative sentence, because there is no negating word in it. On the other hand, a sentence like He didn’t disappoint me is a negative sentence, because it has a negating word in it, though its meaning seems more positive. By the same token, the sentence, There are no mosquitoes out is a negative sentence, even though the meaning is decidedly positive for people at an evening picnic in the park. How are negative sentences formed in ISL? Let’s consider the range of negative meanings expressed in sentences (139)–(143) below. hs  mouthing ‘no’ 139. I FEEL GOOD ‘I don’t feel good.’ hs 140. CAKE INDEXa DEPLETE. I EAT ZEROB. ‘The cake is demolished. I didn’t eat any of it!’ hs 141. CHAIR INDEXa COMFORTABLE NO. ‘This chair is not comfortable.’ 142. HOUSE NEW INDEXa BOX TILL-NOW I NO UNPACK NO hs ZEROA. ‘In my new house, I haven’t unpacked the boxes yet.’ hs 143. HOUSE NEW INDEXa I DUMP. I REFRIGERATOR NOT-EXISTA, hs CLOSET NOT-EXISTA, I GAS-RANGE MY ANCIENT.

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‘My house is a real dump.2 I have no refrigerator, no closets, and my gas range is ancient.’ The order of the words in these sentences is determined by the principles discussed in the previous chapter. But beyond their syntactic structure, they have certain characteristics that make them negative sentences. First, these sentences contain both negating words and headshake (transcribed with a line over the word or words so marked, and the letters ‘hs’). In the first sentence, the headshake and the mouthing of the Hebrew word meaning ‘no’ are the only markers of negation; no negating words are signed. Second, in sentences that do have a negating word, the word tends to occur after the constituent being negated: COMFORTABLE NO; REFRIGERATOR NOT-EXISTA, etc.3 Sometimes, there is more than one negating word in a sentence, as in (142),4 in which NO occurs both before the verb and after it, followed by an additional negating word, ZEROA. We can see that ISL has its own negating vocabulary by comparing it to the negating words used in Hebrew. For example, ISL has two signs that are glossed ZERO, which we call ZEROA and ZEROB, as well as two signs glossed NOT-EXIST: NOT-EXISTA and NOT-EXISTB. Each of these signs differs from the others, in form, meaning and function. Many of these signs seem quite similar to one another, but the differences are important because each form is fully conventionalized and associated with a consistent meaning. Let’s have a look at the main negating words in ISL and at how they are used. Negating Words in ISL ISL has a variety of forms for negation; in this section, we’ll present twelve of them: NO, NO (NOT ALLOW/PERMIT); DON’T; DON’T-YOU-DARE; NOT-CORRECT; ZEROA; ZEROB; NOT-EXISTA; NOT-EXISTB; NEVER; NOT-AT-ALL; NONE. We begin with the two signs glossed NO. The two NO signs use the handshape and are usually translated as ‘no’. But a more careful look shows that these signs are different from each other, both in form and in meaning. One is a basic negator, and the other has a meaning closer to ‘not allowed’. (a) NO. The negating word NO exemplified in sentences (144)–(145) and illustrated in Figure 9–1a, is the most basic negator. It involves a side-to-side 2

Although ISL does have possessive pronouns (see chapter 4), the ordinary personal pronoun is used to indicate possession in some contexts. The details of the patterning of pronouns in ISL require further research. 3 That this order is part of ISL grammar is underscored by the fact that it is unlike Hebrew, which puts the negating word first. 4 For more information on this use of NO, see also footnote 5.

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motion of the hand in the area in front and to the side of the head. It can be used alone as an utterance, for example, in answer to a question. Sometimes, it is also added to sentences that contain another negating word, as in sentence (142). NO can also negate an adjective, as in sentence (141).

144. (Do you like bananas?) ‘No, I don’t like (them).’


hs DRIVE NO. 145. LICENSE NOT-EXISTB, ‘No driving without a license.’ (b) NOT-ALLOW. The other NO sign, more accurately glossed NOTALLOW/PERMIT is very similar to NO, but the hand is held farther from the body, the movement is short and fast, the head is pulled back, and the sign is accompanied by a specific facial expression. It means ‘not allow’. The illustration in Figure 9–1b is taken from an exchange in which a child says he wants to go to the movies, and the parent answers NO, with the meaning, ‘No, I won’t allow it.’

(a) NO


FIGURE 9–1. Signs for ‘NO’.

(c) DON’T. A third negating sign with a similar but not identical meaning has the function of prohibiting something. This sign translates as ‘don’t’ or ‘no’ in an expression like ‘no talking now!’. The handshape is

, and the

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movement is one short, quick motion, held in position at the end. In prohibiting sentences there is no headshake, and the signer maintains eye contact with the addressee. The use of DON’T is exemplified in (146)–(148) and the sign is illustrated in Figure 9–2a. 146. READ NOW DON’T 147. GRAB FOOD DON’T 148. LINE CUT DON’T

‘Don’t read now!’ ‘Don’t grab food!’ ‘Don’t cut in line!’

(d) DON’T-YOU-DARE. This sign is also used to forbid, but there is an added connotation of warning or threatening, ‘Just you try’. ISL examples appear in (149)–(150). The hand is held at a slight angle, and there is a very brief movement forward, followed by a hold, as shown in Figure 9–2b. 149. EXAM INDEXa COPY DON’T-YOU-DARE ‘I’m warning you not to copy on the exam!’ 150. BOTHER-ME DON’T-YOU-DARE ‘I’m warning you not to bother me!’

(a) DON’T


FIGURE 9–2. Signs for ‘DON’T’.

(e) NOT-CORRECT. This sign is very similar formationally to NO, but the movement is longer and slower. Some signers sign this sign with the hand shape, , and not . It is used to correct mistaken information, as shown in sentences (151)–(152). The context for each sentence is written above it in parentheses.

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151. (I looked for a certain store on the main street but didn’t find it.) hs NOT-CORRECT, STORE INDEXa AROUND-CORNER ‘No (you’re mistaken), that store’s around the corner.’ 152. (I tried to record the program on Channel 3 but didn’t get it.) hs NOT-CORRECT, YOU RECORD CHANNEL 33, NOT 3. ‘No (you were mistaken), you should have recorded channel 33, not 3.’ The second group of signs is the pair of signs called ZERO, and glossed here as ZEROA and ZEROB. Both use the handshape


(f ) ZEROA. For this sign, the hands trace a quick zig-zag, and the accompanying non-manual articulation is a release of air through pursed lips. This sign is best translated as ‘not yet’, and is often used to negate sentences with the function word ALREADY, marking the perfect aspect (see Chapter 6). Sentences (153)–(154) and Figure 9–3a are illustrative. hs 153. YOU EAT ALREADY? I EAT ZEROA. ‘Have you eaten? I haven’t eaten yet.’ 154. (ALREADY YOU PARTICIPATE AMUSEMENT-PARK INDEXa ALREADY YOU? ‘Have you ever been to an amusement park?’) I ZEROA. I PARTICIPATE EYE-INTEREST INDEXa ‘Not yet, but I’m dying to go there.’ (g) ZEROB: For this sign, the hands move in a circle, and the Hebrew word for ‘zero’ (efes) is mouthed. There is also a shortened form of the sign, in which the hands only describe an arc and are then briefly held in position. The meaning of ZEROB is ‘not at all’, or ‘never have’, or ‘haven’t at all’. Examples are shown in (156)–(157), and the sign is pictured in Figure 9–3b. hs 156. I EAT ZEROB. ‘I haven’t eaten at all.’ hs 157. I MOVIE INDEXa GO-OUT, I SUM-UP ZEROB. ‘Up till now I’ve never gone to the movies.’

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FIGURE 9–3. Signs glossed ‘ZERO’.

The signs glossed NOT-EXIST also come in a pair. There is a subtle difference in meaning between these two signs, which usually negate nouns. (h) The first, NOT-EXISTA, negates the existence of something in general or the existence of something somewhere. It is exemplified in (157)–(158) and pictured in Figure 9–4a. hs 157. (I looked for the keys everywhere, but . . .) KEYS NOT-EXISTA ‘No keys.’ (‘The keys were nowhere to be found.’) hs 158. HOUSE I TELEVISION NOT-EXISTA, COMPUTER INDEXa EXIST. ‘In my house, there’s no television, only a computer.’ As sentences (159)–(160) suggest, the other NOT-EXIST sign, sign NOTEXISTB, also indicates the negation of something’s existence, but it sometimes has additional nuances of prohibiting or disappointment. It is illustrated in Figure 9–4b. The two signs differ in orientation of the hands, shape of the movement path, and facial expression. hs 159. (I went to the store to buy bread, but . . .) BREAD—NOT-EXISTB. ‘There was no bread left.’

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hs 160. (If you don’t do your homework, . . .) TELEVISION NOT-EXISTB ‘No TV’ (‘There will be no TV for you.’)



FIGURE 9–4. Signs glossed ‘NOT-EXIST’.

The next group of negating signs expresses emphatic negation. All three defy English glossing, and the glosses selected should be taken as convenient labels only. The first, NEVER, negates the occurrence of an event from the past up till the present (roughly, ‘never has’, ‘never’), and the second, NOTEVER, negates the occurrence of an event from the present into the future (roughly, ‘never will’, ‘not ever’). The third sign in this group emphatically negates either a verb or a noun. We gloss it NOTHING. (j) NEVER. In addition to emphatically negating a past event, this sign also negates general statements of fact, expressed in English with the present simple, as sentences (161)–(162) demonstrate. Formationally, NEVER is similar to DON’T, but the movement is longer and more drawn out, and it is accompanied by a sharp movement of the head (Figure 9–5a). hs 161. AIRPLANE I PARTICIPATE FLY NEVER I. ‘I’ve never flown in an airplane.’ hs 162. I MEAT EAT NEVER I. ‘I don’t eat meat.’

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(k) NOT-EVER. The sign is very similar to NEVER, but it is made with a handshape. Meaning ‘never will’ or ‘not ever’, its usage is exemplified in (163)–(164). 163. (I went to the pool and the water was really dirty there.) hs AGAIN I GO THERE NOT-EVER. ‘I’ll never go there again.’ (‘No way I’ll ever go there again.’) 164. (I made a mistake. I behaved badly.) AGAIN I ACT LIKE INDEXa I hs NOT-EVER. ‘I’ll never ever behave like that again.’



FIGURE 9–5. Signs conveying emphatic negation.

(l) NOTHING. Emphatic negation is the role of this sign as well, especially negation of a verb, as (165)–(166) indicate. The sign is shown in Figure 9–6. hs 165. I DO NOTHING. ‘I did absolutely nothing.’ hs 166. (I sent her lots of faxes but . . .) INDEXa ANSWER NOTHING. ‘She sent me not a single answer.’

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NOTHING FIGURE 9–6. Sign meaning ‘NOTHING’.

A Negative Suffix In addition to the list of negating words we’ve described, a list which is still not exhaustive, we have also discovered a negative suffix in ISL. Suffixes are a type of affix—morphemes which form part of a complex word. Suffixes come after the main part of the word. One of the many suffixes in the English language, -less, meaning ‘without’, is quite similar to the ISL negative suffix we are about to describe. English -less is suffixed to nouns to form adjectives: painless, ‘without pain’, effortless, ‘without effort’, penniless, ‘without a cent’, etc. The negative suffix in ISL which has a comparable meaning to—less is similar in form to the sign NOT-EXISTA, and may have evolved from it. But as a suffix, its meaning and function are different. Like English—less, it means ‘lacking’, ‘without’. The ISL suffix seems to attach mainly to adjectives, and adds the meaning, ‘without characteristic X’, where ‘characteristic X’ stands for the adjective. Following standard transcription conventions, elements connected with a ‘’ symbol are morphemes that are connected within a word (like home  less, where -less is a suffix), and words connected with a hyphen stand for a single sign element that requires more than one English word in translation. INTERESTING  NOT-EXIST IMPORTANT  NOT-EXIST ADVISABLE  NOT-EXIST SECURE  NOT-EXIST SUCCESS  NOT-EXIST ENTHUSIASTIC  NOT-EXIST

‘without interest’ ‘without importance’ ‘without advisability’ ‘lacking security, insecure’ ‘without success’ ‘without enthusiasm’

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How do we know that we are talking about a suffix and not the independent sign, NOT-EXISTA which also occurs with various adjectives? There are several reasons for thinking this form is a suffix. First, the form of suffixes, and affixes generally, is sometimes influenced by the words they attach to. In English, the prefix in- as in the word inadequate becomes im- before words beginning with sounds that involve the lips in their production: [m, p, b]: immoral, impossible, imbalance, and becomes ir- before words beginning with [r]: irrational, irrelevant, irreducible. The existence of alternations such as these— different forms of the same morpheme—is called allomorphy in linguistics. Similarly, the suffix NOT-EXIST in ISL is influenced by the form of the sign it attaches to. If the base sign is articulated with two hands, like IMPORTANT, then the suffix is also bimanual (Figure 9–7a). If the base is one-handed (INTERESTING), then the suffix is one-handed as well (Figure 9–7b). Allomorphy of this sort indicates that NOT-EXIST is closely bound to the adjective that influences its form. Second, the suffix is shorter and faster than the independent word, and appears to be articulated as a single unit. Such phonological changes are common in affixation, as the differences in pronunciation between the following


(b) INTERESTING + NOT-EXIST FIGURE 9–7. Allomorphy in words with the suffix, -NOT-EXIST.

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English words and their suffixal forms shows: man versus -man in chairman, boatman, etc.; and less versus -less in clueless, homeless, etc. In each case, the suffix receives no stress, and vowel in the suffix is pronounced differently than it is in the corresponding word. Another characteristic of affixes is semantic drift, which results in a special meaning, different from that which would be predicted only by combining the meanings of the two morphemes. For example, if a blouse is labeled ‘washable’, this does not mean that it is possible to apply soap and water and make it clean, but rather that the blouse will not be damaged by washing it. The common meaning is different from the one that would be predicted by the word parts. Similarly, some of the words with -NOT-EXIST also have idiosyncratic meanings. For example, the suffixed word, SURPRISE  NOT-EXIST, does not mean ‘without surprise’, but something more like the English expression, ‘big deal’. All of these characteristics taken together convince us that -NOT-EXIST is a suffix in ISL. Signs with Special Negative Marking A small set of verb signs in the language have special negative marking attached to them. In these words, the negative marker is even more integral to the sign than is the case with the suffix described above. The movement and hand orientation of the base sign is usually altered, and a movement of the hand is added, but this movement is not uniform in all members of the set. Also, unlike the -NOT-EXIST suffix, this kind of negation is not productive; it does not occur freely on all verbs. Only a small number of verbs have this special negative version. Examples are NOT-KNOWA (a person), NOT-BEABLE-TO, NOT-COME, all pictured in Figure 9–8, and NOT-NEED/NOTNEED-TO; NOT-BELIEVE. It is interesting that both ASL and BSL have similar sets of signs with special negation, although the particular signs in the set only partially overlap in the three languages, and the forms of the negative part are different. Still, unlike the spatially based morphology of verb agreement and classifier construc-

(a) NOT-KNOWA (a person)



FIGURE 9–8. Signs with fused negated forms in ISL.

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tions, where similarities might be expected across visual languages (see Chapters 14 and 15), these fused negated forms do not seem to be driven by the modality. Instead, it seems likely that there are more general processes at work, processes that change words over time, fusing grammatical elements with content words, perhaps because they tend to co-occur frequently. Why the sets in the three unrelated sign languages all involve negated verbs is an open question. Rules for the Occurrence of Negation Words The negating words and affixes can’t occur with just any sign in ISL. There are patterns that determine which kinds of signs each negating form can occur with. Let’s begin with ZEROA and ZEROB (Figure 9–3a and 9–3b). Both of these words negate verbs, as shown in (167)–(168). Neither of them may negate adjectives or nouns, as the ungrammatical starred sentences (169)–(170) show. 167. I SLEEP ZEROA. ‘I didn’t sleep (at all).’ 168. I EAT ZEROB. ‘I haven’t eaten (at all).’ 169. *CHAIRa INDEXa COMFORTABLE ZEROA/ZEROB. ‘That chair is not comfortable at all.’ 170. *STORE INDEXa BOOK ZEROA/ZEROB. ‘ That store has no books.’ Nouns and adjectives functioning as predicates may be negated, of course, but with a different sign: NO (Figure 9–1).5 Sentences (171)–(173) give examples. 171. CHAIR INDEXa COMFORTABLE NO. ‘The/that chair is not comfortable.’ 172. BROTHER MY TEACHER NO. ‘My brother is not a teacher.’ 173. STORE INDEXa NEW NO. ‘That store is not new.’ The two words glossed as NOT-EXIST (Figure 9–4a–b) usually occur with nouns, as in sentences (174)–(175). 5 The distribution of NO is wider than presented here. As mentioned earlier, it is the basic negator in the language. In addition to negating adjectives and nouns in predicate position, the sign also negates verbs that convey a present or future activity. (The ZERO negating signs negate verbs that denote past events.) NO can also be used together with other negating words, as in sentence 4.

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174. I MONEY POCKET I NOT-EXISTA. ‘I don’t have a red cent. (I’m broke.)’ 175. HOUSE INDEXa I HOUSE I DUMP. I REFRIGERATOR NOTEXISTA, CLOSET NOT-EXISTA, I GAS-RANGE MY ANCIENT. ‘My house is a real dump. I have no refrigerator, no closets, my gas range is ancient.’ As is often the case in other languages, negating words in ISL are picky, some of them negating only particular types of words. The importance of this fact goes beyond mere description of the language. Once we can establish the part of speech a particular negator tends to go with, we can then use the negator as a diagnostic for determining the part of speech of other words, whose part of speech is otherwise hard to figure out. As sign languages have only been the object of research for a short time, such diagnostics can be very important. In Chapter 3, we pointed out that it had long been thought that there was no distinction in form between certain semantically related nouns and verbs in American Sign Language, for example. The signs for FOOD and EAT, for CHAIR and SIT, and for at least 100 other such pairs, were thought to be identical, interpretable as nominal or verbal only by context. Research by Supalla and Newport (1978) showed that there is a slight difference in the form of these noun-verb pairs, which we described in Chapter 3, where we also showed that similar near-twins in ISL are also distinguishable. But even these important results distinguish only one group of formationally related nouns and verbs in ASL and ISL, and not all the nouns and verbs in the language. In fact, it is quite common in languages generally for the part of speech of a word not to be evident in its form. In English, for example, there are few indicators of part of speech in the form of a word, especially a simple word with only one morpheme. Some nouns are distinguished from otherwise equivalent verbs by stress patterns: pró.ject/pro.jéct; tór.ment/tor.mént; pró.gress/ pro.gréss; etc. But usually, part of speech can only be determined by other means. For example, English nouns can be pluralized, while verbs take tense; nouns are modified by adjectives and verbs by adverbs. In the string long walk, the word walk is identified as a noun because it is modified by an adjective, while in (to) walk quickly, we can tell that walk is a verb because it is modified by the adverb quickly. Nouns occur with determiners such as the articles a, the or the demonstratives this, that. Verbs, on the other hand, occur with auxiliaries and modals such as have or can. The word walk is easily identified as a verb in the sequence can walk, and as a noun in a walk. One of the ways to determine part of speech, then, is to investigate rules of co-occurrence, and it is here that the negating words in ISL enter the picture. If we can determine that some negating word typically occurs with words that unambiguously belong to a certain part of speech, then we may use that co-occurrence restriction to test other words whose part of speech is less obvious. We found, for example, that the negating words glossed ZERO co-occur

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with verbs like UNPACK or EAT, but not with nouns or adjectives, and that NO co-occurs with adjectives like COMFORTABLE or NEW. In ISL, the sign for ASK is very similar to the sign for QUESTION, as illustrated in Figure 3–2. In order to determine which is which, we can find out which one goes with ZERO by working with a native ISL consultant; that will be the verbal form. Establishing the co-occurrence rules for negating words helps us learn more about the way words are categorized in the lexicon. Their distribution in ISL provides evidence that the words of that language belong to lexical categories (parts of speech), and the negating words can serve as a diagnostic for determining the lexical category to which other words in the language belong. INTERROGATIVE SENTENCES The primary communicative function of interrogative sentences is to request information. Questions such as Was Betty here yesterday? Or Where is Betty going? are sentences in which one interlocutor in the discourse is asking for information from the other. Interrogative sentences can be used for other purposes as well, such as ordering or declaring. In a sentence such as, Can you pass me the bread? the speaker is not really asking whether the addressee is capable of passing the bread, but rather expects a certain action to be carried out—in this case, passing the bread. The use of an interrogative construction instead of the imperative (Pass me the bread!) is intended to moderate the command, to make it more polite. With the right intonation, a question like, Do you really think he would do a thing like that? is also not a request for information but rather a comment by the speaker indicating ‘I am certain he would not do a thing like that.’ Questions of this kind, used as a device to make a point and not to request information, are known as rhetorical questions. In this section, we focus on the first type of question, real questions whose communicative function is to request information. The Linguistic Structure of Interrogative Sentences Interrogative sentences can be divided into two main types: yes/no questions and content questions. Yes/no questions (also called polar questions) are simply questions whose answer can be either yes or no, like: Was Howard here yesterday? Did you watch the weather forecast? Content questions (also called wh-questions) are questions that ask for additional information about one of the elements in the sentence. These questions include a question word, such as where, when, who, what, why or how: Why didn’t the shipment arrive yesterday? When will he get here? What did you do on your vacation? Each of these types of interrogative sentence has its own structure. English forms yes/no questions by starting with an ordinary declarative sentence, and switching the places of the subject and the auxiliary verb or, if there is no auxiliary, substituting a ‘support’ form, do. In this way, Howard was here yesterday becomes Was Howard here yesterday?, and You watched the weather forecast

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becomes Did you watch the weather forecast? Content questions are formed by the same kind of inversion rule and adding the question word at the beginning of the sentence. He will get here becomes Will he get here? and then When will he get here?6 In some languages, the interrogative word appears in other positions in the sentence. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, the sentence Where are you going? is literally translated as ‘You are going where?’ (ʔanta raiH fe:n) In most, possibly all, languages, yes/no questions and content questions have different intonational tunes. These tunes are associated with particular meanings that are related to each kind of question. If we switch the intonational tunes of Are you going? and Where are you going?, the result is very strange and the communicative intent puzzling. (Try it.) Some languages, such as Russian or Hebrew, can distinguish yes/no questions from declarative sentences without adding words or changing their order. Instead, they may use intonation alone to mark such questions, especially in everyday speech. Sveta yest means ‘Sveta is eating’ in Russian, and Sveta yest?, with rising intonation, means ‘Is Sveta eating?’ Interrogative Sentences in Israeli Sign Language In ISL, as in all sign languages we know of, interrogative sentences have their own typical linguistic construction. This construction is comprised of specific facial expressions and in some cases specific sentence structure as well. The following discussion deals with these facial expressions only briefly; its primary focus is on interrogative words and sentence structure. A more extensive examination of facial expressions in ISL is taken up in Chapter 10. Yes/no questions. In ISL, yes/no questions are differentiated from declarative sentences only by non-manual signals: the signer’s facial expression and head or body posture. In yes/no questions, the facial expression is characterized by raising the eyebrows (indicated in the transcribed sentences using a raised line and the letters br—brow raise), opening the eyes wide and leaning forward slightly, as demonstrated in Figure 9–9a.7 Example (176) is a declarative sentence. Example (177) shows that, like the Russian examples given above, the ISL declarative and the yes/no question have the same word order. The two are distinguished by non-manual signals alone. Sentences (178)– (179) provide additional examples of yes/no questions. 176. YOU DEAF YOU. ‘You are deaf.’

6 The descriptions given here of question formation in English are oversimplified for clarity. 7 The facial expressions described in this chapter are typical of the types of questions discussed here, but they are not the only facial expressions possible on these structures, as facial expression, like intonation, is influenced by context and other factors.

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br 177. YOU DEAF YOU? ‘Are you deaf?’ br 178. YESTERDAY ALREADY YOU TALK TO BOSS POSS2? ‘Did you speak with your boss yesterday?’ br 179. BROTHER POSS2 COME-HERE TOMORROW? ‘Is your brother coming here tomorrow?’ Wh-questions. Wh-questions or content questions in ISL are marked by interrogative words and also by non-manual signals. The non-manual signals are different from those of yes/no questions, just as the intonation patterns of yes/no and wh-questions in spoken languages are different. The facial expression in wh-questions is typically characterized by furrowing the eyebrows (indicated in the transcribed sentences using a raised line and the letters f b—furrowed brows) and bending the head slightly forward and down (Figure 9–9b). The standard facial expression for wh-questions may be superseded by different facial expressions depending on the intent of the signer. This kind of variation also occurs in the intonation of spoken language. fb 180. HE GO WHERE? ‘Where did he go?’ Wh-questions in ISL also have a typical sentence structure, as can be seen in 181–183: 181. YOU CLOTHES NO WHY? ‘Why don’t you have clothes?’ 182. YOU HOUSE WHERE? ‘Where do you live?’ 183. AUTOMOBILE NEW INDEXa FROM-WHERE? ‘Where did you get this new car?’ These sentences show that the interrogative words in ISL tend to be placed at the end of the sentence. Sometimes the interrogative word appears twice, once at the beginning of the sentence and once at the end, as illustrated in examples 1 and 6 in Table 9.1 below. In addition to those listed above, there are also interrogative words composed of two signs: PLACE  WHAT, meaning ‘at what place’ or ‘where’,

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(a) Facial expression for yes/no questions

(b) Facial expression for wh-questions

FIGURE 9–9. Question facial expressions.

CAUSE  WHAT, meaning ‘why’ or ‘what is the reason.’, and NEED  WHAT meaning ‘what for’. Notice that all of the complex words have corresponding simplex forms (see Table 9.1). Our consultants point out that these complex question words seem to have a more specific reading than the equivalent simplex forms. For example, (184a) will be used to inquire about the specific address, while (184b) inquires about a more general location, like a town: 184a. HOUSE POSS2 PLACE  WHAT? ‘Where do you live? (What is your address?)’ b. HOUSE POSS2 WHERE? ‘Where do you live? (which town)?’ Similarly, REASON  WHAT is used to inquire about a specific reason for doing something, whereas WHY can express the signer’s dissatisfaction with the addressee’s doings. In (185a) the signer inquires about the reason for the addressee’s late arrival. (185b), on the other hand, is more likely to be used to express the signer’s dissatisfaction with the addressee’s late arrival (as in the context “Why did you come so late?? I expected you earlier”) 185a. LATE INDEX2 COME REASON  WHAT? ‘Why did you arrive late?’ b. LATE INDEX2 COME WHY? ‘What is the reason for your late arrival?’

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TABLE 9.1. The Main Interrogative Words in Israeli Sign Language Interrogative Word

Sample Sentence



1. WHO INDEXa WHO? ‘Who is that?’ 2. WRITE BOOK BOOK-THICK WAR PEACE WHO? ‘Who wrote the thick book War and Peace?


3. BUY WHAT YOU? ‘What did you buy?’ 4. YESTERDAY NEWS SAY WHAT? What did they say on the news yesterday?


5. NO-COME YESTERDAY WHY? ‘Why didn’t you come yesterday?’ 6. WHY YOU BUY BOOK INDEXa WHY? ‘Why did you buy that book?’

This sign looks like WHAT but it is accompanied by mouthing of the Hebrew word meaning ‘why’. The standard wh facial expression (shown in 9–9b) is sometimes replaced to avoid an unintended dissatisfaction/reproach interpretation of the furrowed brow.


7. MALE PERSON INDEXa BEHAVIOR WHAT’S THAT? ‘How is that man behaving?’ or ‘What kind of behavior is that?’ 8. MOVIE YOU SEE YESTERDAY WHICH? ‘Which movie did you see yesterday?’

This interrogative word is used when asking about the quality of a person or thing, or when the question allows for choice (for example, of one item from among a group of items). The sign is accompanied by articulating the word ‘which’ or ‘what is that.’ Sometimes there is no articulation but rather a particular movement of the mouth (similar to clenching of the teeth).


(continued) 151

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TABLE 9.1. (Continued) Interrogative Word

Sample Sentence



This sign is accompanied 9. SCHOOL COME by mouthing the HeYESTERDAY HOWbrew word kama ‘how MANY CHILmany.’ DREN? How many children came to school yesterday? 10. HALL INDEXa PLACE3X HOWMANY? ‘How many places are in this hall?’


11. WHEN YOU BIRTHDAY? ‘When is your birthday?’ 12. YEAR END SCHOOL WHEN?’ ‘When is the end of the school year?’

This sign is similar to the sign for HOW-MANY, but is accompanied by mouthing matay, ‘when.’ Deleting the downward movement of WHEN to distinguish it from HOWMANY was started in the schools and is catching on.


13. HOUSE MOVE WHERE? ‘Where did you move?’ 14. OFFICE PRINCIPAL WHERE? ‘Where is the principal’s office?’

This sign is accompanied by mouthing the Hebrew word efo ‘where.’


15. CAKE INDEXa PREPARE HOW? ‘How is this cake prepared?’ 16. YOU ARITHMETIC WRITE ANSWER SUCCESSFUL HOW YOU? ‘How did you manage to write the correct answer to the question in arithmetic?’

The sign’s shape is similar to that of WHERE (above), distinguished from that sign by the type of movement (see arrows on illustration) and the mouthing of the Hebrew word eix ‘how.’




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Sample Sentence



17. KNOW FROMWHERE YOU? ‘From where (how) do you know that?’ 18. GIFT INDEXa FROM-WHERE? ‘From where did you get that gift?’

Choice questions. Choice questions, like Do you want coffee or tea?, present the responder with more than one option. The answer to a choice question must include one of the possibilities presented in the question, either coffee or tea. Orange juice or any other drink is not a direct answer to this question, nor may a choice question be answered with a response of yes or no. The non-manual markers typical of choice questions in ISL are the same as those for yes/no questions, but their scope is different. Instead of spreading over the whole question, the non-manual markers only last until the end of the first choice (example 186 and Figure 9–10). Often the interrogative word WHICH is added at the end of the sentence. The intonation pattern on an English choice question shows similar effects: there is rising question intonation for the first choice, and falling, declarative intonation for the second—so the question, Do you want coffee or tea? has an intonation pattern more like, Do you want coffee? Or tea. If the question is asked with the same pattern as a regular yes/no question, with the rise at the end of the second choice, tea, then the whole question is interpreted as a yes/no question and not as a choice question. It would mean something like ‘Do you want a hot drink (like coffee or tea)?’ br 186. YOU WANT ICE CREAM WHITE INDEXa OR CHOCOLATE INDEXb? ‘Do you want vanilla ice cream, or chocolate?’ Interrogative words in declarative sentences. Languages often use certain interrogative words in sentences that are not interrogative but rather exclamatory. Sentences such as What a beautiful day it is! What an idiot I am! and How you’ve grown! are examples. The same exclamatory function is expressed in ISL, not with an interrogative word, but with a particular emotional facial expression.

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FIGURE 9–10. Facial expressions for questions of choice.

Also familiar from spoken languages is the use of interrogative words in exclamatory sentences like (187) and (188), which express regret or doubt rather than a request for information. 187. (Context: You invested money on the stock market, but you lost everything.) WHY I MONEY INVEST WHY??? ‘Why did I invest the money???’ 188. ARGUMENT NECESSARY WHY? ‘Why are you arguing?’ (What will you get out of it?) The sign WHY in examples (187)–(188) looks different from the sign WHY in ordinary questions. The movement is slower, longer, more deliberate and repeated several times, and both hands are used. The sentence is accompanied by a specific facial expression (see Figure 9–11) and by leaning forward. Similarly, the signs NECESSARY  WHY (‘for what?’) are carried out using slow and deliberate movements and accompanied by that same facial expression. Subordinate interrogative clauses. Interrogative sentences can also be part of a larger sentence, as in I don’t know where he went, Tell me why you’re tired. In these complex sentences, where he went and why you’re tired are sentences within sentences, called subordinate clauses. These constructions exist in ISL as well, but the order of words differs from that of English. In English, the subordinate interrogative clause comes after the verb in the main clause,

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FIGURE 9–11. WHY in a non-interrogative context with accompanying facial expression.

while in ISL, the subordinate clause often comes before the main clause. Sometimes the main clause appears both before and after the interrogative subordinate clause, as (189)–(191) show: 189. MALE PERSON INDEXa, WHERE HE GO I WANT KNOW. ‘I want to know where that man went.’ 190. BOX IN WHAT’S-THIS, I KNOW-NO. ‘I don’t know what is in the box.’ 191. I SURE NO BROTHER POSS1 COME, I SURE NO. ‘I’m not sure if my brother will come.’ A special construction exists for interrogative subordinate clauses that resembles the structure of rhetorical questions, in which speakers ask themselves a question and then supply the answer. In effect, though, sentences like (192) are not rhetorical questions but rather subordinate interrogative clauses. 192. I TIRED WHY—REASON YESTERDAY I STUDY TEST. This sentence can be translated as ‘Why am I tired? Because I was studying for the test yesterday.’ But a more accurate translation would be, ‘The reason I am tired is that I was studying for the test yesterday’. That is, the interrogative clause is actually a subordinate clause in the sentence. In this type of sentence, the facial expression is usually slanted eyebrows (raised in the center above the nose, and slanting down at the ends) on the first part of the sentence, the interrogative clause. This construction is quite common in the language. In examples (193)–(194), the non-manual marker is labeled sb for slanted brows.

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sb 193. SHIRT INDEXa I BUY WHERE—NEAR STATION. ‘The place I bought the shirt is near the station.’ (Literally: ‘Where I bought the shirt is near the station.’) sb 194. I FEEL WEAK WHY—YESTERDAY I MEDICINE FORGET. ‘The reason I feel weak is that I forgot to take my medicine yesterday.’ It is interesting to note that other sign languages have similar constructions. Wilbur (1995) analyzed such sentences in ASL, and showed that they are indeed subordinate clauses, and not rhetorical question-and-answer constructions. A similar construction has also been documented in British Sign Language (Sutton-Spence & Woll 1999). CONCLUSION ISL discourse has a wide range of sentence types at its disposal, each with its own grammatical marking. ISL is like other languages in its inventory of sentence types, and, also like other languages, it has its own formal means of distinguishing them from one another. An interesting point of similarity between signed and spoken languages is the fact that languages in both modalities rely on additional means other than the words themselves to mark declarative sentences, yes/no questions, and wh-questions. Sign languages make use of particular facial expressions and other non-manual markers for this purpose, while spoken languages use intonation patterns. In the next chapter, we focus directly on these systems and investigate how facial expressions and other markers of intonation and rhythm create linguistic patterns in the sign language modality. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Meir, I. (2006). Question and negation in Israeli Sign Language. Sign Language & Linguistics, 7(2), 97–124. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). (Chapter 4). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zeshan, U. (2004a). Interrogative constructions in signed languages: crosslinguistic perspectives. Language, 80(1), 7–39. Zeshan, U. (2004b). Hand, head, and face: Negative constructions in sign languages. Linguistic Typology, 8, 1–58.

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For those with a linguistics background Neidle, C., Kegl, J., MacLaughlin, D., Bahan, B., & Lee, R. G. (2000). The syntax of American Sign Language: Functional categories and hierarchical structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Petronio, K., & Lillo-Martin, D. (1997). Wh-movement and the position of spec CP: Evidence from American Sign Language. Language, 73, 18–57. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. (2006). (Chapters 20, 23). Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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10 Beyond the Hands: Facial Expression in ISL

A skit once performed by the American National Theater of the Deaf depicts the way that hearing people appear to Deaf people when conversing among themselves. In the skit, the actor moves her mouth very rapidly, pauses occasionally, shifts her stance, continues her rapid little mouth movements, shifts her position again—all with an utterly blank face. Hearing people find the sketch amusing, but for Deaf people it is hilarious: communication without facial expression seems to miss the whole point. Of course, the opposite is true when hearing people observe Deaf people conversing in sign language. One of the most salient aspects of this communication is the facial expression that accompanies it, which can be more noticeable than the motion of the hands. Manual gestures are familiar even in communication among hearing people. But the continual display of robustly articulated and rapidly varying facial expressions found in communication among Deaf people is not familiar to hearing people, and is sometimes felt to be exaggerated and even off-putting. What is the explanation for the centrality of facial expression in sign language? The answer is that facial expressions in sign language function like intonation in spoken language, like the rise and fall of the pitch and the intensity of the voice. Like vocal intonation, facial expressions are of two kinds: linguistic (conventionalized as part of the grammar of the language) and paralinguistic (conveying the emotion or attitude of the speaker). In both capacities, facial expression is an essential component of sign language, inseparable from the rest of the language. In fact, it is virtually impossible to convey a message in sign language without facial expression. Speaking people also use facial expression, but its use in sign language differs from its use in spoken language in two ways. First, in spoken language, facial expression augments the auditory signal, while in sign language facial expression replaces the auditory signal. Speakers convey emotions (like surprise or sadness) or the intention of an utterance (such as to ask a question or to emphasize some part of a sentence) through changes in the pitch and intensity of the voice, that is, through intonation. These emotions and intentions are often enhanced by facial expression. But the facial expression accompanying 159



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speech is neither mandatory (we communicate effectively on the telephone without seeing the face of the person at the other end1) nor systematically related to the linguistic structure, and this is the second difference from the use of facial expression in sign language. In the sign language modality, certain facial expressions and their roles are conventionalized, and have become part of the grammatical system of the language. In these manual-visual languages, facial expression is the only nonverbal channel for conveying the intent of an utterance and the attitude of the speaker. The message cannot be adequately interpreted if the face of the signer is not in view. Facial expression, then, plays the same affective role in sign language that it does in spoken language, but it goes far beyond that role, providing an expressive substitute for intonation. What the two language modalities have in common is this: in both, how we say what we say is crucial to interpreting the full meaning and intent of the message. This chapter will focus on four important roles played by the face in Israeli Sign Language. First and foremost is the system just introduced, comparable to intonation in spoken language. Intonation is so essential to the meaning of an utterance, that no message, spoken or signed, is complete without it. The bulk of the chapter will define intonation and explain its expressly linguistic functions. The similarities and differences between vocal intonation in spoken language and its facial reflex in sign language will be considered. The second role comes in at the level of the word: Certain words must mandatorily be accompanied by facial expressions (like the word AWESOME, mentioned in Chapter 2), and such expressions are part of the phonological structure of the word. Other facial expressions play an adverbial or adjectival role, accompanying verb phrases or noun phrases and modifying them. The fourth way in which the face is involved is somewhat different. It is not facial expression per se, but rather the use of the mouth to introduce elements from the spoken language into ISL—the mouthing of Hebrew words. Interestingly, mouthing has structural characteristics of its own. Facial expression also has a non-linguistic role to play, just as intonation does in spoken language: conveying the emotional state or attitude of the signer. The end of the chapter deals briefly with some differences between linguistic and nonlinguistic facial expression in ISL. HOW WE SAY WHAT WE SAY: THE PROSODIC STRUCTURE OF LANGUAGE Intonation, conveyed through facial expression in sign language, is actually part of a broader linguistic component, and a proper understanding of into-


Occasionally, a person’s facial expression plays a more important role in conveying the speaker’s attitude toward what s/he is saying. For example, winking while talking can mean, “What I am saying now is not true.” In cases like this, the addressee does have to see the face of the speaker in order to understand the message. But such cases are rare in spoken language.



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nation requires some awareness of the system as a whole. This broader component is called prosody, the topic of this subsection and the next. In natural spoken language, we break up our utterances into units called constituents through a complex system of intonation, rhythm, and stress. This system, the prosodic system, supplies essential information about the structure of sentences and their meaning. It is difficult to describe prosodic structure in writing, and impossible to transmit it in that medium. Punctuation marks stand for only a minimal amount of this information. Partly for this reason, many people are unaware of the role played by prosody, and of its centrality in linguistic expression. But in actuality, without this component of the grammar, we would often be at a loss in interpreting a message, or we would interpret it incorrectly. The following anecdote brings the message home. An English professor is said to have written this sequence of words on the blackboard, and asked the students to punctuate it. 195. Woman without her man is nothing According to the story, the men in the class interpreted the sentence like this: 196. Woman without her man(,) is nothing. But the women punctuated it this way: 197. Woman! Without her, man is nothing. This may just be an amusing story (would the two interpretations really be neatly divided according to the gender of the punctuator?), but it illustrates clearly the centrality of prosodic structure in a linguistic message. As we’ve said, prosodic structure is made up of three main elements: rhythm, stress or prominence, and intonation. The rhythm reflects the syntactic structure to a considerable extent. The rhythmic chunking of stretches of words marks boundaries between sentence constituents, aiding the listener’s perception and interpretation, as example (198) demonstrates. 198.

[The very tall] [construction worker] [carefully walked] [under the ladder]

Chunking the sentence differently would result in misinterpretation, or in lack of understanding of the sentence. Examples (199) and (200) are impossible. 199. * [The very tall construction] [worker carefully] [walked under the] [ladder] 200. * [The very] [tall construction] [worker carefully walked under] [the ladder]



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Other changes in the rhythm can lead to sentences that are grammatical, but that differ in meaning. 201. [Howard and Jill] [or Betty] [will come to the party] 202. [Howard] [and Jill or Betty] [will come to the party] According to sentence (201), either both Howard and Jill will come to the party, or else Betty will. In sentence (202), Howard will come to the party for sure, and another person will come too, either Jill or Betty but not both. The second component of prosody is prominence or stress.2 The sentence Howard bought the book can be understood in any of the ways indicated in parentheses in (203)–(205), depending on where the stress is placed in the sentence: 203. Howard bought the book (and not somebody else). 204. Howard bought the book (he didn’t borrow it or steal it). 205. Howard bought the book (and not the game). The sentence, Ron called Michael an intellectual and then he insulted him, seems to be ambiguous when viewed in writing. But as (206) and (207) demonstrate, placement of stress in different places in the string expresses the different interpretations directly in the speech signal. 206. Ron called Michael an intellectual and then he insulted him. 207. Ron called Michael an intellectual and then he insulted him. In (206), calling someone an intellectual is not an insult, and it is Ron who insulted Michael. In (207), calling someone an intellectual is an insult, and it is Michael who insulted Ron. If we only attend to the written word, the fact that the same string of words has two different interpretations is surprising, because the difference is normally not visible in that medium. But, as the reader will discover by reading them aloud, the difference between the two interpretations is completely clear when we say and hear them, so that the string of words is not really ambiguous. The third component of prosody is intonation, the melody of speech, which encodes differences in meaning in a somewhat different way. In many languages, declarative sentences are distinguished from questions solely by intonation. We gave yes-no questions in Russian as an example in Chapter 9. Modern Hebrew is another such language, as illustrated in (208)–(209). The first example has a falling intonation, while the second is rising. 2

We deal here with the phrase-level stress of English; not all languages operate according to the same rules.



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208. dani haya kan etmol. Danny was here yesterday ‘Danny was here yesterday’ 209. dani haya kan etmol? Danny was here yesterday ‘Was Danny here yesterday?’ The two Hebrew sentences are identical, except for their intonation. The discussion has shown some of the ways in which the components of prosody—rhythm, stress, and intonation—are integral to linguistic communication. They systematically interpret aspects of the syntactic and semantic structure of sentences. Without these mechanisms, linguistic communication would at best be much more convoluted and taxing, and, at worst, it would be unintelligible. PROSODIC STRUCTURE IN ISL AND INTONATION ON THE FACE Throughout this book, we have reiterated the idea that language is the product of the human brain, and that it finds its way out whether or not the predominant means for its expression—speech—is available. It may be that the most striking evidence of this is the way in which prosodic structure is expressed by the hands and the face in sign language. Considering the importance of prosody, one might expect that sign languages would have a comparable system at its disposal. And indeed research on sign languages has shown that they do. Despite the fact that the physical channel is so different from that of spoken language, sign languages have prosodic systems that encode semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic information, that is, information about the general knowledge and intent of the interlocutors. But how? How can intonation, stress, and rhythm be transmitted in a language without sound? As the previous chapters have shown, sign languages operate according to the same organizational and structural principles as spoken languages, but they instantiate those principles using the components of the manual-visual modality. The prosodic system is no different. In ISL, rhythm is chunked by the motion of the hands, through pauses or holding the hands in place at the ends of constituents. Prominence seems to be conveyed by changes in the speed and size of the signing. And intonation consists of facial expressions articulated mainly by different positions of the eyebrows, the eyes, the mouth, and the cheeks—all participating in the linguistic message, to convey semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic information.4 As ‘intonation’ has an especially vocal con3 This section is based on research reported in detail in (Nespor & Sandler, 1999) and in Sandler (1999b; 1999c). 4 Pragmatics has to do with how people comprehend and produce a communicative utterance in a concrete speech situation.



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notation, we adopt the term superarticulation (from Sandler, 1999c) for the corresponding system in sign language. The idea that facial expression is a conventionalized part of sign language grammar was introduced and supported in detail by Liddell (1980) for American Sign Language. A number of other researchers have investigated nonmanual markers in sign languages, and various analyses of the system have resulted.5 We believe, following Reilly, McIntire, and colleagues (see Suggested Reading), that facial expression and other nonmanual markers are best understood as part of the prosodic system, the intonational part, and we describe them in that light here. Facial Expression as Intonation (Superarticulation) The informal survey presented here, organized according to individual facial articulators, may be just the tip of the iceberg. We begin at the top, with the eyebrows. A. Expressions that include raised eyebrows Just as a high tone (or rising intonation) can characterize yes/no questions, continuations, and many other structures in spoken language, so can raised brows have different functions in sign language. We list some of them here. Yes/no questions. As we mentioned in Chapter 9, yes/no questions in ISL are realized with raised brows. In addition, the eyes are usually widened, and the body leans forward.6 The facial expression of a typical yes/no question is illustrated in Figure 10–1a. Choice questions. The brows are raised for the first part of the question, and lowered on the second part—shown in Figure 10–1b. The example is extracted from the question, Do you like vanilla ice cream, or chocolate?

5 Liddell proposed that the system corresponds directly to syntactic elements in ASL, a position supported by Wilbur and Patschke (1999) and by Neidle, Kegl, MacLaughlin, Bahan, and Lee (2000) for particular ASL nonmanual markers. Other ASL researchers have emphasized the intonational nature of the system, particularly Reilly, McIntire, and their colleagues (Reilly, McIntire, & Bellugi, 1990; Reilly, McIntire, & Seago, 1992). The intonational analysis supported in their detail in Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2006), underlies the presentation in this chapter. All researchers agree that intonation is connected to syntax in any case, so that the material presented here can be useful on descriptive grounds, leaving the controversy for the linguists to work out in other forums. 6 Other sign languages are reported to have similar nonmanual marking for yes/no questions, among them American (Baker & Cokely, 1980; Liddell, 1980), British (SuttonSpence & Woll, 1999), Indo-Pakistani (Zeshan, 2000).



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(a) yes/no question


(b) choice question

FIGURE 10–1. Facial expressions accompanying two types of questions.

br 210. YOU WANT ICE CREAM WHITE INDEXa OR CHOCOLATE INDEXb? ‘Do you want vanilla ice cream, or chocolate? Conditionals. The ‘if’ clause of a conditional sentence is characterized by a particular facial expression that is similar to that of a yes/no question: raised brows and widened eyes. Conditionals are not necessarily indicated by a function word like if. Without a function word, it is only the superarticulation (intonational facial expression) that distinguishes a conditional sentence from a simple coordination of two clauses. Example (211a–b) illustrated in Figure 10–2a–b demonstrates the difference. 211a. TEACHER SICK, LECTURE CANCEL ‘The teacher is sick and the lecture is cancelled.’ br b. TEACHER SICK, LECTURE CANCEL ‘If the teacher is sick, the lecture will be cancelled.’ B. Facial expressions with furrowed brows Here too, one superarticulatory specification has a range of different functions. Wh-questions. Typically, the facial expression accompanying whquestions includes furrowed brows, and a forward position of the head and upper body, as shown in Figure 10–3. Yes/no question requesting additional information; wondering. Yes/no questions may be characterized by furrowed rather than raised brows in cases



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(a) A coordinated sentence: ‘The teacher was sick and the lecture was cancelled.’

(b) A conditional sentence: ‘If the teacher is sick, the lecture will be cancelled.’ FIGURE 10–2. Facial expressions distinguish between sentences with coordinate clauses and with a conditional clause.

FIGURE 10–3. Superarticulation for a wh-question.

where the question is not merely asking for a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but is requesting additional information. By asking, Did John pay me back? while considering whether to order an additional dessert in a café, a simple yes/no question is probably not the intent. Instead, the asker is wondering whether he will be able to foot the bill. Similarly, the question, Do you have a car? may simply be a request for information about ownership (Figure 10–4a). But at the end of a party, for example, the questioner may ask, Do you have a car (here)? with a puzzled or wondering expression, similar to that of a typical wh-question, with the intent of asking for a ride home (Figure 10–4b). As with vocal intonation,



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facial superarticulation is often interpreted by pragmatic considerations— considerations beyond the sentence itself.

(a) yes/no question

(b) non-standard yes/no question

FIGURE 10–4. Different facial expressions accompanying two different readings of the question ‘Do you have a car (here)’?

C. Squints Another facial expression, one that is very common in ISL, is a strong squint of the lower eyelid. It is sometimes augmented by pulling back the corners of the mouth. Known or shared information. This expression signals that the material so marked is to be considered shared, or known to both interlocutors. The material may have been previously mentioned, or it may be new in the discourse, but in either case the eye squint has the effect of establishing it as shared for the purposes of the utterance in which it occurs. For example, Figure 10–5 is extracted from sentence (212). sq 212. GIRL INDEXa COME HAIFA ‘That girl came to Haifa.’

GIRL FIGURE 10–5. Facial expression including eye squint: the sign GIRL from sentence (212).



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Relative clauses. In expressions like the woman that we spoke about or the house that my brother built, the clauses accompanying and modifying the nouns woman and house are called relative clauses. In English, relative clauses are often introduced by the complementizer that or which. ISL relative clauses are not marked by complementizers. Instead, they are marked by squint. Figure 10–6 is taken from sentence (213).7 sq 213. GIRL I MEET YESTERDAY LEAVE ‘The girl I met yesterday left.’

MEET FIGURE 10–6. Facial expression including eye squint: MEET from sentence (213).

Combinations of Facial Expressions So far, our discussion has limited itself to description of individual facial articulators, the brows or the eyelids. But since different parts of the face are involved in superarticulation, it is possible to express more than one ‘melody’ at a time. For example, it is possible to articulate wh-question and shared information superarticulation simultaneously. And we do find such complex facial expressions in the language. Figure 10–7 is taken from the wh-question, Where is that guy we met? in which that guy we met is shared information. The superarticulation combines the furrowed brows of wh-questions with the squint of shared information. Each superarticulatory component has a consistent (though general) meaning, and when they combine, the meaning of the combination is the sum of its parts. 7

Dachkovsky (in press) shows that there is a common semantic base for ‘shared information’ and relative clauses, explaining why the squint is used for both.



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FIGURE 10–7. Simultaneous combination of wh- question and shared information facial expressions.

Dividing the Sentence into Rhythmic Constituents Another role shared by vocal intonation and facial expression is that of dividing a sentence into prosodic constituents. Changes in the rhythm of signing, usually accompanied by changes in facial expression, occur at the boundary between sentential constituents. The following sentence, repeated from chapter 8, example 122, is made up of two constituents, and each constituent is characterized by a different facial expression. squint widened eyes br 214. [HOUSE MY GARDEN-OUTSIDE-AREA] [BURN] ‘The garden of my house burned.’ The parts of the sentence are marked by the rhythm of signing as well. In fact, it seems that the rhythm of the signing hands sets off the parts of the sentence, and that the facial expression is coordinated with the hands. Sentence (215) is divided into three parts. The breaks in the rhythm, indicated here by hold (holding the hands in place), and repeat (repeating the last sign of the phrase), are accompanied by clear changes in facial expression, and both manual and nonmanual changes occur at the boundary that separates the parts of the sentence. 215.


hands: hold head: raised and tilted body: tilted right brows: raised eyes: upper lid squint mouth: neutral




repeat neutral tilted left


lowered relaxed turned down



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This sentence has a small prosodic break, marked with a thin line, between [BOOK INDEX] (‘the book’) and [HE WRITE] (‘he wrote’), and a large prosodic break, marked with a thick line, between [BOOK INDEX HE WRITE] (‘The book he wrote’) and [INTERESTING] (‘is interesting’). At the larger break, all non-manual parameters, those of the face, head and body, change. Figure 10–8 excerpts the signs WRITE and INTERESTING from this sentence, demonstrating some of the differences that are coded in (215).

(a) WRITE FIGURE 10–8. tional phrases.


Different facial expressions and head and body positions in two intona-

Between the two larger prosodic constituents—called intonational phrases— an eyeblink sometimes occurs. Some researchers have likened the eyeblink in sign language to taking a breath in speech (Nespor & Sandler, 1999; Wilbur, 1999). Breathing is a physiological necessity. But in the speech stream, the timing of breath-taking is determined by the structure of the sentence. We breathe at the ends of sentences or between major sentence parts. We rarely find ourselves in a situation where we have to breathe in the middle of a subpart of a sentence. This observation is seen more clearly by comparing adult speech with that of small children, who sometimes ‘forget’ to breathe in the usual places, and have to take a breath in the middle of a phrase: Mommy is going to [breath] take me to the circus. Adults would not be likely to breathe in the middle in that way. In other words, in most adult speech, the physical need to breathe is regulated by the linguistic structure of the message.8 Eyeblink in sign 8 We’ve observed that people often take a breath when they have a new thought, and that in adult speech new thoughts tend to coincide with new sentences or major sentence constituents.



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language behaves in a similar way. Blinking is also a physiological necessity; we blink to keep our eyes moistened. But like the timing of breath-taking, the placement of blinks is regulated by linguistic structure; blinks occur between sentences and major parts of sentences, and not in the middle of them.9 Rhythm and intonation are coordinated in spoken language as well. Take for example the English sentence, Do you want vanilla ice cream or chocolate? In this sentence, there is a rhythmic break—a pause—after ice cream. At the same point in the sentence, on the words vanilla ice cream, there is a rising intonational tune. The second part of the choice question, or chocolate, comes after the pause and has a different, falling, intonation pattern. In the same sentence in ISL, pictured in Figure 10–1b, the rhythm of the hands, which are held steady after WHITE (vanilla), and the raised brows intonational facial expression, are coordinated in the same way.

FACIAL EXPRESSION AS PART OF A WORD In the first systematic analysis of linguistic facial expression in sign languages, Liddell distinguishes ASL facial expressions that co-occur with certain types of phrases and sentences, like those described for ISL in the previous sections, from those that obligatorily accompany individual words, and also from expressions that fulfill an adverbial or adjectival role. Both of these other functions of facial expression are also found in Israeli Sign Language. We begin with specific facial expressions that may be part of the structure of certain words. This means that the sign is not complete without the facial expression that goes with it. In this case, the facial expression is not part of the intonational/prosodic system, but is part of the lexicon instead. The sign meaning ‘to give a decisive answer’ occurs with a mouth-opening gesture like the one for saying ‘pa’; the sign SMALL is made with mouth slightly opened (Figure 10–9a), tightened lips and repeated small wagging movements of the tongue; in the sign SPOILED (in the sense of ‘pampered’), the lips are in a whistling position (Figure 10–9b); the sign meaning THE-REAL-THING, mentioned in Chapter 2, is articulated with what corresponds to the spoken syllable ‘fa’ (see Figure 2–5a). Other signs are accompanied by shifts in head position or eye gaze. The signs GOD, EXPECT, and HOPE are signed with a brief look up.10 The sign POLITE is distinguished from RESPECT/HONOR by head position (Figure


Prosodic constituents often correspond to syntactic constituents. See Selkirk (1984), Nespor and Vogel (1986) and Nespor and Sandler (1999) for more discussion. 10 In British Sign Language, the signs GOD and BOSS are identical in their manual components, but GOD requires a look upwards while BOSS has only a neutral gaze forward (Sutton-Spence & Woll, 1999, p. 94).



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FIGURE 10–9. Facial articulations that obligatorily accompany words.

10–10). In POLITE, the head is tilted sideways and slightly downward, while the head is held in a neutral position for RESPECT/HONOR.



FIGURE 10–10. Words distinguished by head position.

Some words are distinguished by facial expression alone. The manual components are identical, and only the facial expressions are different, as in GAME and SEX; DANGEROUS and AWESOME (in its colloquial meaning) (Figure 10–11); and UNIVERSITY and THINK-DEEPLY.



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FIGURE 10–11. Two signs distinguished only by facial expression.

FACIAL EXPRESSION AS A MODIFYING MORPHEME Certain facial expressions are associated with particular grammatical forms. While these expressions may span more than one word, unlike those described in the previous section, they are also not intonational, as they are associated with a specific meaning and grammatical function. In this sense, they are morphemes, like the prefixes and other forms described in Chapter 3. For example, when a verb sign is repeated to add the meaning that the activity continues over time (continuative; see Chapter 6), it is usually accompanied by a particular facial expression, shown in Table 10.1 below. The repetition plus the facial expression together form the coninuative morpheme. Other facial articulations accompany certain plural markers that are associated with agreement verbs. These plural markers indicate exhaustive plurality, e.g., ‘(verb) to all’, like SHOWexhaustive (see Chapter 5, Verb Agreement). Either of two facial articulations performed by the mouth accompanies the exhaustive plural marker. One is mouth open and a repeated tongue flap (lalalalala); the other is called a bilabial trill by phoneticians, ‘raspberries’ by English people and ‘the Bronx cheer’ in America. Another type of grammatical form expressed by the face is that of modifiers, both adverbial and adjectival. Adverbials indicate the manner in which an activity is carried out. Examples of English adverbs are quickly, delicately, jokingly, carelessly. In ISL too, adverbs may take the form of independent words, like QUICKLY, METICULOUSLY, and others. But often, adverbial meanings are expressed through conventionalized facial expressions which accompany the verb or the whole verb phrase. We have found several of these, illustrated in Table 10.1 below.



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TABLE 10.1. Facial Expressions Denoting Manner Adverbials Facial Expression



Some Typical Co-occurring Words

Mouth open, eyes slightly narrowed

‘for a long time’


Mouth in ‘f’ position, sides slightly pulled back

‘carefully, meticulously’


Puffed cheeks, air hissing out



Mouth open, tongue at corner of mouth, one eye half-closed

‘out of curiosity’


Mouth pulled down at sides, teeth clenched

‘with physical effort’


Relaxed lips, tongue protruding with exhalation, chin in

‘effortlessly’ (esp. for activities carried out with an instrument)


Lips tensed, drawn back and protruding

‘in a relaxed manner’





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Facial expressions may also function as adjectival modifiers, as shown in Table 10.2. As the tables illustrate, these facial modifiers consist mostly of articulations made by the lower part of the face, in particular, the mouth and cheeks. They differ from facial expressions that mark sentence type described above—different kinds of questions, conditionals, etc. The latter are articulated with the upper part of the face, the eyes and brows. There seems to be a division of labor for the facial articulators: eyes and brows encode intonational information while mouth and cheeks indicate manner associated with verbs or quality attributed to nouns. This use of facial expression specifically for adverbials is common in other sign languages as well, described in some detail for American Sign Language in Anderson and Reilly (1998) and for British Sign Language by Sutton-Spence and Woll (1999, pp. 86–87). It is interesting that we found the same division of

TABLE 10.2. Facial Expressions Denoting Adjectival Modifiers Facial Expression



Some typical Co-occurring words

Relaxed lips, tongue in ‘th’ position, chin up, eyes partially closed

‘very soft, limp, mushy’


Square-shaped lips, clenched teeth

‘large quantity, extremely’


Tongue flapping, as for ‘lalalala’

Series or pile of objects




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labor between the upper and lower face in ISL that has been documented for these other sign languages (see Liddell, 1980, and Wilbur, 2000). But the specific facial expressions differ from language to language. Figure 10–12 compares facial expressions for SOFT and for EXTREMELY in ISL with those of ASL.




(a) SOFT


FIGURE 10–12. Comparison of facial modifiers in ISL and in ASL.

So we see that the facial expressions themselves may be different in different sign languages, but the division of labor between the two parts of the face is the same. This similarity can’t be a coincidence. The roots of these, and all systematic, grammatical facial expressions in sign language can most likely be found in more sporadic and less regular emotional facial expressions used by humans generally. These emotional expressions form the raw material for the conventionalized linguistic system characterizing each individual sign language. MOUTHING When hearing people sign, they often accompany their signing with the mouthing of the words in the spoken language, sometimes with voicing as well. When Deaf people sign with hearing people, they often do the same. This hybrid system may aid communication, especially when the hearing interlocutor is not fluent in sign language. But when Deaf people communicate in ISL among themselves, they also often mouth words from Hebrew.11 This might give the impression that they 11

There is apparently more mouthing found in ISL and in many European sign languages than in American Sign Language. The reasons may be related to the education systems and social norms within the community. It has also been suggested that ASL uses fingerspelling of English words much more than ISL or many European sign languages, introducing elements from the ambient spoken language without mouthing. In places where fingerspelling has not caught on to the same extent, borrowing from the spoken language takes the form of mouthing.



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are using speech together with sign. But on more careful examination, we discover that this impression is mistaken. Mouthing is not a substitute or parallel communication channel. We know this because mouthing in ISL only accompanies some signs but not all of them, and it often seems to be coordinated with the signing in a special way. Let’s look at sentences (216) and (217) and at the mouthing that accompanies them. The examples are provided here in English translation, with the following two exceptions: va accompanying ALREADY is left in the original Hebrew to show that only part of the word kvar (‘already’) is mouthed, and sh accompanying HIS DOG corresponds to the Hebrew word shelo, ‘his’.12 216.

BUS LINE TEL-AVIV Mouthing: ‘bus’——— ‘Tel Aviv’——— ‘The bus for Tel Aviv has left.’ 217. SON MY INDEXa DOG HISa Mouthing: ‘son’———— sh———— ‘My son’s dog is sleeping.’


It is clear that the mouthing is not a Hebrew version of the sentences. In fact, it does not even convey words in a way that is temporally coordinated with those transmitted by the hands. Only a few of the signs are accompanied by mouthing, and the mouthing itself is often partial. Also, mouthings sometimes persist beyond the corresponding signs. The mouthing of the word for ‘son’, ben, stretches across three signs, for example. What, then, is the role of mouthing? When and how is it used? While no comprehensive answer is available to date, some generalizations can be formulated. First of all, names of people, places, and countries are often accompanied by mouthing. Sometimes, one sign represents more than one place, and the mouthing serves to disambiguate the two. For example, the sign for two towns in Israel where wine is made, Rishon Leziyon and and Zichron Yaacov, is simply, WINE. The mouthing distinguishes them from WINE and from each other. Common nouns are also sometimes ambiguous between two meanings, and disambiguated by mouthing—for example, SISTER, BROTHER; GRANDMOTHER, GRANDFATHER; UNCLE, AUNT. In these pairs, the gender distinction is marked by mouthing of the Hebrew word. Other signs distinguished by mouthing have nothing in common semantically; they are homophones like bank (where you put money) and bank (of a river). Examples are the signs for LAWS and PROGRAM, articulated identically except for mouthing. Just as some signs are obligatorily accompanied by facial expression, there are signs that are obligatorily accompanied by mouthing, such as ALREADY 12

In many cases, the mouthing extends over a prosodic/rhythmic chunk of the sentence.



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(kvar in Hebrew), obligatorily accompanied by va, and the possessive pronouns, POSS, POSS1, POSS2 (shel, sheli, shelxa in Hebrew), accompanied by sh, exemplified in (216) and (217). Often, the mouthing does not correspond precisely to the Hebrew meaning of the sign. The examples in Table 10.3 demonstrate that it is perhaps more accurate to view the mouthing as a kind of label, rather than as a translation of the sign to Hebrew. The signs and their mouthings are translated to English in the table for simplicity. It also happens that the signs and the mouthings convey the same information but in a different order. The signs COMFORTABLE NOT are accompanied by mouthing the Hebrew for ‘not comfortable’. In this example, the order of the mouthed words conforms to Hebrew, which is different from the ISL sign order. In other cases, the mouthing is not directly related to the sign at all. The mouthing for ‘already’, Hebrew kvar is va, and it sometimes is mouthed simultaneously with a verb sign where the sign for ‘already’ is not articulated at all. The sentence, I WRITE ALREADY can be signed, I WRITE, while the mouth articulates va, representing the perfective marker, ALREADY (see Chapter 6). Here, the mouthing does not represent parallel information, but rather additional information (see Sutton-Spence & Woll, 1999, p. 83, for reference to a similar phenomenon in British Sign Language). Another example occurred in a story told by a man about his immigration from Greece to Israel. The message included a combination of signing and mouthing, in which each conveyed different information. The sentence contained the sign, COME, accompanied by the mouthing of the word, ‘Greece’, meaning, ‘(the boat) came to Greece’. Afterwards, the man recounts that the boat was anchored at the port of Port Said. He signed PORT (namal in Hebrew), and mouthed, ‘Port Said’. Deaf research assistants we consulted say that this phenomenon of a mismatch between the mouthed and signed word is neither marginal nor restricted to a few specific signs, but that it is relatively common. It adds another element of simultaneity to the structure of the message in ISL, and another challenge to those who would like to learn it. This brief discussion has shown that mouthing is neither Hebrew accompanied by ISL nor the reverse, but rather a linguistic component that is part of IsTABLE 10.3. Signs and Mouthings Sign ASK ENGAGED-IN-CONVERSATION WITH-EACH-OTHER Negation of verb SEARCH-FOR

Mouthing ‘question’ ‘argument’ ‘zero’ ‘where-where’



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raeli Sign Language. What we have presented here in no way exhausts the topic. More research is needed for a broader understanding of the way in which speechbased mouth movement is incorporated into the linguistic system of ISL. NONLINGUISTIC FACIAL EXPRESSION: THE INTONATION OF EMOTIONS The facial articulations that we have described encode linguistic structure, and make syntactic and semantic distinctions. In certain ways, the system is comparable to intonation in spoken language. In both cases, a grammatical system is involved, with obligatory characteristics dictated by the linguistic structure of the language. But Deaf people also use facial expression the way hearing people do—to convey emotions, like happiness, anger, sadness, and surprise. Some of these facial expressions are claimed to be universal (Ekman, 1982). The emotional facial expressions that accompany all human communication, spoken and signed alike, are different from those that are part of sign languages. One example of the difference is in the timing. The grammatical expressions such as those that mark yes-no questions or shared information extend precisely over the prosodic constituents of sentences, as explained in the section Prosodic Structure in Israeli Sign Language. Emotional expressions, on the other hand, can extend over more than one constituent, and can even be present before or after the linguistic message is conveyed. But just as the difference between grammatical and emotional intonation in spoken language has yet to be fully understood, so too is there much to be learned about the distinction between grammatical and emotional facial expression in sign language. CONCLUSION We hope that this discussion has convinced our readers that facial expressions are an inseparable part of the linguistic structure of sign language, and that it is often impossible to fully understand a sentence in ISL without taking note of it. Facial expressions encode differences between sentence types, and are closely tied to the rhythmic structure and, indirectly, to the syntactic structure of sentences. In these ways, they are comparable to intonation in spoken languages. But facial expressions have many additional functions: they are part and parcel of certain lexical items; they act as morphemes, conveying information about the manner in which actions are performed and about attributes of people and things; and they can add additional lexical information, through mouthing. In addition to this plethora of linguistic roles, facial expressions also perform the paralinguistic function of vocal intonation, conveying information about the emotional state of the signer, such as happiness, anger, and surprise.



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Tracing the varied and systematic uses of facial expression in a sign language offers an interesting angle for assessing the ways in which the linguistic system exploits the physical modality—in this case, exploiting the panoply of configurations that can be articulated by the human face. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Boyes-Braem, P., & Sutton-Spence, R. (Eds.). (2001). The hands are the head of the mouth: the mouth as articulator in sign languages. Hamburg: Signum Verlag. Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). (Chapter 5). The linguistics of British Sign Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Liddell, S. K. (1980). American Sign Language syntax. The Hague: Mouton. Nespor, M., & Sandler, W. (1999). Prosody in Israeli Sign Language. Language and Speech, 42(2–3), 143–176. Reilly, J. S., McIntire, M., & Bellugi, U. (1990). The acquisition of conditionals in American Sign Language: Grammaticized facial expressions. Applied Psycholinguistics, 11(4), 369– 392. Reilly, J. S., McIntire, M. L., & Seago, H. (1992). Affective prosody in American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies, 75, 113–128. Sandler, W. (1999b). The medium and the message: Prosodic interpretation of linguistic content in Israeli Sign Language. Sign Language & Linguistics, 2, 187–215. Sandler, W. (1999c). Prosody in two natural language modalities. Language and Speech, 42(2–3), 127–142. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. (2006). (Chapters 15, 23). Sign language and linguistic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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Part I: Summary and Conclusion

Our goal in the first part of the book has been to provide a straightforward description of the ways in which a language that is transmitted in the manual-visual modality manifests the essential characteristics of human language. We’ve presented a detailed investigation of a variety of linguistic phenomena in one visual language, Israeli Sign Language, and we’ve looked at the linguistic means the language uses to do the job. The research dealt with here reveals that ISL is a language in every sense of the word. It is made up of linguistic units which combine according to particular rules to create a variety of complex structures. The language is organized into levels of structure that are familiar to us from research on spoken languages, among them, phonology, morphology, syntax, and prosody. Investigating linguistic structure at each of these levels, and comparing them to those in spoken languages, leads to the conclusion that there is much in common between the two—but some interesting differences emerge as well. On the one hand, we have found that key features of ISL structure have counterparts in spoken languages, even features that seem inseparable from the auditory channel. In ISL and in spoken languages, words are comprised of a small set of meaningless units combined in particular ways to form enormous vocabularies. A system of ISL facial expressions is comparable to intonation in spoken languages. Similarly, there are many devices shared by languages in the two modalities at the level of the meaningful parts of words, such as the use of prefixes and suffixes and other types of morphemes. Where some spoken languages interweave different vowel patterns with the consonantal roots to make different forms of a word, ISL inserts particular movement patterns in a word, to create new forms systematically. ISL shares with spoken languages the use of grammatical words for forming questions and negation, and specific ways for combining them with other constituents in the sentence. And, like some spoken languages, ISL arranges the order of words according to the principle of topic first and then comment. In short, the similarities between ISL and spoken languages, laid out in detail in the first part of the book, are numerous and impressive. On the other hand, ISL, like other sign languages, has certain characteristics that are not found in spoken languages, and these are no less interesting. First, there is a strong tendency for simultaneous constructions, a tendency which is expressed at several levels of structure. At the phonological level 181




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(the level where the meaningless components of a word are organized), the handshape, location, and movement of a sign come together in a way that is mostly simultaneous. At the level of morphology (where word-parts that have meaning or grammatical function combine), the various elements of verb agreement and of classifier constructions are put together simultaneously. Simultaneity is found at the prosodic level too, the level which divides our utterances into rhythmic units and superimposes intonational patterns on them. At this level, ISL allows simultaneous superimposition of several different ‘visual tones’ through synchronized motions of the different features of the face. The second sign language particular characteristic shown in Part 1 is the existence of grammatical categories and structures that encode spatial relations directly. In addition to syntactic information, like identifying the subject or object of the verb, information about the spatial role (source and goal) of participants in the event is conveyed by the verb agreement system. Physical characteristics of participants, as well as information about the shape and manner of motion and about locations involved in an event are conveyed by the classifier construction system in ISL and sign languages generally. Third, it may be that the visual modality constrains the structure of ISL sentences in certain ways. Word order in sentences that convey spatial relations must order the background before the character or the event—the ground before the figure(s)—an order which seems to be connected to the way in which we perceive figure and ground in the visual medium. What can all this teach us about the nature of language in general, and about the connection between linguistic structure and the physical channel of its expression? These questions will be the focus of Part III of the book. But before we turn to the broader context, we will stick with Israeli Sign Language specifically for a while. Part II provides the human context of the story of ISL. It describes the history of the Deaf community in Israel, how it coalesced and took on its own character, and how it developed its language.

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Part II The Language and Its Community

Israeli Sign Language (ISL) came into existence in Israel as the local Deaf community evolved.1 Because this community began to coalesce only towards the end of the 1930s, ISL can be no more than 70 years old—quite young, as languages go. But despite its tender age, the early stages of its formation and development are difficult to trace, because no filmed documentation is available from earlier periods, and our efforts to learn about the language can only be based upon indirect sources. For this reason, investigation of the development of the language takes on the feel of detective work, in which different kinds of evidence gathered from a variety of sources are matched up and assembled into a coherent whole. One of those sources is the social history of the community. Since interaction among the members of a community is a central factor in language formation and development, studying the historical evolution of the Israeli Deaf community is indispensable for understanding the development of ISL. How did this community come into existence? At the time of its inception, what were the social and linguistic backgrounds of its members? Under what circumstances were deaf people able to come together to form a social group and a language? What organizations or institutions contributed to the development of the language and the community? Part of the picture can be reconstructed by pooling the recollections of veteran community members about the language from its earliest periods, and part by comparing today’s signs with those found in the earliest ISL dictionaries that were published in 1977. The picture pieced together in this way reveals several trends in the development of the language. Yet another way to learn of the historical development of ISL is to compare it to other languages that bear a socio-historical relation to it or to languages with which it has come into contact. Many of the veteran members of 1 As explained in Chapter 1, we adopt the convention of using capital ‘D’ to describe Deaf people as members of a distinct social group, most saliently defined by a common language, and lower case ‘d’ in other contexts, such as deaf education.


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the Israeli Deaf community came from countries where they used other sign languages. German Sign Language apparently had an impact on the vocabulary of ISL, and comparing these two sign languages (Israeli and German) enables us to explore additional factors that affected the formation of ISL. We begin our excursion into the development of Israeli Sign Language in chapter 11, by surveying the main stages in the history of the Deaf community in Israel, and the people and institutions that played a part in its formation. We’ll see that this community began with only a handful of people, that it gained new members by chance meetings, transmitted information by word of hand in public spaces, bolstered its aspirations for coherence and purpose through encounters with visitors passing through, and realized them through common experience and effort. The chapter shows that the story of the Deaf community parallels that of the young country in which it formed, and some of the events affecting the country—like immigration from different places in the world, remote from one another—affected both the community and its language. The first part of Chapter 11 deals with the development of the community itself, pointing out, where possible, ways in which the social conditions are likely to have influenced the development of Israeli Sign Language. As in most countries, the educational system also had a role to play in the development of the language, both through bringing deaf children together and through its language policies. The second part of the chapter describes this role. We end the chapter with a brief look at the community today. In the chapter that follows, Chapter 12, we return to the language itself, specifically examining the linguistic factors that affected it, the influence of other sign languages on its lexicon, and the changes it underwent. Our account is based on written documentation, pictures, and the factual recollections of community members. It doesn’t presume to express directly the feelings and attitudes of Deaf people themselves. In Chapter 13, we follow the descriptions of the development of the community and its language with short narratives from some of the younger members of the Deaf community, telling stories that are very individual, but that are laced with experiences and feelings that will be familiar to Deaf people everywhere.

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11 The History of the Deaf Community in Israel

The earliest information available to us about the Deaf community in Israel dates from the end of the nineteenth century, when the area was part of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, small groups of deaf people that included both Jews and Arabs had formed in Jerusalem and in Safed. These deaf people apparently communicated among themselves using signs, but we have not found any information about the sign language they developed. Later, the deaf population increased together with the general population, due to violent upheavals in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, which resulted in immigration to Israel. THE ORIGINS OF THE COMMUNITY: A FEW FRIENDS AND A SCHOOL In the 1930s, a number of young deaf people immigrated to what is now Israel together with other Jews fleeing the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany. Some of those immigrants were destined to become key figures in the nascent Deaf community. The first of them, Moshe Bamberger, arrived in 1934. He sought out other deaf people, and, when his family moved to Jerusalem in 1935, he naturally gravitated to the school for deaf children. This school, the Jewish School for Deaf-Mutes,1 had been established in Jerusalem three years earlier, in November 1932 (when the region was part of the British Mandate of Palestine, 16 years before the establishment of the State of Israel). The money to build it had been donated by a wealthy Jewish man from Shanghai who had become deaf in his old age. A teacher at the Jewish School for the Deaf in Berlin was chosen to head the school, both because he was qualified to teach 1

The term “Deaf-mutes” is unacceptable today in the Deaf community, because it implies that Deaf people have no language, while in fact they do have a language, sign language. Formerly, this designation was quite common, both in educational institutions and among members of the community. It appeared in the names of many organizations and educational institutions, as can be seen in the name of the school that was established in Jerusalem.


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deaf children and also because he knew Hebrew. His wife and his sister, who also taught at the Berlin school, accompanied him to Jerusalem and formed the core of the teaching staff. While there was no one Bamberger’s age at the school (he had already graduated from high school), the school’s director, whom he had known in Germany, referred him to Aryeh Zuckerman, a deaf man living in Jerusalem. Zuckerman had been among the deaf children who had been sent to study at the school in Berlin, where Bamberger had also studied. Thanks to their common background, they established an immediate bond. At Zuckerman’s home, Bamberger met another deaf man, Yehezkel Sella, who had apparently belonged to the group of Jewish and Arab deaf people that had formed in Jerusalem at the beginning of the twentieth century. This tiny new group—Bamberger, Zuckerman, and Sella—formed the nucleus of what was to become the Israeli Deaf community. We can assume that Bamberger and Zuckerman used more or less a common language. Sella must have brought quite a different language to the group, as he had not studied in Europe, and apparently had had no formal education. It would have been exciting to have been a fly on the wall at those early encounters, and to watch as a new indigenous language began to arise. The members of the group (see Figure 11–1) were not to remain in Jerusalem for very long. They soon moved to Tel Aviv, where it was easier for them to find jobs. As we will see, they found other deaf people there as well. Moving Into Public Spaces: A Parade, a Tel Aviv Square, and a Café Corridor In the history of every community, certain events are perceived as significant, remembered collectively as milestones. For what was to become the Deaf community in Israel, a Purim parade held in Tel Aviv in 1936 was such an event.2 During the parade, people from the small Jerusalem group met other deaf people from Tel Aviv and Haifa. Their signing hands revealed their identity as Deaf people and enabled them to converse with each other. After their initial acquaintance at the parade, the now larger group began meeting on a regular basis, forming the core of a new Tel Aviv Deaf community. This group, at first numbering around 10–15 people, would meet at the beach, at coffeehouses,


Purim is a holiday based on an elaborate biblical story full of plots and intrigues, whose main characters are the beautiful Queen Esther and her wise uncle, countered by a foolish king and his evil courtier, Haman. According to the story, the Jews of the Persian Empire foiled Haman’s plan for their annihilation, by outsmarting him. Celebration of the holiday, which has been observed since the first or second century, has included costumes since the Middle Ages, and a Purim parade was initiated in the new city of Tel Aviv in 1912. By 1936, the year the parade became a milestone in the formation of the Deaf community in Israel, it was an established and widely popular event.

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FIGURE 11–1. Members of the Jerusalem group in 1937, among them the late Yehezkel Sella (second from right), the late Aryeh Zuckerman (third from right) and Moshe Bamberger (fourth from right). Picture courtesy of Moshe Bamberger.

or on Dizengoff Street, a popular Tel Aviv boulevard lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes. A noted figure in this emerging group was one Yosef Mosheiof, a deaf shoe shiner from Bukhara who had become a permanent fixture in Hamoshavot Square, at that time Tel Aviv’s main plaza. Countless people would pass through this plaza every day, which placed the shoe shiner at what was then the nerve center of Tel Aviv. Thanks to his occupation and his propitious location, he became the source of information for the Deaf community at that time. Any deaf person who wanted an update on what was going on in the country in general or in the Deaf community in particular would come to the shoe shine man to find out the latest information. Current events, announcements, gossip—nothing passed him by. We include a picture of a shoeshine man at a different Tel Aviv square during the same period in Figure 11–2, to give a feel of the atmosphere of the time. The group continued meeting regularly. Jonathan Shunary, a researcher working with Izchak Schlesinger at Hebrew University in the 1970s, summarized reports from the early group members in the following way. Conversations at the meetings concerned everyday affairs, work, current events, films they had seen, jokes mimed by a few members with considerable pantomimic talent and a good sense of humor, and naturally, plain gossip too. News items were related to those who were illiterate by the “educated”.3 At that time group games as they are played today were not 3

The group used the term ‘educated’ to refer to members who had had some schooling and knew how to read and write.

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FIGURE 11–2. Shoe shiner at Mugrabi Square, Tel Aviv. Picture by Daniel Rosenbloom reproduced with permission of Tova Rosenbloom.

the custom. However, the Europeans used to invent sketches, and programs were performed for special occasions, religious festivals, etc. (Shunary, Working paper No. 9, 1969, p. 2).4

A deaf tourist from Poland joined the group for a while, bringing with him new energy and ideas. He raised the idea of establishing an association of Deaf people, like those existing in Europe at the time. His ideas fell on fertile ground for members of the group who had already been thinking about formalizing their social relationship and setting up an association that could serve as a home base for Deaf people. The temporary board for the association was appointed in 1943, and drew up a preliminary set of regulations with the help of a hearing attorney who volunteered his assistance. During this period, the group’s regular meeting place was a long corridor in a coffeehouse on a busy Tel Aviv street. There they celebrated Hanukkah together for the first time (Figure 11–3). Those attending the celebration in the hallway must have felt that something was beginning to take shape—they documented the party in the first minutes of the association. The minutes tell of the group’s intention to establish an association with a range of activities and its own headquarters. The first board of the newly forming association was elected in February 1944, and the association was officially established on June 3 of that year with 44 members. Moshe Bamberger served as its first chairman. The association


Thanks to Iczhak Schlesinger for making the working papers from his research project available to us.

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FIGURE 11–3. The first Hanukkah party in the coffeehouse hallway. Picture courtesy of Hava and Israel Savir.

On Saturday, the 3rd of June, at 8:45, the general assembly was opened with a festive speech given by the president [of the association], M. Bamberger. Before the speech, the vice-president, M. Benedict, asked that meetings in general, and this one in particular, not be interrupted. President Bamberger then greeted all those who were present (45 members), announced the beginning of the work of the Association of the Deaf-Mute, and made a special plea from all members to support the newly formed association with all their physical and spiritual resources. . . . Then the members’ names were recorded in the association’s book. It was also recorded that of the 44 members who signed up, 30 wish to learn Hebrew and 28 would like to do sports. At 9:45 the assembly came to a close. FIGURE 11–4. Minutes of the first official meeting of the association, taken from the publication marking the jubilee year of the Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI).

obtained the endorsement of the British Mandate government and went by the name of The Deaf-Mute Association of Tel Aviv. In its early years, the association’s activities included lectures on various topics (Bible, history, and current events both at home and abroad), trips around the country, visits to exhibitions (that included explanations by the Association’s chairman), and annual Hanukkah and Purim celebrations. Since most of the deaf people came from

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hearing families, and often felt themselves left on the periphery of the family’s holiday observance, veterans recall that the Association’s holiday celebrations “provided people who couldn’t hear with practically their only opportunity to experience a . . . normal social encounter”.5 Meetings took place in a variety of venues, including a temporary clubhouse in Jaffa. A steady stream of refugees from the horrors of World War II made their way to Israel during these years. This immigration was deemed illegal by the British Mandate government, which denied the immigrants official entry and exiled them when they could, but there was no other safe haven for them, and so they kept on coming. As there was no governmental social system to aid them, the local community stepped in, and the Deaf community was no exception. The association helped deaf new immigrants get settled, finding work for them and making sure that their employers did not take advantage of them. The End of World War II and the Early Years of the State of Israel: A Time of Disruption, Immigration and Building The years from the end of World War II in 1945 to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 were stormy ones for the people in the region, a period of national struggle under the British Mandate. Under such conditions, it was difficult to meet regularly, as can be seen from entries like this one in the association’s minutes: “Board member Chaim Apter did not make it to the meeting because of a British army roadblock” (December 1946, “50th Jubilee”, Tel Aviv Association of the Deaf, p. 9). After November 29, 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly ratified the plan for the partition of Mandate Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state, armies from surrounding Arab countries attacked Israel, and violence also broke out between Arabs and Jews inside the country. These violent events did not skip over Jaffa—an ancient port city adjacent to Tel Aviv, populated by both Jews and Arabs in 1947 as it is today—where the Association’s clubhouse was then located. Numerous Jews fled Jaffa, and others found shelter in the clubhouse, which meant it could no longer be used for meetings. Again the Association members were left without a permanent home, and they reverted to their former custom of meeting at various Tel Aviv coffeehouses. The group’s meetings practically came to a halt in 1948 during the War of Independence, starting up again only in March of 1949. During the early years of the state following the War of Independence, the main goal of the Deaf community was to set up a headquarters for the Association. The problem was twofold: they needed to find a suitable location for the clubhouse and they needed to raise money to finance its construction. Tireless efforts on the part of community activists resolved the first problem.


“50th Jubilee”, Tel Aviv Association of the Deaf, p. 3.

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The Tel Aviv municipality allocated a location in the modest residential neighborhood of Yad Eliahu as a site for the clubhouse. The next obstacle was finding the money. By this time, the community had hundreds of members, and it seemed as if all of them rose to the challenge. Community members recall today that they all rallied round the fundraising campaign and that everyone had a role to play. One woman recalled her involvement in Ribbon Day many years later, in a publication marking the Jubilee Year of the Association of the Deaf in Israel: In order to help raise money for setting up a clubhouse for the Deaf in Tel Aviv, I left my two children with my mother and hit the streets, canvassing passersby with collection boxes adorned with special collection ribbons. The campaign was called “Ribbon Day”. My collection spot was Dizengoff Square on Saturdays and Sundays. I collected a great deal of money, which helped in establishing the Helen Keller House.6

Two events are mentioned in connection with constructing the center. The first was the screening of the movie Johnny Belinda, which tells of the trials and tribulations of a deaf young woman in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. This movie won great popularity and for the first time exposed the general public to the topic of deafness and the problems of deaf people living in a hearing society. The Association held a festive screening open to the general public, with all proceeds going to the building fund. The second event was Helen Keller’s visit to Israel in 1952, pictured in Figure 11–5. During this visit she gave a number of lectures including a special lecture for Association members. Helen Keller spoke in English, but, because her speech was not very clear, an interpreter repeated in English everything she said. Deaf people who recall the event recount their amazement when they saw Helen Keller check the accuracy of the interpreter by placing her hands over the interpreter’s lips. A hearing person who knew English well translated the interpreter’s words into written Hebrew, and Moshe Bamberger, who by that time had already achieved excellent command of both written and spoken Hebrew, translated from the written Hebrew into sign language for the Deaf audience. This lecture left a lasting impression on the members of the Israeli Deaf community. That a person who is both deaf and blind could achieve so much and become such an important figure in the international community was a source of inspiration to community members in their efforts to achieve recognition and solicit help in building their center. Members of the Association told Helen Keller about their building plans and asked her if they could name the building in her honor. She gave them her consent. The efforts of Association members bore fruit. They were given a plot of land for the building in the Yad Eliahu neighborhood of Tel Aviv and man-


“50th Jubilee”, Tel Aviv Association of the Deaf, p. 20.

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FIGURE 11–5. Helen Keller (center) visiting the clubhouse of the Deaf community (1952), with her companion and interpreter Polly Thompson, shaking hands with community leader Hava Savir. Picture courtesy of Hava and Israel Savir.

aged to raise enough money to begin construction. The cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Helen Keller House took place on December 2, 1953. Speakers at this ceremony included such dignitaries as the Mayor of Tel Aviv; the wife of the President of Israel; and the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv as well as the secretary of the Association for the Deaf. The decorous and well attended ceremony was another milestone for the members of the Deaf community. An article in their journal, Demama—‘Silence’ (No. 3, February 1955)— notes that “all the speeches were translated for the many Deaf attendees into the language of hand motions by our comrade, Moshe Bamberger.” This seemingly simple sentence incorporates key information regarding the history of the language. The implication is that in the twenty years between the time the Deaf community had first begun to form and the cornerstonelaying ceremony for its Association headquarters, Israeli Sign Language had become sufficiently conventionalized and rich to enable simultaneous interpreting of official speeches from Hebrew. There were not yet any sign language interpreters, but once again, Moshe Bamberger rose to the occasion. As the readers may recall, Bamberger had grown up in Germany, where he was taught German, and was exposed to the German Sign Language that was used among his school mates. After he immigrated to Israel, he studied He-

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brew with a private tutor for several months, and then expanded his knowledge of Hebrew by reading books and magazines with the help of a dictionary. In this way, he achieved excellent command of the language. At the cornerstone laying ceremony, pictured in Figure 11–6, Bamberger interpreted the speeches from Hebrew to Israeli Sign Language.

FIGURE 11–6. Moshe Bamberger interprets speeches at the corner stone laying ceremony for Helen Keller House in 1953. Picture courtesy of the Association of the Deaf in Israel.

Construction of Helen Keller House began in 1953, and was completed in 1958 (see Figure 11–7). It served as a place where members of the Deaf community could meet. There they could attend a variety of classes, tutorials and professional training courses. At one time, classrooms in the building were also used in the mornings by the Niv School for the Deaf, a school that had been established in 1941, but did not have a permanent location until much later. In the aftermath of World War II, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, waves of immigrants arrived in Israel by the hundreds of thousands from Europe as well as from North Africa and other Arab countries. Veteran citizens in what was then still Socialist Israel saw the successful absorption of these immigrants as a national mission, and numerous institutions and programs were developed toward this end. Among these new immigrants were also deaf people, and the Deaf community continued to help them adapt to their new home. Some of the immigrants came from countries where education for the deaf was scarce or nonexistent (though many of these came with trades), and they were unable to rely on spoken language translation or on any written language for information about their new home. In order to help these new immigrants get acclimated and find employment, the Association of the Deaf extended the courses it offered at Helen Keller House to include professional training. The

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FIGURE 11–7. Construction of Helen Keller House, 1953–1958. Picture courtesy of the Association of the Deaf in Israel.

courses, which were offered in a boarding school setting, included sewing courses for women (pictured in Figure 11–8) and, later, courses in carpentry, photography and shoemaking. The students lived on the premises, developing social contacts along with professional skills. But social bonding did not come easily. The immigrants had brought with them other sign languages and simple gesture systems they had used with their families, and at first the lack of a common language made interaction difficult. An anecdote told to us by Mahbuba Saban, a member of the Deaf community who immigrated to Israel from Algeria, gives a sense of what the interaction was like in those days. She told us that she still remembers her first visit to the Deaf club. As she and her older sister, also deaf, came into the club, Moshe Bamberger approached them and asked them their country of origin. When they signed ‘Algeria’, he said: “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll teach you our signs. You do ‘mother’ like that, we do it like this. Your sign for ‘father’ is this, ours is that.” After a few more visits to the club, the two sisters felt much more at

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FIGURE 11–8. Vocational training at Helen Keller House. Picture courtesy of the Association of the Deaf in Israel.

home, both socially and linguistically. Similar interaction between newcomers and veterans were probably very common during those years. Those early encounters posed communicative challenges which found interesting solutions. Also from Shunary: “One member, who had arrived at the time of the establishment of the state and had learned Hebrew well, tells how occasionally, while recounting a story, he would find himself stumped over the lack of a sign and would have to use speech. In such cases, only the educated could understand. To get the meaning across to the others who could not lipread, it was necessary to compose whole stories, and create a situation in which the meaning would be brought home.” (Shunary, Working paper No. 9, 1969, p. 4)

Community members recall that the instructors went to great lengths to make their students feel comfortable and, as time went by, the students got to know each other and became fluent in Israeli Sign Language. Most likely, the newcomers influenced ISL as well. They had brought their experiences and their means of communication with them, and must have found ways to communicate with each other and with the local community at the outset. At the same time, their instructors and others needed to find a way to transmit important and sometimes complicated and technical information to them.

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Certainly, the prolonged period that these people spent at Helen Keller House, and their intense interaction with the local Deaf community, must have made a significant contribution to the development of ISL. We will provide examples of the influence of other sign languages on ISL in Chapter 12. As the cultural center of the Deaf community in the country, Helen Keller House played an important role in the development of the language in another way as well: by serving as the center for the creation and authorization of new signs, a role which the center maintained at least until 1969, as reported by Shunari. Here signs which have grown up naturally are authorized, cancelled or approved. Much time elapses before a new sign comes to the knowledge of most of the deaf community and gets accepted. The occasions of meetings, festivals and parties speed up this process. (Shunary, Working paper No. 9, 1969, p. 5).

As a result of the massive immigration, the Deaf community expanded. The pioneering spirit which imbued the country in those days wafted through the Deaf community too. One group attempted to create an all-Deaf settlement within a new town. With aid from the Deaf Association, the group bought a small inn in Mitzpe Ramon, a tiny town in the middle of the Negev desert, in the southern part of the country. The surrounding area is breathtakingly beautiful, stamped with grand craters and swirled with hills of multicolored rock, but eerily empty and remote, giving the feeling that you are on the surface of another planet. The inn, pictured in Figure 11–9 was on the out-

FIGURE 11–9. The inn in Mitzpe Ramon. Picture courtesy of Ezer Levi.

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skirts of the town, on the road to the Red Sea port of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost spot. The plan was that the inn would serve travelers passing through, and would become a source of income for a new Deaf community in the town. Settling and developing the Negev—making the desert bloom and thrive— was the dream of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. The small group of Deaf people had set out to make their own contribution toward realizing that dream. But the desert climate, the distance from the main cities, and the separation from the rest of the Deaf community proved too hard for the people in Mitzpe Ramon. The inn was closed down after two years, and the pioneers went north. The association, which had started as a local organization in Tel Aviv, had become a national association known by 1951 as the Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI). New members joined, and new branches were established in other cities. Today ADI has 17 branches and clubs located all over Israel, among them two in the Arab sector (in Qalanswa and Kufr Qara’) and serves about 6,000 members.7 Another very large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s brought approximately 1,000 deaf immigrants as well, some of whom joined ADI. Today, several branches around the country offer special activities for new immigrants, as well as classes for teaching Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language. ADI clubs provide Deaf people with a place to meet socially and offer a variety of classes and activities. The association also provides social welfare and support services for the Deaf community. Other, more recent institutions and activities will be touched on shortly. But first we look at the role of the school system in the development of the community and the language. THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM AND ITS CHANGING ATTITUDES TOWARD SIGN LANGUAGE Up until 1932, there were no schools for the deaf in the region. Well-to-do families sent their deaf children to deaf schools in Europe, primarily to Paris, Vienna and Berlin. Most of the information available to us is about Der Israelitischen Taubstummenanstalt, the Institute for Deaf-Mute Jews in Berlin. This institute was established in 1873, and became a prominent institution that drew pupils not only from among the Jews of Germany but also from Jewish communities in other countries. The school’s reputation also attracted a number of Christian students, who went to study there as well. Several of the founders of the Deaf community in Israel had studied at this school, and the first teachers of the deaf in Israel came from the school’s teaching staff. As in other places in the world, the establishment of schools for the deaf in Israel— 7

This information comes from the Association’s website: http://www.deaf.org.il/branch BP.htm

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particularly the boarding schools in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv—helped to create a solid and constant base for the community.8 The linguistic policy regarding sign language in the school system, however, has not been constant; it has undergone numerous changes over the years. The First Period: 1932 through the 1970s The first school for the deaf, established in pre-state Israel in 1932 in Jerusalem, was a boarding school, and children attended from the age of four.9 People who attended the school remember it as a strict institution where rigid discipline was enforced. The school’s educational approach was oral, and students who were caught signing were slapped. But former pupils recall that when they were sure that no one was watching, they pulled their hands out from behind their backs and began conversing animatedly in sign language. It is not unlikely that the teachers themselves used signs occasionally. Despite the strong emphasis on oral education, the teachers had some knowledge of signing. At the school in Berlin where most of the teachers had come from, German Sign Language was used, particularly during leisure time activities. Another school for the deaf was established in Tel Aviv in 1941, and another in Haifa in 1949. Both these schools adopted the oral method in use at the Jerusalem school. This approach, which dominated deaf education internationally for many years, denigrates the value of sign language, insisting that its use impedes the learning of oral language, and prohibits the use of sign language in schools for the deaf.10 The oral method was the rule in the educational establishment in Israel through the mid-1970s. The following entry for 8 Schools for the deaf often provide an impetus for community development, serving as the primary meeting place for deaf children during their childhood and adolescence (Woll, Sutton-Spence, & Elton, 2001). Deaf children, most of whom come from hearing families where communication is very difficult in the early years, come together at the school, forging an effortless camaraderie through the use of sign language. The small percentage of deaf children with deaf signing parents are often a unifying element for the social and linguistic milieu at the school, as their own linguistic development and everyday communication at home have been normal. 9 At first this school did not operate as a boarding school in the usual sense of the term, as the children did not sleep on the premises but rather were hosted by guest families. The dormitory opened in 1941. 10 An educational policy that rejects sign language forces sign language and the Deaf community to go underground. This is just what occurred in Europe and the United States after The Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880. The congress produced a resolution declaring the ‘incontestable superiority’ of speech over signs in deaf education, and establishing that the strict oral method of education was to be preferred. The resolution, opposed only by the delegates of the United States and Britain, had the effect of banning sign language from deaf education internationally for years to come, and had a strong impact on deaf education worldwide. The acceptance of the resolution at the Congress is deemed by many Deaf people to be a black event in the annals of the Deaf world.

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the term ‘deaf-mute’ in the 1966 Hebrew Encyclopedia, written by Dr. Abraham Zaliouk, an ear, nose and throat specialist who founded the school for deaf children in Haifa, reflects the attitudes of the time: “Today it cannot be disputed that the oral method is the only method that ultimately has the ability to develop natural speech to whatever extent possible for the social rehabilitation of deaf-mutes” (The Hebrew Encyclopedia, Vol. 18, p. 114, 1966). The very fact that the school’s director was a medical doctor reflects an approach to deaf education that was more clinical than socio-cultural. Padden and Humphries’ characterization of the effect of this attitude on the American Deaf community is equally applicable in Israel. In their illuminating book, Inside Deaf Culture, they write, “The medical community’s narrow focus on Deaf people as patients to be alleviated of their affliction has always been a source of anxiety within the community.” (Padden & Humphries, 2005, p. 162) The next decade in Israel saw a slow shift away from this approach. The Kernels of Change: The 1970s The early 1970s marked the beginning of a change in the attitude toward sign language in Israel, both in the Deaf community and in the schools. This change was apparently motivated by the juxtaposition of several factors, and in fact mirrored changes that were taking place elsewhere in the world. Contact with people from other countries brought new ideas to Israel, profoundly affecting the Deaf community. In 1973, Israel hosted The Fourth International Conference on Deafness. At this conference, representatives of the Israeli Deaf community and hearing professionals alike came into contact with a large number of Deaf and hearing lay people and professionals from abroad. All lectures at the conference were simultaneously translated into four different sign languages. In addition to placing sign languages at center stage, this encounter with people from abroad raised overall consciousness regarding the importance of sign language as the primary means of communication among deaf people. The practical consequences for use of what was then often called ‘hand language’ or ‘the language of hand movement’ were almost immediate, as can be seen in the ADI newsletter: As a result of the conclusions of the Fourth International Conference on Deafness held in Bat Yam on March 19–23, 1973, awareness of Hand Movement Language began to be revived in schools and institutions for the Deaf. The Association hired five sign-language instructors in different cities to train schoolteachers. (Demama No. 104, May–July 1973)

The second factor both reflecting change and propagating it occurred in 1967, when Izchak Schlesinger of the Hebrew University and his research team began studying Israeli Sign Language. Schlesinger, a psycholinguist, became interested in sign languages because he suspected that their study might yield important insights into the nature of language in general. While we deal

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at some length with such theoretical issues in Chapter 15, a preview here will help contextualize the important work of Schlesinger and his team. During the 1960s, linguistics as a scientific discipline was undergoing a revolution. Noam Chomsky published his first influential works in 1957 and 1965, steering scholars away from a common belief at the time, that language was a learned behavior acquired by imitation and reinforcement. Chomsky provided effective arguments to support his claim that the human species has an innate capacity for language. Further, Chomsky claimed that particular linguistic structures are universal, present in all languages. These claims aroused keen interest in the study of a wide variety of languages in order to seek and confirm such purported universals. While most linguists studied spoken languages, Schlesinger had a different idea. Upon learning from his wife, a teacher in the school for the deaf in Jerusalem, that the children there communicated with one another by means of a sign system, he grasped the potentially unique contribution of sign languages to the question of linguistic universals. Around that time, he met Ursula Bellugi, a psycholinguist at Harvard who was also keenly interested in sign languages and wanted to study them for similar reasons.11 This meeting, and his own insights, stimulated his interest and resulted in the first research project on Israeli Sign Language. Schlesinger and his research team regarded sign language as a language like any other, a worthy object of academic study. The project aroused the interest of the Deaf community, and Schlesinger was invited to speak about his research at Helen Keller House.12 In his lecture, he stressed that sign language is not a primitive system of communication but rather a “. . . human language in every sense of the word, that meets all the criteria of a language” (Demama, January–February 1973, p. 21). The most outstanding practical outcome of Schlesinger’s research was the publication of two sign language dictionaries. The first (Cohen, Namir & Schlesinger, 1977) was a dictionary for researchers with around 1,500 entries. The signs were recorded using the Eshkol-Wachmann Movement Notation System, designed to convey precisely the movements of various parts of the body. This notation, originally developed to record dance, was specially adapted to represent the fine movements of the hand found in sign language.13

11 Ursula Bellugi went on to establish a laboratory at The Salk Institute for Biological Studies which was responsible for a large body of groundbreaking research about American Sign Language. The research of the important early years at Salk is presented in the influential book, The Signs of Language (Klima and Bellugi, 1979). 12 Scientific findings from Schlesinger’s research regarding the structure of ISL are mentioned in Chapter 12. 13 In his Dictionary of American Sign Language, William Stokoe developed a notation system for sign languages in 1960. The difference between Stokoe’s notation and the one adopted by Schlesinger is a principled one. Stokoe’s system attempts to be phonemic, recording only the linguistically relevant aspects of sign formation, while Schlesinger aimed for an objective physical record that did not prejudge linguistic characteristics.

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Schlesinger and his research team chose to use this movement notation system because of its precision, in the hope that it would be a lasting research tool for any study of sign language. As an example, in a recent conversation we had with him, Schlesinger pointed out that the notation system lends itself straightforwardly to analysis by computer. A computational record of this sort could in turn be a tool in the development of computer animation of sign language. But the disadvantage of the notation for the layperson is its complexity; the system is hard to learn. Schlesinger and his team wished to make the information accessible to the community at large. To do this, they created another dictionary (Namir, Sella, Rimor & Schlesinger, 1977), in which the signs were recorded using photographs and verbal explanations. The team that created the dictionary included researchers working with Schlesinger as well as the late Yisrael Sella, the hearing son of one of the first members of the Deaf community, Yehezkel Sella. Yisrael Sella doubled as a model for the signs pictured in the dictionary, together with Aviva Ger, Moshe Bamberger’s hearing daughter. The team worked together with Deaf signers in the creation of the dictionary. Both dictionaries include introductions describing several features of ISL’s grammatical structure. In Chapter 12, we compare signs from the picture dictionary with modern ISL signs, allowing us to pinpoint certain types of changes in the language. During this period, members of the Deaf community in Israel as well as hearing educators expanded their contacts with people from other countries, in particular the United States. The use of sign language in the school (and in general) was the topic of renewed interest in the wake of William Stokoe’s groundbreaking research monograph, Sign Language Structure, in 1960, followed by his coauthored Dictionary of American Sign Language in 1965. During the 1970s, there were two centers in the United States for research on American Sign Language: Gallaudet University (then College) and the Salk Institute in San Diego. Research results published from these two centers had a tremendous impact on public attitudes toward sign language in the United States. A few active members of ADI visited the United States and found the widespread use of sign language very exciting. Witnessing the use of sign language to convey every kind of information, and seeing the privileged status attributed to these visual languages so natural to them, had a liberating effect. Just as the establishment of the Deaf community had begun with a mere handful of people, so was the expanded use of sign language in public institutions sparked by a few motivated individuals. A small number of Israelis went to study for advanced degrees at Gallaudet College, the world’s only university especially for Deaf students (which also admits hearing students to its graduate program). Sylvia Finer, a hearing American woman who had immigrated to Israel and become principal of the preschool for deaf children in Jerusalem, was highly aware of the importance of sign language for deaf people and for educating deaf children. During this period, she met with deaf people to learn

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more about their specific needs, and organized the first courses to teach sign language to parents and educators. Around the same time, teachers had also become discouraged with the academic achievements of their deaf pupils and felt that at least part of the problem stemmed from the lack of proper communication between teachers and their students. The need for change was poignantly articulated by Shoshana Weinstock, a deaf teacher and one of the first sign language instructors, in an ADI newsletter. During the course of my work at the Micha Society for Deaf Children in Jerusalem . . . I drew a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that so many people participated in the Hand Language course. The participants showed an intense desire to learn the language of the deaf in order to understand us better and to provide us with the most effective and productive help. In the past, for most teachers and educators and, to my great regret, also parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, the use of Hand Language was strictly taboo. Today, in contrast, their attitude on this issue has changed for the better, and they are aware of the negative consequences of the former policy. All human beings have a tendency to seek the company of those similar . . . to them, and this is true for those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing as well. Hand Language is the natural language of the deaf, and only through this language can they converse and learn freely and fluently, and depriving them of it is like unjustly punishing them for no fault of their own. It is common knowledge that as a small child’s vocabulary increases, so too does his intelligence. The question then becomes: how can young deaf or hard-of-hearing children, who usually have not yet learned to lipread, increase their vocabularies if they are denied the use of Hand Language, a language they can comprehend and that can help them progress rapidly? On the other hand, we dare not neglect the ability to speak in deaf children. This ability should be developed when the children are still young, and each and every word expressed in sign language must also be correctly pronounced, for deaf people must adapt to a hearing society in many areas of life. Let us hope that learning Hand Language along with lipreading and correct speech will produce a new generation, one that is less bewildered and frustrated and more talented and productive (Demama, No. 115, February 1978).

The letter expresses clearly the importance of sign language in education from the point of view of someone who was herself educated by the oral method and who is well acquainted with education from both perspectives, that of a deaf pupil and that of a teacher of deaf children. The Haifa preschool for deaf children was another pioneer in introducing the use of signing. Once the initial breakthroughs had been made in the

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Jerusalem and Haifa preschools, other educational institutions began using sign language as well.

Implementing the Change: What Kind of Sign Language, and How to Introduce It? While the use of sign language in the schools was warmly welcomed by the Deaf community, it must be said that the signing system that was introduced into the schools was not Israeli Sign Language. Instead, teachers used Signed Hebrew with their pupils. At the time that sign language was first introduced into the schools, ISL was nicknamed “the language of the deaf” or “Deafese” in addition to ‘hand language’, and was considered by many educators, hearing and deaf alike, to be an inferior system consisting of simple gestures and pantomime and therefore not appropriate for education. The system used instead—Signed Hebrew—is a form of communication that makes use of two channels of communications simultaneously: spoken and signed. Its speakers speak Hebrew and accompany their speech with signs from the vocabulary of ISL. The result is a hybrid communication system, one that may help hearing and deaf people communicate with each other, but a system that is also cumbersome and contrived, and falls short of providing a natural language in the school. Many other countries have similar systems—Signed English, Signed Dutch, etc. As Signed Hebrew is another factor to be reckoned with in describing the language environment, it’s worth taking a look at what such systems are like. ISL versus Signed Hebrew First, Signed Hebrew makes use of none of the grammatical devices of ISL described in Part I of this book. And, although Signed Hebrew purports to represent Hebrew grammar visually, this is often impossible, particularly with a Semitic language like Hebrew.14 While languages like English have prefixes and suffixes, which can be represented—however artificially—before or after signed words, Hebrew morphology poses an unsurmountable challenge. It involves intermeshing consonantal roots with morphological patterns consisting of vowels—manifesting a nonlinear kind of structure that is impossible to reflect in signs. The upshot is that Signed Hebrew is poor in grammatical structure, and unlike any natural language. In order to illustrate the difference between Signed Hebrew, Hebrew, and ISL, let’s take a look at the sentence ‘I told you to go away’, and the way it is expressed in those systems, illustrated in Figure 11.10.

14 We deal specifically with problems of Signed Hebrew here, but all contrived signaccompanied-speech systems have comparable problems.

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FIGURE 11–10. The sentence ‘I told you to go away’ (a) in Signed Hebrew and (b) in ISL.

Hebrew: ani amar-ti lexa lalexet I tell-I-past to-you(masc. sg.) to-go ‘I told you to go away’. Signed Hebrew: I TELL TO-YOU GO ISL: I ALREADY TELL2 ‘GO-AWAY’ Let’s start by comparing the Signed Hebrew sentence with the Hebrew one. The first obvious thing we notice is that the number and order of words in these sentences is identical. This is indeed the most salient feature of Signed Hebrew: it can potentially represent the number and order of words in the Hebrew utterance. But what is also obvious is that Signed Hebrew does not provide a full representation of the grammatical structure of the Hebrew sentence, especially its morphological structure. Verbs in Hebrew inflect for tense and for subject agreement. The bound morpheme –ti in the verb amarti (‘I said’) encodes past tense and first person singular agreement with the subject. A change in the tense or the subject will result in a different agreement marker on the verb. For example, a verb agreeing with a first person plural subject has the form amar-nu (‘we said’), while a change in the tense (e.g., future tense) results in the form omar (‘I will say’). In Signed Hebrew, the verb amarti is represented by the sign TELL. But, unlike Hebrew, the verb TELL in Signed

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Hebrew has only one, uninflected form. This means that all the forms of the verb amar in Hebrew (and there are more than twenty forms for each verb in the language), are expressed in Signed Hebrew by one form. Nor can Signed Hebrew express the gender distinction. Hebrew marks gender (masculine vs. feminine) in its entire nominal system: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, numerals, demonstratives are all marked for gender. The form lexa is the inflected form of the preposition le (‘to’). The inflectional morpheme -xa encodes second person masculine singular. The second person feminine singular inflected form of this preposition is lax.15 The Signed Hebrew sign TO-YOU (the contrived sign TO directed towards the addressee) cannot distinguish gender; it is the same, whether referring to a masculine or feminine referent. Comparing the Signed Hebrew sentence (as presented in Figure 11–10a) with its ISL counterpart (Figure 11–10b) reveals that Signed Hebrew also lacks many of the grammatical features of ISL. ISL uses space to mark subject and object agreement (see Chapter 5). The ISL verb TELL2 marks object agreement with the addressee by the direction of movement. In other words, both ISL and Hebrew mark verb agreement, but each language has its own distinct mechanism for doing so. Signed Hebrew, in contrast, conveys neither of these languages in full. The sign ALREADY encodes the perfect aspect in ISL (see Chapter 6), which Hebrew does not encode in a systematic manner. The Hebrew version encodes past tense instead. But the information that the action has been completed some time in the past is not conveyed at all by the Signed Hebrew message. The role of intonation, for asking questions, for example, or for expressing emotional attitudes, is encoded in ISL by facial expressions, but again, it is not systematically expressed in Signed Hebrew. The facial expression in the ISL sentence shown in Figure 11–10 conveys dissatisfaction on the part of the signer, implying “I have already told you to go away, so why are you still here?”. In the Signed Hebrew of hearing people, intonation patterns like this are often not expressed. This brief analysis shows that even in such a short, simple sentence, the following components, present (in different ways) in Hebrew and in ISL, are lacking, or are only partially expressed in the Signed Hebrew message: (a) verb agreement; (b) tense; (c) the emotional attitude of the speaker/signer. The result is a pidgin-like system, devoid of grammatical structure. Signed Hebrew does not exploit the various grammatical devices of ISL, such as the use of space and classifier constructions to convey spatial relations among objects, and expressions to convey sentence types, adverbials and emotional attitudes. As a result, these important parts of the message are either left out, or are expressed by tacking on additional signs. Adding signs to sentences results in sentences that are usually much longer than their ISL counterparts. For example, the following sentence from the story


The phonetic symbol [x] is pronounced similarly to the German ‘ch’, as in Bach.

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of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ consists of five signs in ISL (Figure 11–11a) vs. 15 signs in Signed Hebrew (Figure 11–11b). The former lasts six seconds, and contains all the information of the Signed Hebrew sentence, which lasts 17.6 seconds—three times as long. In order to convey the spatial positions of the bowls in ISL, the signer makes use of the signing space, placing each bowl in a different location, and obviating the need for expressions such as ‘side by side’. The sign for BOWL uses a classifier whose size is varied to show the relative sizes of the bowls, and making adjectives like ‘big, medium-sized, small’ superfluous. In the ISL sentence, the size and location of the bowl are incorporated into one sign, as shown in 11–11a, and indicated by the hyphens and the subscripts in the gloss. Signed Hebrew exploits none of these grammatical devices, instead attempting to mimic Hebrew by adding words, resulting in an unwieldy sentence that is difficult to interpret. In short, Signed Hebrew is neither ISL nor Hebrew and its use presents communication problems. Nevertheless, a primary goal of educators was to teach Hebrew to deaf people, and Signed Hebrew was thought—and still is by many—to be an effective pedagogical tool for realizing this goal. In addition,


(b) SHE SEE THREE BOWL, ONE BIG SECOND MEDIUM THIRD SMALL VERY PLACED THIS BY THIS. FIGURE 11–11. The sentence, ‘She saw three bowls, one big, one medium-sized and one tiny, placed side by side.’ (a) in ISL and (b) in Signed Hebrew.

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many educators find Signed Hebrew to be comfortable to use because it preserves the word order of the spoken language, with which they are more familiar, and it facilitates speaking and signing at the same time. The issue of which form of signing to use has occupied the educational establishments of many countries, the United States included, and is still very controversial. But further discussion of this issue here would take us too far afield. In the story of Israeli Sign Language and the community that uses it, the most significant fact is that signing hands became legitimate in the eyes of the school system. While teachers may have stuck with Signed Hebrew, for deaf children, ISL was the language of choice. As is true everywhere, deaf children from Deaf families provide the model. They acquire ISL normally from earliest infancy, and are comfortable and proficient in the language. Over all, the official use of signing in school brought sign language into the light of day. A Need for More Words Fast With the introduction of the use of signs in the schools, educators were presented with a different problem, the problem of conveying terminology specific to the educational curriculum for which no ISL signs existed. Ordinarily, the vocabulary of a language expands gradually according to the communication needs of the community. Unsurprisingly, this natural process applies to Israeli Sign Language as well (see Chapter 3). But when signing was introduced into the schools, it immediately became necessary to increase vocabulary in certain fields of knowledge related to the subjects being taught. In addition to the lack of vocabulary items, teachers confronted problems due to differences in linguistic structure between Hebrew and ISL. At that time, educators knew nothing about the structure of ISL itself. Consequently, sign language was evaluated according to the degree to which it resembled Hebrew rather than according to independent linguistic criteria. For example, unlike Hebrew, Israeli Sign Language has very few prepositions and no tense inflection on verbs.16 These observations led to the impression that ISL is an impoverished language that must be enriched in order to be used as a tool for communication in schools. The notion of expanding the vocabulary of an existing language was not a radical one in Israel. There was a precedent. The Hebrew language itself, whose origin goes back more than 3,000 years, was not used as an everyday spoken language from about the year 200 until the late 19th century. In that period, Hebrew was restricted mainly to religious and literary contexts. The modern migration of Jews to Israel took place in a social and ideological context that included a return to the language associated with Jewish heritage: Hebrew.


See Chapters 6 and 7 for a description of linguistic structures with equivalent functions in ISL.

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But how do you say ‘doll’, ‘umbrella’, or ‘tomato’ in a language that hasn’t been used for everyday communication in 2,000 years? The man credited with reviving Hebrew as a modern national language almost singlehandedly is Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a scholar who labored tirelessly for decades to create new words in the language, words that would not be alien to it in form or structure. Among his many projects was the creation of a Language Committee for presiding over the rebirth of the language, a committee which became The Academy for the Hebrew Language in 1953 and still exists today. When sign language was accepted as a language suitable for use in the schools, then, it is not surprising that educators saw its extension-by-committee as a sensible option. A national committee of sign language teachers was set up to overcome perceived limitations and to enrich and expand sign language. All the members of the committee were deaf, with the exception of Yisrael Sella, who was the hearing son of deaf parents. The committee invented new signs, primarily by using initialization (see Chapter 3). For example, the sign for be’aya (problem) is based on the sign TELL, but with a B handshape. The terms erets (‘land’ or ‘earth’), matsav (‘situation’), mapa (‘map’), shetax (‘area’), and adama (‘land’ or ‘soil’) were all previously expressed using the same sign. In order to facilitate the translation of these words into Hebrew, the committee devised new signs for each concept. In addition, the committee members invented signs to represent the Hebrew prepositions el (‘to’) and al (‘on’), and the direct object market et. At first there was tremendous resistance in the Deaf community to these new words, as people felt that they were being forced on them from the outside, and many of the invented signs were rejected. But some of these new signs made their way into Signed Hebrew and even into ISL itself. Another attempt to fill lexical gaps in ISL was to create a system of fingerspelling (a manual alphabet for spelling Hebrew words). In 1975, the executive board of the ADI appointed a committee to establish such a system. The committee members deliberated over the following question: should they develop a system in which the hand configurations visually resemble their Hebrew letter counterparts, or should the system be similar to ASL fingerspelling, in which the handshapes are representative, but not visually iconic of the written letters? Perhaps a new alphabet should be created? The committee decided on the second option, using similar handshapes where possible, in order to foster better social and cultural ties with Deaf people in other countries which had accepted the American system. Another force for change within the school system is a tendency toward mainstreaming. One very common form of mainstreaming places classes for deaf children with specially trained teachers within schools for hearing children. In this setting, if a child is considered capable of studying one or two subjects in a regular class, s/he is encouraged to do so. A more radical form of mainstreaming was initiated through the efforts of a single woman. In 1991, Hagit Gur, the mother of a deaf child, petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to

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allow her son the right to study in a regular class with ISL interpreting. Her petition was granted, and her son, along with a number of other deaf children his age, was provided with simultaneous interpreting services from an interpreter who was fluent in ISL. According to Gur, the achievements of these children were very high, and the school they attended learned to recognize the importance of interpreting (Gur, 1997). Today, more and more schools are taking advantage of this option, and it has even been instituted as official Ministry of Education policy: every deaf and hard-of-hearing pupil in junior high school and high school receives a stipend that can be used for interpreting services, tutoring or transcription.17 With the decision to use signing in the schools, the education system underwent a transformation. A number of deaf teachers were employed, and courses in sign language proliferated. Over the past thirty years, the use of signing in the schools has increased and become more accepted, and has resulted in changes in the training of teachers and in the general attitude toward sign language. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to imply that the battle for sign language in the school has been won. As we’ve said, the communication system used by teachers is Signed Hebrew and not ISL. Furthermore, the use and quality of signing varies from school to school and even from teacher to teacher. The only teachers who use Israeli Sign Language are deaf teachers. Unfortunately, there are still very few deaf teachers in the system, though there are deaf teachers’ aides in many classrooms, who provide an excellent ISL model for the children. Opposing trends can also be seen today as a result of the development and ever-increasing use of cochlear implants, and the concomitant (if counterproductive) reluctance of some parents and educators to use signing with implanted children. Starting around the mid-80s, the Israeli public began to become more and more interested in sign language, and sign language courses opened in a variety of venues all over the country. Course participants represent a wide spectrum of people—teachers, parents, social workers, interpreters, university students and others as well. Most of these courses teach some form of Signed Hebrew, and the few courses that do offer ISL are only at the beginner level. Interpreter training programs exist as well. Due mainly to practical limitations, the level of proficiency they can offer still falls short of that of the intensive, multi-year programs in countries such as the United States and Holland, so that achieving a high professional standard necessarily requires additional talent, industriousness and experience. An innovation in the past several years is the inclusion of ISL as an elective subject in a few high schools with special classes for the deaf as well as in at least one exclusively hearing school, and the courses are taught by deaf teachers.

17 Transcription refers to simultaneously typing the lesson onto a laptop computer. The deaf student reads the contents of the lesson from the computer screen.

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DEAF SOCIETY AND CULTURE TODAY The scenario that has unfolded in Israel, as people have begun to understand the nature of sign language and its importance, is similar in some ways to those that have unfolded in other countries. But the community has its own particular characteristics as well, defined by social, academic, and cultural factors. Organizations. We’ve gone into some detail in tracing the history of two institutions that have had a crucial impact on the use and development of Israeli Sign Language: the Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI), a national organization of and for Deaf people; and the educational establishment. Other institutions and organizations have also played and continue to play a part in the enrichment of the language and community. The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel was established in 1993 with the purpose of coordinating and promoting professional, educational and psychological services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population in Israel. The Institute employs professionals who are deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing. Among its activities is the “Model for Success” project in which deaf and hardof-hearing students and adults act as coaches and counselors for deaf children. Other current projects of the Institute include the production of a computerized dictionary of Israeli Sign Language (in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and the National Insurance Institute; Zandberg and Kakoon (2006)), developing a study kit for teaching ISL, and organizing courses for teaching the language. The Sport Organization for the Deaf in Israel (SODI), which was founded in 1954 and became a national organization in 1964, is another focal point of diverse social activities, in which Deaf people from different ethnic backgrounds can come together. Linguistic research: theoretical and applied. Sign language linguistics is one academic discipline that has clearly had an effect beyond the ivory tower. William Stokoe, at first ridiculed for his claims that American Sign Language was a legitimate object of linguistic inquiry, ultimately caused a revolution in the way the world related to sign language—and, by extension, in the way the world looked at Deaf people and the way they saw themselves. As a result of his work, soon followed up by the work of Ursula Bellugi and her colleagues at the Salk Institute, American Sign Language took its rightful place among the other languages in America, and its community, already large and vibrant, blossomed. Academic research of Israeli Sign Language has also been instrumental in raising consciousness about the language. Izchak Schlesinger’s study in the 1970s was the pioneering study in the field, and, as we’ve said, led to the production of two ISL dictionaries, which contributed to sign language instruction and interpreting. It also led to calling the ‘hand language’ Israeli Sign Language instead.

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In the early 1990s, intensive linguistic research was set in motion at The University of Haifa, leading to the establishment of the Sign Language Research Laboratory in 1998. The research at this lab, some of which is described in this book, is carried out with the help of a number of Deaf consultants and research assistants whose native language is ISL.18 In addition to descriptive and theoretical linguistic research, an applied linguistics project with implications for deaf education is also taking place in connection with the Haifa lab. The project, conducted at a junior high school with classes for deaf children, is creating and evaluating an intervention program that exploits deaf children’s inherent knowledge of the grammar of ISL in order to improve their skills in Hebrew as a second language. It is a homegrown way of introducing bilingual-bicultural education into the system. The program requires a novel co-teaching arrangement by a hearing and a deaf teacher. The early stages of this program, a PhD project of Esther Moiseyev, have been so successful that the school, which previously had no deaf teachers, has implemented a co-teaching component involving ISL in other courses as well. Deaf culture. With community comes culture. Culture is thought of broadly as the shared beliefs, behaviors, artifacts and traditions of a group of people. The term also refers to artistic expressions of that shared experience. Over the years, a number of activities that express commonality of experience and purpose have come out of the Deaf community. Symposia on issues of common interest, leadership training seminars for young Deaf people, and a plethora of social activities in Deaf clubs across the country have reflected the culture of the Deaf community in Israel over the years. A Deaf theater troupe, ‘Ten Fingers’, existed for a number of years, performing all its productions in ISL. An internationally known modern dance company, called Kol U-Demama (‘Sound and Silence’) and created by hearing choreographer Moshe Efrati, included hearing and Deaf dancers who performed on a stage built to vibrate with the beat of the music. While not a direct product of the Deaf community, Kol U-Demama brought Deaf performing artists into the general community, and brought dance as an art form into the Deaf community. The company flourished for many years, but is now no longer in existence. Our lab at The University of Haifa has also sought to interact with the community outside the ivory tower. The first community-wide event sponsored by the Sign Language Research Lab was a symposium that focused on the lives of Deaf people from their own perspective. The content of the program was developed by researchers and consultants in the lab, hearing and Deaf. Issues pre-


The Sign Language Research Lab Web site can be found at http://sandlersignlab. haifa.ac.il

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sented included the gap between the way in which hearing society sees Deaf people and the way they see themselves, the critical importance of sign language in their lives, and Deaf humor. Apart from a couple of talks about ISL (by the authors), the day-long symposium was dominated by presentations by Deaf people in ‘FA’ ISL,19 and interpreted into Hebrew for the large audience, of which about half were hearing people and half Deaf. Parts of some of the presentations of Deaf participants at this symposium appear in Chapter 13, ‘Voices from the Community’. In one part of the program, a videotape was projected on a large screen, showing the poetry of Wim Emmerik, a Deaf poet from Holland who creates poetry in Sign Language of The Netherlands. Relying on an English translation of a written Dutch translation of the sign language poetry,20 the message of each poem was explained in Hebrew to the audience (and simultaneously interpreted into ISL)! A discussion of its artistry—of what was poetic about it— was also included in the presentation. (See Chapter 3 for a discussion of some of the poetic devices Emmerik uses in his work.) The poetry had a powerful effect on the Deaf members of the audience especially, and this provided the idea for the second symposium, which followed two years later. For symposium number two, Wim Emmerik appeared in person and performed his own poetry. Emmerik’s performance was a real treat for the audience, held spellbound in the seats of the university’s new auditorium. After the symposium, the poet conducted a poetry workshop for a select group of interested young Israeli Deaf people. The symposium also provided the first public platform for storytelling in ISL. Story-telling was apparently a concept whose time had come. The symposium drew attention to this cultural form in the community and encouraged it to flourish. Since the symposium, storytelling has gone beyond the living room and the coffee house, and caught on as a performing art in the community. A course was offered at The Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons, and ISL storytelling has been featured at national storytelling festivals and Deaf community activities alike. Storytelling exists in other sectors of Israeli society, but the stories told by Deaf people have their own character. The stories often exploit the visual medium of sign language to reflect experiences, views, and attitudes of their tellers as Deaf people, and in this way have become an important focal point in the cultural landscape of the Deaf community. In their rich and sensitive account of Deaf culture in America, Padden and Humphries write: Perhaps this is the true lesson of human cultures and languages, that our common human nature is found not in how we are alike, but in how we 19

‘FA’ refers to real ISL, the language of Deaf people untainted by Hebrew. See Chapter 12 and Figure 2–5a. 20 Thanks to Dik Bruggeman for helping with the translation to English from Dutch.

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are different, and how we have adapted to our differences in very human ways. (Padden & Humphries, 2005, p. 162)

SNAPSHOT OF THE COMMUNITY Not only are Deaf culture and society different in interesting ways from those of the hearing group—Deaf communities in different places are different from each other as well, each a composite of its own unique experiences. One of us (Wendy) came to Israel in the late 1970s from America, after having had some experience at Gallaudet, where she had studied ASL and taught a course in Hebrew. At first, she was inclined to see the Israeli community in terms of the American Deaf experience and the progress the latter had made in important aspects of their lives, such as the more widespread use of ASL in education, the greater availability and quality of sign language interpreting, and the notion of Deaf Pride as a political force. The avoidance of oral speech is often associated with Deaf Pride in the States, and Wendy expected to find similar sentiments among the more self-aware members of the Israeli Deaf community. But she learned that this simplistic measure leads away from understanding and appreciating the community in its own right, and away from discovery of what is really interesting: the particular ways in which the community of Deaf people in Israel had adapted to its differences, to use Padden and Humphries’ expression. A couple of anecdotes will illustrate the point. The first spans about seven years, beginning at the first symposium produced by our lab, ‘Seeing Voices’. One of the sessions was devoted to a demonstration of the differences between Signed Hebrew and ISL, through telling the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in both systems, and analyzing the differences. It was our hope that we could educate the educators in the audience, encouraging them to make an effort to learn ISL and use it with the children in their charge. We showed that Signed Hebrew is artificial, less expressive than ISL, and generally inferior as a communication system, a view we shared with the Deaf associates involved in the program. Imagine our surprise, then, to receive opposition from a Deaf young man in the audience. ‘I like Signed Hebrew,’ he said. ‘It’s very important for many of us to be able to communicate directly with hearing people, and this is a good way to learn Hebrew and talk with our teachers.’ This young man, Erez Zino, is Deaf with a capital D, coming from an extended Deaf family, a native ISL signer, and very comfortable with his identity. We weren’t ready for his reaction! The continuation of this anecdote starts with another difference between the American and Israeli communities, a technical one. In America (and other countries), TTYs (Text Telephones) that operate through regular telephone lines make it possible for Deaf people to phone one another and public offices, businesses, and other people that also have the device. In Israel, no such device exists. Israeli Deaf people overcame the problem by using fax machines

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and adopted email as soon as it was available. When mobile phones became popular (and Israel is a very talkative country, where hearing people acquired mobile phones very early and immediately used them very widely), followed by SMS, a challenge arose. How do you send text messages in Hebrew? Seven years after our symposium, we came across an article in a leading daily newspaper about the same Erez Zino, now 33 years old and owner of a successful hitech company. Knowing that SMS would be invaluable for Deaf people, he opened a hi-tech company and solved the problem, producing Hebrew SMS for Nokia. Until then, Israelis had either used English or did not use SMS. Naturally, Deaf people immediately bought mobile phones en masse, and the new Hebrew technology was soon adopted by the general population as well. The company had about 20 employees at the time, all of them Deaf. Erez hires an interpreter when he feels he needs one: when he has to communicate with groups of hearing people or for formal interviews. We have noticed among other Deaf people as well a feeling that talking through interpreters limits their independence and the directness of communication, when conversing on an individual basis. Obviously, in public gatherings and official interaction, in the classroom, and with groups, interpreters are highly valued.21 This story reflects a more general attitude among Israeli Deaf people (and Israelis in general): If there is a problem to be solved—whether a problem of language or technology or whatever—let’s not be bound by rules about how to solve it; let’s just solve it! The attitude toward oral speech among Deaf Israelis is not negative. It’s considered desirable to achieve the best possible speech and speech-reading communication with hearing people. At the same time, deaf and hard of hearing people who eschew sign language and set themselves apart from the signing community are the object of disdain. There is even a derisive term in the ISL lexicon reserved for those who refuse to use sign language, insist on speech, and actually find themselves unable to communicate much at all. The second anecdote, about a Deaf research assistant in the lab, reinforces the message that the main goal is communication. As a small child, her close friend was a hearing neighbor her age. They developed a communication system spontaneously. Debbie Menashe, the Deaf girl from a Deaf family, spoke, and Naama, the hearing friend, used the ISL she had learned from associating with Debbie’s family. That’s what worked for them. One day on a bus, when both girls were about 11, they were chatting away, mindless of curious passengers around them. When they rose to get off the bus, one of the passengers approached Debbie wearing an expression of profound sympathy and said about her hearing friend, ‘The poor girl. She’s mute!’ This is a standing joke between them to this day. 21 Clearly, direct communication only works if the Deaf interlocutor feels him/herself to be orally proficient. The point is that oral interaction, supported by Signed Hebrew if possible, is not rejected, even among people who are proud to be Deaf.

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All of the events, developments, and anecdotes that we have recounted in these pages are interwoven in the tapestry of today’s Israeli Deaf community. ISL is firmly established as the language of the community; it is used in the schools by deaf children and teachers’ aides, and at least some derivative of it is used by the teachers as well. In some schools, teachers have become aware of the importance of ISL, and a model bilingual program has been introduced in a junior high school. Sign language interpreting is seen on several news broadcasts on television—and more and more programs have Hebrew captioning, another big advance for the community. Interpreting services are available for students, sign language classes are widely available, and a sign language interpreter training program is offered at a prominent teachers’ college. Also, more Deaf people get higher education in universities and colleges than in earlier years, and sign language interpreting there is subsidized by the government. In spite of these positive changes, the goal of recognition of ISL and of the rights of Deaf people has not been met fully. The educational system has not found a way to incorporate ISL into education as the natural means of communication for deaf children, and it neither encourages teachers to achieve full proficiency in the language nor instructs families with deaf children to incorporate it in their daily lives. As a result, deaf children are often not exposed to a full, rich linguistic system in their formative years. Another force that counterbalances the welcome spread of sign language and sign language interpreting is a steep increase in the use of cochlear implants, which all too often means a concomitant regression to oralism. Though Deaf people in Israel do not necessarily oppose cochlear implants, many feel threatened by this trend. They are worried about the strong tendency of doctors and speech pathologists to insist that parents avoid exposing their implanted children to sign language—a tendency that comes from the emotional bias of the ‘deafness as pathology’ view rather than from solid scientific research. Deaf people fear that these children will be influenced by this attitude, that they will lose the ability to communicate with other Deaf people, and that the use of Israeli Sign Language—the rich, vital, visual language that defines their world and expresses their identity—will wane in a few decades. In some ways, the changes in the Deaf community have mirrored those of Israeli society more generally. The sense of community spirit and social responsibility that characterized the early years has given way to more individualism and to finding technological solutions to some of life’s challenges. In the Deaf community, we see that Deaf clubs have become less popular as Deaf people have become better equipped to interact with the general society, and as technological advances such as fax, the internet, SMS, and videophones have made it easier to make social contact and to find and exchange information. As a result, in our conversations with Deaf friends and co-workers, a tension between two poles comes through. At one pole there is satisfaction with their achievements and independence as individuals, and on the other, there is

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nostalgia for the sense of mission, and for the comfort of pursuing it together, that existed in the early days. Of course, this does not mean that there is no longer any sense of community. Developments like the popularity of sign language story telling, the excitement caused by a new bilingual education initiative, and intense interest in the community’s history among Deaf people of all ages that we have talked with, come together to create a portrait of the community as it is today. The image that results is neither monochrome nor splintered. Instead, a picture of a society emerges, a society that is multihued and diverse. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Kyle, J. G., & Woll, B. (1985). Sign language: The study of deaf people and their language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lane, H., Hoffmeister, R. & Bahan, B. (1996). A journey into the Deaf-World. San Diego: Dawn Sign Press. Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Padden, C., & Humphries, T. (2005). Inside Deaf culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wilcox, S. (ed.). (1989). American Deaf culture. Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press.

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12 The Emergence and Development of ISL

No natural language was invented consciously or by design. All human languages have emerged due to two factors: (1) the human brain’s capacity to represent ideas using symbols and to systematically combine these symbols; and (2) the communicative interactions within a community. These two components are both necessary and sufficient for forming a language. And once it has emerged, no language is static. Whether it is new or has been in use for hundreds or even thousands of years, every language changes constantly. Social and technological developments require the creation of new vocabulary. Grammatical, syntactic and morphological structures change as well. Languages can also change as a result of coming into contact with other languages, sometimes quite drastically.1 The previous chapter has provided the historical, social and communal background for tracing the development of Israeli Sign Language. We will now consider the language itself. How did this language come into being? What is the origin of the first signs used by that initial nucleus of community members and by the children in the earliest educational institutions? Can trends be identified in the development of the language? Is it accurate to say that the language is richer today than it was at first? These questions have no definitive answers. Because the developmental stages of the language were not thoroughly documented, it is difficult to carry out a comprehensive historical study of the emergence of the linguistic structures and rules described in this book. But clues abound, and here we follow and interpret them in an attempt to put together an account of the development of ISL. Explicit information about the structure of ISL thirty years ago is available in papers published as a result of the research of Schlesinger and his team.

1 English provides an instructive example of the extent to which languages have an impact upon one another. When the Normans led by William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, they brought along with them the French language. This contact between the two languages had a profound impact upon English, to the point that the English spoken prior to this conquest is utterly incomprehensible to English speakers today.


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These papers (Cohen, Namir, & Schlesinger, 1977; Namir & Schlesinger, 1978) show that some of the language’s current grammatical structures already existed in the 1970s. Some of these structures are characteristic of sign languages in general (a point that will be discussed in detail in Chapter 14): grammatical use of space, for example, for determining reference points and verb agreement; verb repetition for expressing continuous aspect; use of the time line; ‘topic-comment’ word order; and use of certain facial expressions to convey amount or extent. One area that apparently has changed is word order in negative constructions. Namir and Schlesinger (1978, p. 120) note that the word of negation appears before the word being negated, while today the order tends to be the opposite2 (Meir 2006). In addition to the articles mentioned above, Schlesinger and his colleagues compiled two dictionaries of ISL, documenting the vocabulary of the language in the 1960s and early 1970s. Through these dictionaries, certain changes in vocabulary and in phonology are accessible to us, and they can shed light on aspects of the developmental stages of the language. We will now take a closer look at these changes. We begin by looking at the impact of other sign languages on Israeli Sign Language, and go on to mention some of the other sign languages besides ISL that exist in Israel today. By recording the recollections of older signers and examining signs in an ISL dictionary from the 1970s, we are able to compare ISL vocabulary from three different periods in ISL development. We will conclude by offering our understanding of specific structural tendencies that account for changes in the language. THE IMPACT OF OTHER SIGN LANGUAGES ON ISRAELI SIGN LANGUAGE From what we know about the evolution of the Israeli Deaf community, we can be certain that Israeli Sign Language in its current form developed through interaction among signers who used a variety of sign languages and forms of signing. Unfortunately, no systematic study has yet been made of the impact of these different sign languages on Israeli Sign Language. Still, we find evidence that they left their mark on the vocabulary of ISL. The Influence of German Sign Language Most ISL speakers today are unaware of the origin of most of the signs they use, just as English speakers often don’t know whether a particular word comes from Latin (commonly through French), Germanic, Greek, or some other language. Even so, people we have consulted note that many ISL signs are iden-


See Chapter 9 on word order in negative constructions.

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tical to, or at least resemble, corresponding signs in German Sign Language. This is not surprising considering that most of the original leaders of the Israeli Deaf community either came from Germany or studied in Germany, and that the teachers at the first schools for the deaf also came from Germany. The question then becomes, did Israeli Sign Language evolve directly from German Sign Language, or did the language develop independently in Israel with influences from German Sign Language together with others? How can we determine which of these two hypotheses is accurate? Two American linguists, Swadesh and Lees, developed a method for assessing the historical relationship among different languages based upon their shared vocabulary (Lees, 1953; Swadesh, 1955). This method, known as glottochronology, is grounded in the assumption that languages change at a more or less fixed rate, so that measuring the percentage of words that share a common origin in two related languages can determine approximately when these languages broke away from one another. Using comparative studies of languages whose historical development was documented, Swadesh and Lees built a scale for measuring similarities and differences between languages. This method can be tricky. One problem is in setting unambiguous criteria for determining whether two words in two different languages are similar because of a common ancestor or because of contact between the languages. An example from English can clarify the difficulty. The similarity between the English word mother, and the German word mutter (‘mother’), can be attributed to the genealogical relationship between these two languages, that is, the fact that they both descended from a common language, no longer spoken, belonging to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, as suggested by many independent historical linguistic studies. But the similarity between the Hebrew adjective kuli (cool-y), commonly used in spoken Hebrew over the last several years, and the English adjective cool cannot be attributed to a common source for these two languages; Hebrew and English do not belong to the same language family. The resemblance is the result of contact between the two languages and of the impact of the English language on Modern Hebrew in a variety of registers. In cases such as this, independent linguistic research can be used to determine that the word kuli cannot be taken into account in glottochronological studies. But such a determination is not always so simple, particularly when researching a language for which no information or historical documentation is available.3 Implementing glottochronology in a study of sign languages raises another problem, because many signs are iconically based, that is, the relationship between the form of the word or concept and its meaning is motivated, not ar3

Glottochronological studies usually compare limited lists comprised of words considered basic in any language, so the assumption is that these words are not borrowed. The word mother is indeed a basic word, while the word kuli is not and so would not be included among the words being compared.

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bitrary. Two signs in two different languages may resemble one another because they both make use of a similar visual image to represent a particular feature of the same object or concept. The iconic and transparent signs for DRINK in three sign languages, shown in Figure 14–2, are similar (though even these signs are not identical). To what should this similarity be attributed: a common origin for these two languages, contact between the languages, or a shared iconic basis for the three signs? Despite the problematic nature of the glottochronological method, a superior method has yet to be devised, so linguists continue to make use of it in order to determine the degree of relatedness between two languages, even in studies of sign languages.4 In assessing the nature of the relationship between Israeli and German sign languages, we also relied upon the basic assumptions of glottochronology. The 2000 vocabulary entries documented in the dictionary Gateway to Israeli Sign Language (Savir, 1992) served as a base for our comparison. Comparing these signs to their equivalents in German Sign Language indicated that around 550 signs, representing about 27.5 percent of all the signs studied, were identical in the two languages.5 Using criteria developed by Guerra Currie, Meier, and Walters (2002), according to which signs may be considered to be related if they are the same in two out of three formational parameters (handshape, location, and movement), we add another 140 signs to the tally. This means that 38 percent of the signs documented are similar enough to be considered related in the two languages. Many of the signs examined in the study are iconic or motivated, though it is difficult to determine exactly how many because there are no absolute criteria for determining a sign’s iconicity. Some signs that have an iconic origin are not totally transparent. For this reason, it is difficult to decide whether to omit such signs when comparing the vocabularies of two languages. But if we bear in mind that some signs must surely be iconically based, the number of signs common to the two languages that we can consider in our comparison is much more limited. All in all, our comparison does point to a clear impact of German Sign Language on ISL, which is not surprising considering the early history of ISL. On the other hand, the results also indicate that these are two separate languages. That is, it cannot be claimed that Israeli Sign Languages evolved from German Sign Language, because, according to the criteria developed by Swadesh and Lees, two languages with a common origin that had parted only 70 years previously would be expected to share more than 95 percent of their vocabulary, far more than the 38 percent of shared signs between ISL and German Sign Language. Results of studies for determining relatedness among sign languages by comparing their vocabularies suggest that the approach is a reasonable one to pursue, and help us clarify our findings. In a study comparing the lexicons of 4 Kyle and Woll (1985) provide a survey of glottochronological studies of sign languages up to that time. 5 This comparison was carried out by Rachel Brockmann.

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the sign languages of Spain, Mexico, France, and Japan, Guerra Currie et al. (2002) found a 38 percent overlap between two sign languages known to have historical ties (those of Mexico and France), and 23 percent between the unrelated sign languages of Japan and Mexico. The percentage of overlap between historically related Mexican and French sign language is the same as the overlap we find between German Sign Language and Israeli Sign Language. In the case of spoken language, some borrowing or genetic relationship can be assumed if 20 percent of their vocabularies overlap (Greenberg, 1957). But, as explained, this cannot be assumed when it comes to sign language, because of the preponderance of signs that are iconically motivated. And, as expected, in the comparative study of Guerra Currie and colleagues, nearly all of the signs that are articulated similarly across the sign languages known to have no historic relation (Japanese and Mexican) are reported to rely on the same iconic motivation. So, the 23 percent overlap is due to iconicity and not to any historical relation between the languages. British and Australian sign languages provide the crucial contrast. Australian Sign Language apparently began life as the variety of British Sign Language that was transported to Australia in the early 19th century. Today, the two sign languages have an 82 percent overlap in their vocabularies, and can be considered two dialects of the same language (Kyle & Woll, 1985; McKee & Kennedy, 2000). By comparison, the degree of overlap between ISL and German Sign Language indicates, then, that the two languages, though related, are two separate, independent languages. Some of the ISL signs illustrated in this book that are the same in German Sign Language are the following: WOMAN, IMPORTANT, HOW-MANY, ASK, ANSWER, BUY, INTERESTING. Of these, the only transparently iconic signs are WOMAN, apparently representing an earring, and HOW-MANY, indicated by wiggling fingers that represent numbers. The similarity of the other signs in the two languages is likely to be due to historical influence alone. We used to believe that the influence of spoken German can be seen in one sign, a sign known as ‘FA’ meaning ‘the real thing, the genuine article’ (see Figure 2–5). This sign is used together with the sign for ‘sign language’ to indicate a bona fide sign language, the one that Deaf people use. ‘FA’ entered ISL along with what looks like the articulation of the German word wahr, meaning ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ and pronounced in German as ‘var’. In lipreading, the word ‘var’ looks like ‘fa’ because on the lips, ‘v’ and ‘f ’ appear identical and the guttural final ‘r’, articulated at the back of the mouth, cannot be visually discerned at all. Thus, ‘FA’ has become the established mouthing pattern for this concept in ISL, actually pronounced ‘va’ by veteran community members who emigrated from Germany, speak German, and often use their voices when signing. But there is a problem with our sleuthing. There is no such sign in modern German Sign Language! Now, it may still be that there was such a sign in

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the deaf school in Berlin where instructors at the first school for the deaf in Jerusalem had come from. It is known that German Sign Language was not a unified language in those days and that it has changed a good deal since then. But our colleague Christian Rathmann has recently pointed us in a different direction. He discovered in conversing with a French signer that there is a sign with the same form and meaning in French Sign Language, and that it is accompanied by mouthing of the French word vrai. As French [R] is uvular— pronounced at the throat and therefore not visible—and the vowel [e] involves opening the mouth as the vowel [a] does, vrai looks remarkably similar to wahr or to [fa] for that matter. Some deaf children from Israel were sent to France to study, as we mentioned earlier, and it is also known that there was quite a bit of interaction between French and German Sign Languages. So perhaps French Sign Language is the origin of this sign. Be that as it may, Israeli signers who emigrated from Germany remember the sign from the old days, and think of the mouthing as corresponding to the German word, wahr, and it may well be that the sign has simply vanished from the language of its origin and resurfaced or persevered in ISL. The upshot of our investigation is that ISL seems to have taken some signs from German Sign Language, but probably not very many. It seems clear that Israeli Sign Language did not evolve from a single source but rather came about through a combination of two factors: innovation as the need arose for signs to fit concepts, and interaction among people who brought with them a variety of sign languages and forms of signing from other places. What other evidence is there, then, for influence from other sign languages? The Impact of Other Sign Languages Deaf immigrants came to Israel from a number of European countries (such as Poland, Russia, Hungary and Romania), countries in North Africa (including Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt) and Middle Eastern countries (for instance, Iraq). It is reasonable to assume that the signing of these immigrants themselves had one of three different sources: (1) conventionalized sign languages in their native lands or regions, (2) family sign languages, if there were a number of deaf people in the family, or (3) home sign, in the case of deaf children in hearing families isolated from other deaf people. Very little information is available to us about the status of sign languages in the immigrants’ countries of origin in the 1950s and 1960s. We do not know whether a particular country had a unified sign language or a variety of local forms of signing, nor do we have any dictionaries or other documentation of these languages from those days, which leaves us with no data for a scientific comparison. But within the Israeli Deaf community, a number of specific signs are commonly identified as “Moroccan” or “Algerian” or “Egyptian,” for example. We take the prevalence and consistency of these reports as justification to indulge in a little folk linguistics, and present a few of those signs in Figure 12–1. They are indication of the kind of amalga-

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mation that must have gone on in the formative years. The signs come from Egypt, Algeria and Morocco: 1. Egypt: The sign 10-SHEKELS (Figure 12–1a). This sign is said to have been brought by a group of immigrants from Egypt who liked to play cards. Because they had to use one hand to hold the cards, we are told, they needed to find a way to indicate numbers greater than five using one hand only. 2. Algeria: SUCKER (Figure 12–1b). (slang word meaning to be a sucker or chump). This sign, apparently kept alive among Deaf Algerian-Israelis, has only recently come into widespread use in ISL. 3. Morocco: MUCH/MANY (Figure 12–1c).

(a) 10-SHEKELS Egypt

(b) SUCKER Algeria

(c) MUCH or MANY Morocco

FIGURE 12–1. Signs of foreign origin in the lexicon of ISL.

Contact Among Different Sign Languages in Israel Today Israeli Sign Language, then, evolved in Israel along with the Deaf community, and, as we have seen, it was influenced by other sign languages that immigrants brought with them from their native lands. ISL has coalesced into a single coherent sign language, which, except for some words that differ from region to region, is the same language throughout the country. Yet, Israeli Sign Language is not the only sign language in Israel today. In the 1990s, about one million immigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union. Approximately 800 to 1,000 of these immigrants are Deaf people, and they brought Russian Sign Language with them. Some of them joined Deaf clubs in Israel where they took courses to learn Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language. Whether signs from Russian Sign Language will make their way into ISL, we do not know.

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In addition, local sign languages have sprung up independently among small groups of Deaf people living in a number of Arab, Bedouin and Druze villages. These languages contribute to the mosaic of signing in Israel, but not much is known to us about them—with one exception. Together with our colleagues Mark Aronoff and Carol Padden, we have been investigating the sign language used in a Bedouin village, and will describe some of our findings in Chapter 15. Apart from that study, our information has been based mostly on the impressions of Jewish Deaf people who have met Deaf people from these villages through sport competitions or in other ways, as well as those Deaf people we have met from the towns and villages. So far, we know only that these languages are different from Israeli Sign Language, and that they differ from each other as well. Some of the Deaf children in Israel from sectors other than the Jewish sector studied in the Jewish school system until not long ago, and some of them still attend Jewish schools. As a result, they have been exposed to the vocabulary of ISL. In addition, Arab, Druze, and Bedouin Deaf people have occasion to meet each other and Jews as well under a variety of circumstances, for instance, at activities of SODI (the Sport Organization for the Deaf in Israel). As we have already seen, languages that come in contact with one another have a tendency to leave their mark on each other. In-depth studies of these languages and their vocabularies, and of the patterns of social interaction by the different language groups, are necessary to corroborate this assumption. Our hope is that such studies will be carried out in the not too distant future. The second avenue we take in mapping out the history of ISL follows the development of its vocabulary over time. The survey examines the process by which a limited vocabulary expanded and grew into the vocabulary of the language as it is today, and traces the journey from simple mimetic signs to a conventionalized and complex lexical system. STAGES IN VOCABULARY DEVELOPMENT The vocabulary of every language develops and changes over time. When a language is still very young, changes in its vocabulary are particularly conspicuous, because its community of speakers must develop a vocabulary to serve their communicative needs within a relatively short period of time. How has the vocabulary of Israeli Sign Language changed since it first came into existence? Have the meanings of words changed? Are words formed differently? Are there more words in the language? In order to determine the lines along which the ISL lexicon developed, we have selected three reference points in the history of the language for which information is available: (1) the language used by pupils at the Jerusalem School for the Deaf (1930s and 1940s); (2) the first dictionary, A Dictionary of Sign Language of the Deaf in Israel, edited by L. Namir, Y. Sella, M. Rimor and I. M. Schlesinger, which was published in 1977 and documents vocabulary used in the 1960s and early 1970s; and (3) Israeli Sign Language today.

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Vocabulary at the Jerusalem School for the Deaf As noted above, the first thirty years that were critical to the development of Israeli Sign Language have not been systematically documented. In order to learn about vocabulary used during that period, we relied on the memories of three people who attended the Jerusalem School for the Deaf. Two of them, the late Mazal Apter and the late Haim Saporta, came to the school when it was first established in the 1930s, while the third, Ruth Aluf-Lewin, attended the school ten years later. Even though information based on memories alone is anecdotal by its very nature, it can still reveal a number of the outstanding characteristics of the vocabulary at that initial stage. The first generation at the Jerusalem School for the Deaf. The children who began studying at the Jerusalem school when it was first established had not previously been exposed to any sign language, since at the time there was no organized Deaf community or language in the country. Some of the children may have grown up in families with other deaf children and may have developed some form of signing at home, but by and large it seems that these children did not have a developed sign language. The Jerusalem school offered oral education, so the children did not learn sign language from their teachers. Nonetheless, from time to time teachers may have unconsciously and inadvertently used signs or gestures; we know that those who had come from the school for the deaf in Berlin had some familiarity with German Sign Language. Even though the children were not exposed to a comprehensive linguistic model, the testimony of our consultants indicates that they did develop a way to communicate among themselves using signs. Where, then, did these signs come from? What were they like? The signs remembered by the people we consulted appear to be some sort of short presentation in pantomime. The concept ‘old’ was signed by shaky hands mimicking how an old man walks. The concept ‘hungry’ was conveyed by hands placed on the stomach along with the facial expression of a person who needs something very badly. ‘Bread’ was signed by pretending to take a bite out of a long spherical object. ‘Running’ was marked by clenched hands that moved vigorously back and forth in alternating fashion (Figure 12–2a). The sign for ‘mother’ was a hand in this shape placed on a breast, while the sign for ‘father’ was a gesture indicating a large mustache. Not all of the signs were so clearly mimetic. The sign for ‘to tell a lie’, for example, was made by rapidly waving the tongue from side to side while quickly moving the fingers near the mouth, producing a quasi-metaphor that could be translated into “slippery speech” (Figure 12–2b). The sign for ‘principal’ was a fist held next to the forehead, the origin of which is not apparent. Some of the signs consisted of a number of components. For example, the signs marking the Jewish holidays included several features of the holiday:

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(a) RUN

(b) TELL-A-LIE FIGURE 12–2. Signs used at the School for the Deaf in Jerusalem (the large signs on the left), compared with their modern counterparts (the small boxed signs on the right).

Shavuoth (‘Pentecost’) was signed by indicating a wreath upon the head and then a basket carried on the shoulder, depicting two traditional customs of this holiday; Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, by hands moving as if in prayer and then pointing upward (to indicate God), followed by a gesture covering the mouth with the hand, signifying fasting. Today the signs for these holidays consist of one component only. The sign for Yom Kippur uses only the element of fasting (a hand “blocking” the mouth). Shavuoth has two alternative signs, one based on a wreath and the other referring to the concept of carrying a basket—not both. These two signs are synonymous rather than two aspects of the same sign, analogous, for example, to the two equivalent names for this holiday in Hebrew, shavuoth (Feast of Weeks) and xag habikurim (Festival

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of the First Fruits). Here, then, we are witness to a process of shortening and conventionalizing the sign, a process to be discussed further below. In addition, both Mazal Apter and Haim Saporta remembered that many concepts did not seem to have a sign. They recall gaps in the lexicon for such basic concepts as ‘to ask’, ‘interesting’, ‘son’ and ‘daughter’. The Jerusalem School for the Deaf ten years later. Ten years after the establishment of the Jerusalem school, the language’s vocabulary had expanded considerably. The children continued to communicate among themselves using signs when their teachers were not around. Those who came to the school during the 1940s were exposed to the signs used by the first generation of students, who were still in attendance. In addition, they may also have been influenced by young people who had emigrated from Germany and had been living in Jerusalem for some time. Indeed, some of the signs that Ruth AlufLewin remembers were taken from German Sign Language, such as the signs for ‘morning’ (Figure 12–3a), ‘mother’ and ‘father.6 Of course, the children must also have continued to devise new signs as needed. The second generation seems to have used many more signs than did the first generation. Concepts such as ‘to ask’ and ‘interesting’ were signed using distinct facial expressions, sometimes independently, while other concepts were expressed through word combinations. ‘Wealthy’ and ‘forget’ are examples of concepts conveyed by particular combinations of signs. ‘Wealthy’ was expressed through the combination of MONEYMUCH, and a combination of REMEMBERNO signified ‘to forget.’ Such combinations differ qualitatively from the word combinations used by the first generation, like those used to signify the holidays of Shavuoth and Yom Kippur. In the earlier combinations, each element in the pair expressed the concept equally and independently. On the holiday of Shavuoth, for example, people don wreaths on their heads and carry baskets on their shoulders, while on Yom Kippur, they pray and fast as well. These combinations are in effect a list of things associated with the concept itself, in this case, the holiday. In the newer combinations, by contrast, the two words are related in a particular way: one is the main element, and the other modifies it. Specifically, MONEY and REMEMBER, are the main elements (called the heads), while MUCH and NO are the modifiers, in some way qualifying or describing the head. Such combinations are common in many languages, spoken and signed, as in the English compound postman, where man is the head, and post the modifier. The particular combinations noted here are no longer in use in contemporary ISL, and the concepts of ‘wealthy’ and ‘to forget’ each has its own individual sign. 6 The signs for ‘mother’ and ‘father’ used by the children in the 1940s are identical to those used in the language today, except for the handshape: both signs then used the hand


(as in German Sign Language); today it is


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But there are numerous other compounds in contemporary ISL (see figures 3–5a–c), and the interim compounds described above are noteworthy because they point to a stage in the language when complex words began to be formed through the process of compounding. A comparison between signs used during the second generation and comparable signs used today indicates that many of the signs then were still mimetic or gestural in nature: MUCH—waving hands and puffed up cheeks; COLD—hands wrapped around the arms; YES—a nod of the head; BREAD—hands delineating an elongated spherical object; INTERESTING— conveyed by facial expressions only, mouth agape, eyes wide open (Figure 12–3b); DON’T-WANT—shrugging one shoulder. Concepts that had no sign were expressed through pantomime. For example, there was no sign for ‘it hurts’ or ‘painful’. In order to say that ‘my hand/stomach/head hurts’, the


(b) INTERESTING FIGURE 12–3. Signs used at the School for the Deaf in Jerusalem (the large signs on the left), compared with their modern counterparts (the small boxed signs on the right). The old sign MORNING and the new sign INTERESTING are both the same as in German Sign Language.

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signer would hold the part of the body that hurt and make a facial gesture indicating pain. The word ‘to ask’ was expressed through a facial expression of wonder and a rotating-open-hand gesture indicating a question. Another difference between signs then and now is in the parts of the body that participate in the signing. Today, most signs are conveyed by the hands only. In the signs used at the Jerusalem school, other parts of the body were often involved as well: shoulders, back, stomach and face. Some signs were conveyed without using the hands at all, such as ‘interesting’ (face only) and ‘don’t want’ (shoulder only). In summary, in the ten years from the beginning of the 1930s to the early 1940s, the vocabulary of the language expanded, both by devising new signs to cover a wider range of concepts and by using word combinations in a systematic way. Yet throughout this period, the signs were much more mimetic and larger than are the signs used today. Changes in Vocabulary Over the Past Thirty Years By the 1970s, Israeli Sign Language had coalesced into an established language with its own stable vocabulary. This vocabulary was extensive and complex, facilitating fluent discourse on a wide variety of topics. It seems, however, that ISL still had many of the features of a young language, as can be deduced from an interesting article that appeared in the newsletter Demama (94, September 1970). The article describes Yisrael Sella’s impressions of a trip to Europe organized by the Association of the Deaf in Israel, and his thoughts about other sign languages he came into contact with there. Here are some of the impressions he conveyed to the writer: The nature of ISL differs greatly from that of other sign languages that Mr. Sella encountered. First of all, ISL is newer, simpler and more visual than the other sign languages. The conceptual basis of ISL is easy to identify . . . English and American signs (and probably those of other countries as well) testify to sign formations and abbreviations that have moved far away from their source. They exhibit a greater degree of distancing (for example, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are conveyed by hand movements rather than by head movements, as in ISL) . . .

This description points to a number of the attributes of signs in a new language: the signs are more iconic, they are larger, they use other parts of the body in addition to the hands (like nodding the head to indicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’7), and the language is generally perceived by Sella as simpler, in some sense. In more established sign languages, the signs are more reduced in size—their articulation takes up less space—and their iconic basis is not so obvious. This 7

Signs for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ did exist in ISL at the time, but apparently head movement was commonly used.

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would explain the observation made elsewhere in the article that it seemed easier for the Deaf Europeans to understand their Israeli counterparts, while the Israelis often had a hard time understanding their European interlocutors. Fortunately, vocabulary from the late 1960s and the 1970s was documented in A Dictionary of Sign Language of the Deaf in Israel, published in 1977 subsequent to research conducted by Prof. Iczhak Schlesinger and his research team.8 Comparing the signs in this dictionary with those used in the language today provides information about a number of changes and processes in the language. Of the approximately 800 signs in the dictionary, 65 have undergone changes, some of which are semantic, that is, related to the meanings of the words, while others are phonological, related to the way in which the words are produced. Some of the signs from the 1977 dictionary are no longer in use at all, having been replaced by different signs altogether. Today, thirtyfive years after the Demama article about Yisrael Sella’s comparative observations was written, the signs of ISL look more like those of an older sign language. Semantic changes. The most outstanding semantic change in ISL over time that we have been able to identify is in narrowing the meaning of a sign. We have found examples of signs whose meaning in the past was quite broad, while today’s meaning is more specific. Concomitantly, additional signs have entered the language in order to cover related semantic fields, significantly expanding the ISL lexicon. Instead of one sign to represent a range of meanings, today there are a number of signs, each of them representing a slightly different shade of meaning, and putting a larger and more explicit lexicon at the disposal of signers of the language.9 For clarification, consider the following examples. The sign CHEAP, illustrated in Figure 12–4, formerly served to convey the meaning of ‘less,’ both when referring to money (that is, ‘cheap’) but also in other senses as well. Today this sign means only ‘less’ and the sign for the more specific concept, CHEAP, is produced with a different hand orientation. That is, in the past one sign covered the meaning of both ‘less’ and ‘cheap,’ while today these concepts are conveyed by two separate signs, one referring to the financial sphere and the other to other semantic fields.


As noted in Chapter 3, the limited scope of this dictionary does not reflect the number of lexical items in the language but rather is the result of the fact that lexical research on the language was still in its initial stages. The scientific dictionary (Cohen, Namir, & Schlesinger, 1977) that was published the same year includes around 1,500 entries, but its editors indicate in the introduction that this larger number also does not exhaustively represent the lexicon of the language. 9 In addition to the semantic processes described in this chapter, there are many other means of expanding the vocabulary of the language, such as borrowing, initializing, compounding, and adding prefixes or suffixes, discussed in detail in Chapter 3.

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FIGURE 12–4. The sign in (a) meant both CHEAP and LESS in early ISL, and means only LESS in contemporary ISL. The sign in (b) did not exist in early ISL, and today means CHEAP. The signs are distinguished by the orientation of the base hand.

The sign that formerly meant COUPLE (see Figure 12–5) today has taken on a different meaning, ‘to go out together, do date’. The sign for FRIENDS is similar but is made using a different movement, while there is now a different sign for COUPLE. In the past, the sign for COMMITTEE was also used to mean CONFERENCE. Today this sign serves to designate only CONFERENCE or CONGRESS, while the word COMMITTEE is a different sign. The word CULTURE was formerly represented by the compound, THINKCLEAR; today this compound denotes the concept of ‘understood’ or ‘clear’ while the notion of ‘culture’ has its own unique sign. In the past, one sign denoted both ‘taxes’ and ‘deductions’. Contemporary ISL has two different signs for these two concepts, differentiated by handshape: TAXES , DEDUCTION


Phonological changes. One of the most prevalent and noticeable changes spoken languages undergo over time is sound change. Some of these changes occur in order to facilitate pronunciation. At most linguistic levels of contemporary Hebrew, the guttural (technically, pharyngeal) pronunciation of the consonants Het and ayin has disappeared. Modern English has dropped the velar ‘x’ sound (as in the ch of Bach) of earlier periods, for example in the word night that was at one time pronounced “nixt”. Other changes in pronunciation serve to make speech easier to understand for the listener. Take for instance the words fifth and sixth in English. The th suffix on these words creates the unusual combination of two fricative sounds—sounds that are created when the air flow through the mouth is partly

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FIGURE 12–5. (a) COUPLE/PAIR (early ISL); (b) DATE (contemporary ISL); (c) COUPLE /PAIR (contemporary ISL). Figure (a) from Dictionary of Sign Language of The Deaf in Israel, reproduced with permission of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Jerusalem.

blocked, for example by the teeth or the tongue, creating friction. The last sounds of fifth are ‘f’ and ‘th’, and the last sounds of sixth are ‘s’ and ‘th’—all fricatives. Some speakers compensate for this unusual type of similarity in the two adjacent sounds by changing the last one to a stop, a sound that blocks the flow of air completely, like ‘p’, ‘k’, or in this case, ‘t’. For those speakers these words are pronounced, fift and sixt. The two sounds pronounced one after the other are made more different in this way, and presumably easier to perceive. These two motivating factors, facilitating pronunciation and facilitating understanding, often lead in different directions, so that a certain degree of tension exists between them. Some changes in pronunciation occur within this natural tension. Similar reciprocal relations also characterize changes in sign languages. In these languages as well, we can detect gradual changes that facilitate how a sign is produced or perceived. Other factors as well play a part in linguistic processes, such as contact with other languages. And some diachronic changes (changes over time) cannot easily be attributed to one particular factor or another. For example, some signs have been replaced with others for no apparent reason, such as NEVER, HYPOCRITICAL and HUNGER. But some of the differences in vocabulary items over the past thirty years lead to reasonable hypotheses about general forces that contributed to changes in the way they are produced. We will characterize some of them in the next section. A. Changes that facilitate the perception of the sign: limiting the signing space and the set of articulators. Studies of communication using American Sign Language have found that those who are being addressed focus on the

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signer’s face even though the signs themselves are produced with the hands (Siple, 1978). From this it can be concluded that a more limited signing space would facilitate perception of the sign formed by the hands and perceived in the peripheral field of vision. And indeed, one of the most obvious changes in signing technique in Israeli Sign Language has been a reduction in the signing space. This reduction is manifested in several ways: 1. Changes in the size of the sign: Signs that were once produced with large movements are today produced using smaller movements, reducing the size of the signing space. 2. Changes in location: Signs have a tendency to move toward the center. The sign AMBASSADOR, for example, was once produced over the head. Today it is produced close to the shoulders, and with much smaller movements as well. That is, the sign has become smaller and more central. 3. Transfer of movement of various parts of the body to hand movements: Signs that were formerly produced by moving other parts of the body, such as shoulders, head and torso, today are produced by hand movements. This has the effect of limiting the set of articulators that the addressee has to be aware of in perceiving the sign. The signs for BEHAVE (Figure 12–6) and DANCE used to be produced by moving the shoulders and the torso, but today they make use of hand movements. The sign for OLD in the past was produced by moving the head downwards, but today it is produced by moving the hand toward the chin. B. Changes that facilitate sign production: symmetry. Signs that were formerly not symmetric have become symmetric today. The sign BOTTLE in the past was not symmetric: one hand served as a base, while the other hand



FIGURE 12–6. BEHAVE in the past (a) and today (b).

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signed the shape of a bottle relative to the base. Today, the two hands symmetrically move away from each other (though as a result the sign has become less iconic in nature). In the sign TRAIN, the orientation of the hands was not symmetrical. The base hand was horizontal, while the dominant hand was vertical. Today both hands are vertically oriented in this sign. The sign CAMERA is also now signed with symmetrical movement of the hands, as described below and pictured in Figure 12–7. C. Changes that facilitate sign production: A tendency toward onehanded signs. A number of signs that once were signed using two hands are signed today with one hand only. The sign PEN was formerly produced with one hand serving as a base, while today it is signed using the active hand only. The sign BLIND was in the past a symmetrical two-handed sign, with each hand moving from the eye downward along the face. Today the sign is produced with one hand located in the center of the face and moving downward from eye level. The sign LESS shown in 12–4a is today also usually signed with one only hand. Some changes cannot be explained by these tendencies. Many signs exhibit minor changes in the way they are produced, whether by the use of a different handshape or a change in the orientation of the hand. The signs RECESS/INTERMISSION and MARGARINE were in the past signed with the handshape , while today they are denoted with the handshape . In the sign BRIEFLY/CONCISELY the two hands were facing forward, while today the two hands face each other. Explanations for these changes, be they social or phonological, elude us at present. D. Signs that have disappeared from the language. Some signs are no longer in use at all, having been replaced today by different signs entirely. Sometimes the reason that signs disappear is that the object they represent no longer exists. The signs TELEPHONE and CAMERA (or PHOTOGRAPH) have changed because the form of the items they represent is quite different today than it was in the past. The sign for CAMERA used to reflect the old-time apparatus on a tripod with small a black curtain covering the camera and the photographer’s head. Later, the sign was motivated by the small, square shape of the device and the motion of clicking the button. This new sign for CAMERA later underwent an additional change when it went from an asymmetrical to a symmetrical sign, a change pictured in Figure 3–11 and repeated here in Figure 12–7. This change in pronunciation has the effect of making the sign motorically easier to produce, but less iconic—in taking a picture, we press a button only on one side of the camera, not both. The sign for TOILET was formerly made by indicating the pulling of a chain at shoulder level. In the past, toilet tanks were situated above the head and you had to pull a hanging chain in order to flush. Today, the sign is a completely different one, and very similar to the sign for TELEPHONE—a

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FIGURE 12–7. Earlier sign for CAMERA (a) and the new version (b), with symmetrical movement of the index fingers.

euphemism, perhaps? The sign for Independence Day has also changed. The old sign denoted a procession, the traditional Independence Day parade, an event that no longer takes place. Today Independence Day is widely celebrated with cook-outs, and the sign for BARBECUE or OUTDOOR-GRILL is used to signify this holiday. CONCLUSION The historical journey tracing the origins and development of Israeli Sign Language taken here began in the 1930s, when a nucleus of deaf people began meeting on a regular basis. During that same period, the first school for the deaf in the country was also established, serving for quite some time as a place where groups of deaf children could come together. Originally, then, there were two centers of development for the language: the newly forming adult Deaf community and the school in Jerusalem. When the students at this school grew up and graduated, some of them became active in the emerging Deaf community. Since at least 90 percent of deaf children come from hearing families, it took the school to give them a sense of belonging to a social group, and, upon graduation, they kept up their contacts, contributing to an ever increasing Deaf community in Israel. Students from other schools for the deaf that had been established in the mean time also graduated into the community. With World War II and its aftermath, and the establishment of the state, large numbers of immigrants came to Israel, among them a proportionate number of deaf people. One or two decades later, then, the Deaf community included the members of that initial nucleus, large numbers of new immigrants who had arrived in the interim, and the graduates of a number of schools for the deaf across the country. The members of this newly formed community brought along with them

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diverse sign languages and forms of signing that came together in a linguistic melting pot to create Israeli Sign Language. The initial stages in the formation of this new language are not entirely obvious, though particular tendencies can be reconstructed and changes detected, both by making comparisons with other sign languages and by examining the vocabulary of the school in Jerusalem as recalled by some of its former pupils. We can assume that the new language borrowed words from other sign languages and that in its formation it made use of the option of iconic expression to create signs for concepts through the visual mode. Nevertheless, the details of the gradual metamorphosis of this new language into a complex and rich linguistic system with its own rules and structures will always be shrouded in mystery. As the language emerged and evolved, its vocabulary changed. First, it expanded and became richer. As the meanings of signs became more specific, new signs entered the language to cover more precise shades of meanings. Second, the way in which signs were produced also changed. Some of these changes resulted from the tendency of any communicative system toward ease of production and perception. These forces resulted in the signs becoming reduced in size, shorter, more centered in the signing space in front of the signer, and produced more exclusively by the hands and less by other parts of the body. Such changes have a tendency to detract from the iconic nature of the signs, so that the language becomes less transparent and more arbitrary. Interestingly, a number of the formational changes documented here were previously discovered in American Sign Language (Frishberg, 1975). These similarities can now provide a stronger basis for understanding the relationship between the physical modality of transmission and language formation and change. The processes described in this chapter have not come to a halt. The language is still in flux and is continuing to change and develop, just like any other language, whether signed or spoken. Its vocabulary continues to expand, the meanings of particular signs change, the shapes of the signs change, some signs become obsolete while new signs are created. The language comes into contact with other sign languages, both in Israel and abroad. It is reasonable to assume that the grammatical structures of the language are also changing. Research on Israeli Sign Language for well over a decade has documented and is continuing to document some of these grammatical structures, and in the years to come, it will be possible to trace their development as well. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING The introductions to the dictionaries published in 1977 Cohen, E., Namir, L., & Schlesinger, I. M. (1977). A new dictionary of sign language: Employing the Eshkol-Wachmann movement notation system. The Hague: Mouton. Namir, L., Sella, Y., Rimor, M., & Schlesinger, I. M. (1977). A Dictionary of the sign language of the Deaf in Israel. Jerusalem: Welfare Ministry.

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For those with a linguistics background Frishberg, N. (1975). Arbitrariness and iconicity: Historical change in American Sign Language. Language, 51, 696–719. Namir, L., & Schlesinger, I. M. (1978). The grammar of sign language. In Sign language of the Deaf : Psychological, linguistic, and sociological perspectives (pp. 97–140). New York: Academic Press.

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13 Voices from the Community

Let me tell you about an ordinary day in my life. In the morning, I wake up, open my eyes, get out of bed, look in the mirror—you know how you look in the morning, all wrinkled and unkempt—and as I stare at myself I wonder, “Is that really me? Can’t be!” I wash my face, get dressed, go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee, watch the news on TV and zap channels looking for something interesting. Then I pick up the newspaper and as I browse through it, I suddenly realize that it’s late and I’ve got to go to work. I say goodbye to my wife and leave the house, and as I walk down the stairs, I see a man coming toward me. At that moment, all the lights begin to blink, an invisible screen comes down, and I am transported to another planet. That man is hearing! Now I have to really strain my eyes, try to read his lips. On this planet, I am deaf. Doron Levy

With these remarks, Doron Levy opened a symposium called “Seeing Voices” held at The University of Haifa in 1996. Levy, a Deaf man, decided at age 30 to make a career change; he left his job as an accountant, a profession he considered boring, and began studying linguistics and education for deaf/hearing impaired children at Tel Aviv University. Today he teaches sign language and works with us on the Israeli Sign Language research project. Doron was also recently elected chairman of ADI. All of the stories and anecdotes in this chapter were recounted to us by Deaf friends and colleagues. At first, we came upon bits and pieces of these personal accounts just by chance, over a cup of coffee when taking a break from our research. But as time went by, we began to understand that these stories represented an additional aspect of the language we were investigating. Linguistic research usually considers language as an entity detached from its speakers, and for the most part, linguistics books focus on language per se rather than on the speakers of a particular language. Rarely do they include chapters that tell the speakers’ personal stories. But the reality is different. Languages do not float around in space as independent entities; they are, in fact, inseparable from the people who use them. From conversations with Deaf people, we became increasingly aware that sign language plays a pivotal role in countless aspects of their lives and that hearing people are usually oblivi239

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ous to this. We began to realize that the main difficulty for Deaf people is not that they are unable to hear but rather that they so often find themselves unable to communicate, that they have no common language for interacting with the society surrounding their own. So we felt that the story of Israeli Sign Language would not be complete without including the voices of members of the community. The people whose stories are told here do not comprise a representative cross section. No attempt was made to comprehensively reflect the diverse circumstances and experiences of Deaf people. Nor does the chapter constitute a sociological analysis of the Deaf community. Instead our intention is for these stories to shed light on the role of sign language in people’s lives. Though they each tell of personal experiences, the relevance of these stories is not limited to the individuals who tell them. Like all Deaf people, the people whose stories are told here had to find their way in a world that was for the most part designed by and for hearing people. As a result, these stories reveal and clarify central issues in the lives of Deaf people in general. All of the stories in this chapter, with the exception of the last one, were told in sign language during the Seeing Voices symposium. We selected those stories that related to language and that in some way answered the question, “What is sign language for you?” The stories were translated into Hebrew and subsequently into English in order to be included in this book. In our translations, we attempted to preserve the narrative character of the stories as they were told to the audience face-to-face rather than transforming them into the style of written texts. Orna Levy, Doron Levy and Meir Etedgi all grew up in Deaf families where sign language was the primary means of communication. They began their lives with a language that enabled them to interact with their parents and their brothers and sisters, but they soon learned that this language was not of use outside their home. Lior Azen, whose story appears last in this chapter, grew up in a hearing family like 90 percent of deaf children. She was educated by the oral method and was not exposed to sign language until her early teens when she and her family moved to Canada. There, for the first time, she attended school with other Deaf children who used sign language. Regardless of the personal backgrounds of the storytellers, their stories all share a common theme: for each person, the realization that sign language was, indeed, their language had a profound impact. And for each, this insight was, to use the words of Lior Azen, an awakening.

STORY 1: A STUDENT’S JOURNAL The first story is that of Meir Etedgi. Meir received an MA degree in architecture from Israel’s foremost technical university, the Technion. He is currently working in Tel Aviv as an architect, and in Haifa on one of our research

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projects. In the first part of his story, which takes place during his early years as an undergraduate student, he tells about his friendship with a hearing student who had spent some time studying in a foreign country where he had to get along in a language that was not his native language. The story reveals the common bond between the two architecture students and the extent to which spoken language can be as impenetrable as a foreign language to a Deaf person, even though he knows the language well. A Common Language During my second year at the Technion, I met a hearing student who became a close friend. We hit it off right away. I never had to explain things to him, we were on the same wavelength. The previous year, he had studied architecture in Italy. His stories about his experiences in Italy really spoke to me. All the classes there were conducted in Italian, of course. I understand that Italian is a melodious language with a nice ring to it. He studied Italian here for three months before flying off to school in Italy. He had to devote a great deal of effort to his studies. His comprehension of everything relating to architecture was satisfactory. But of course his progress was slower than that of Italian students. He found himself doing double work and studying late into the night. But he managed to keep up with the course material. But when it came to everyday communication, that’s where the problems arose. He often found himself in embarrassing situations. One day he came to a lecture, only to find to his astonishment that the lecture hall was empty. “What’s going on here?” he thought to himself. After making some inquiries, he discovered that during the previous lesson an announcement had been made, in Italian of course, that the next lecture would be cancelled. He had not caught the announcement. Though he had heard it, he had not been able to grasp the gist of what was being said in Italian. And that was only one of many embarrassing incidents. Another example from everyday life: when he would talk with one other person, he got along fine. When two other people were involved, he still managed to follow the thread of the conversation; with three people, well, he more or less got by. But as soon as the group got any bigger—four, five, six people—he would get lost. He’d listen and say nothing. His fellow students thought he was bashful, introverted, self-effacing. No way! I know him well: he’s very friendly, one of the guys, outgoing, someone who likes to talk and to be with people. Because of all those disconcerting feelings, he decided he didn’t want to continue studying in Italy. He packed his bags and came back to Israel to study architecture here, where he feels at home, where he can speak his own language. He began studying at the Technion, and that’s where we met. We “clicked” immediately. We had both intimately experienced that feeling of “being a new immigrant” in a place where no one speaks your language, so I never had to spell things out for him.

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Meir worked with us on our sign language research while he was studying at the Technion. In the second part of the story he told at the symposium, he describes how his attitude toward his own language changed as the research progressed and we began to discover the structure and vibrant expressiveness of sign language. Sign Language: A Rich Language From the time I was small until not too long ago, I thought that Hebrew and sign language were two entirely different matters. I believed sign language was simple and impoverished, while Hebrew was more noble and distinguished. They existed on two completely different planes. I used sign language at home, with Deaf friends, and to translate for my parents. I used Hebrew with hearing people who didn’t know sign language. When I began working as an assistant for the research project on sign language at The University of Haifa, I was told that sign language is not impoverished at all. My reaction was, “What?! That can’t be!” But as our research progressed, we discovered more and more about the language. I was surprised to see that sign language has its own rules, which are not the same as those of Hebrew. The language actually has its own orderly linguistic structure. When you compare sign language to Hebrew, you see that there are many differences, but that each is a language in its own right. Everything you say in one language has an equivalent in the other. As a result, my way of viewing the world has turned around completely. I now understand that sign language can be used anywhere and anytime, even for academic studies and at prestigious occasions, like this university symposium where I am using it today.

If sign language can express anything and everything, it can also be used to convey information at university lectures. At first, Meir tried to get along without sign language interpreting since he is proficient both in Hebrew and in reading lips. Lipreading, however, is a complex and difficult skill. In any given situation, numerous factors can have an impact on the degree to which a message is successfully received via lipreading, such as the lighting in the room, the clarity with which the speaker or speakers pronounce the words, the number of participants in the discussion, and the extent to which the lipreader is familiar with the topic being discussed. Even in an ideal situation where the lipreader knows the speaker and finds it easy to follow the discussion, and where the lighting is good (a situation that almost never exists in university classes and lectures), a fundamental problem still remains. A large portion of linguistic information cannot be determined from the lips alone because there are distinct sounds that look the same on the lips. For example, the sounds [b, p, m] are all produced by closing the lips and then opening them. The distinctions among them—voicing and nasality—are not conveyed by the lips. Each time lipreaders see the lips close and open, they must guess which of these three sounds is the one used in that particular word. Lipreading is often a complex guessing game.

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Consequently, relying exclusively on lipreading for university studies is just about mission impossible. And indeed, after two years of struggling to get through his studies at the Technion, Meir decided to bring a sign language interpreter with him to his classes. This was tantamount to a revolution for him, not only in his understanding of academic material but also in his relations with his fellow students and his self-image as a university student. Interpreting During my first two years of study, I did not have the lectures simultaneously interpreted into sign language. I would come to class, but I didn’t manage to understand anything. After class, I would ask other students lots of questions in order to try and figure out what the lecturer had said, and at home I would rack my brains trying to put together a clear picture of what had gone on in class. Very often, the pieces of the information puzzle would refuse to come together to form a whole. I would then go back to the next class, again not understanding, return home and try to put the lesson together, the same ordeal over and over again. In my third year, I decided to bring a sign language interpreter with me to class. Coming to class with the interpreter was a real eye-opener for me. The same lecturer and the same course that had previously been incomprehensible now were totally clear to me. The effect of the interpreting was twofold. First, it had an impact on my fellow students. Previously they had thought I was an oral Deaf person or that I was hard of hearing. They didn’t know exactly how to pigeonhole me. But ladies and gentlemen, I am totally Deaf! When I brought the interpreter to class and began conversing with her in my language, those around me began reacting differently. The other students began to get a feeling for who I am and they started treating me completely differently. For example, one day the interpreter couldn’t come. Right away, my fellow students gathered round me, bombarding me with lists and summaries of the lesson in order to help me. I was flabbergasted! The atmosphere was so different than before I had brought the interpreter. Interpreting also affected me inside, personally. Things were poles apart from the past, when I would return home and try to figure out what had gone on in class. By the time I would come back to class with my ideas, the class had already moved on to another topic, and I would be left behind with an ever-growing gap. But now, with the help of interpreting, I began understanding more and more, and this gave me a feeling of satisfaction. I could follow the discussions in class and understand them in real time. I could participate and say what I had to say in real time. For me, interpreting opened a huge window onto a new world.

In collecting material for this chapter, we watched the videotape of the symposium again. Doron Levy watched with us and helped us translate the stories. When we came to the end of the previous story in which Meir tells of the impact of simultaneous interpreting on his relations with his fellow students, Doron smiled knowingly and paraphrased Descartes in Hebrew, “I have a language, therefore I am.”

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This insight is not as obvious as it may seem. Time and thought and introspection are necessary to reach such a realization. Deaf people are immersed in a society mostly controlled by hearing people who communicate in spoken language. All events in the world at large seem to be conducted in spoken language, even those directly affecting the lives of Deaf people. The hearing majority usually does not know much about sign language, so they tend to develop erroneous opinions about it (some of which we have described and refuted in Chapter 1 and throughout the rest of this book). When parents and teachers express such mistaken opinions, Deaf children may well internalize them and adhere to them for many years. As Meir stated, until he began working on the sign language research project, he thought that sign language was a way of communicating within the family but not an actual language. When a person trades this mistaken conception for the insight that sign language is, indeed, a language, and not just any language but the ideal language for him, his entire life is likely to change.

STORY 2: FROM BAD GIRL IN CLASS TO HONORED TEACHER The next storyteller is Orna Levy, who tells about her personal journey, starting from her years as an elementary school pupil in a class for the deaf, to a year of studies at Bristol University in England where she was enrolled in a Deaf Studies program, and, finally, her return to the Israeli educational system, this time as the only deaf teacher at a school for deaf children. She opens with an anecdote about an elementary school field trip to a museum, in which she tries to figure out why she was always the bad girl of the class. Orna’s class was a class for deaf children within a school for hearing children. Childhood I was born deaf into a Deaf family. Sign language was my first language, and Hebrew was my second. I studied in a class for deaf children at a regular school. Being in that class was great for me. In school, from time to time we’d go on field trips, visit museums and attend performances. On trips to the museum, for example, the deaf class would go along with the other classes. At the museum, a guide would explain the displays and exhibits, but no interpreter was provided for us. Bored, we deaf kids would gaze all around us. I did try paying attention by looking at the guide, but I couldn’t understand anything, so I’d start chitchatting (in signs) with my friends, and of course that was disruptive. The teacher would get angry with me and scold me, “Orna, sit still! Orna, pay attention!” So I’d tell her, “Okay, I’ll pay attention.” Again I stared at the guide and made an effort to understand her, but I still couldn’t understand a thing. I forgot all about the promise I had made to the teacher, and again I went back to chatting with

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VOICES FROM THE COMMUNITY the other kids. When we got back to school, the teacher reprimanded me again, “Orna, your behavior is not acceptable, you’re always disturbing us.” When I gave this some thought at home, I couldn’t figure it out. Why was it always me who was the troublemaker? Why could everyone else sit quietly and I’d be the only one chattering away? And then I realized that the reason I would make mischief was that I couldn’t understand anything because there was no sign language interpreting. They would make me sit still without saying a word when I couldn’t understand a thing. Of course I acted out in such a situation. The other kids in my class had grown up in hearing families and were used to sitting still. But at home I was accustomed to talking and conversing with everyone, to being in the center of things. The moment I found myself in a situation like the one at the museum, I would get antsy and I couldn’t keep myself from talking with my friends.

England When I was 21, I received a stipend to study at Bristol University in England, which offered a one-year program in Deaf Studies. I packed my bags and flew off on my own to London. I arrived a month before school started in order to give myself time to get adjusted. The first steps I took in England were quite hesitant. Everything was strange and different. The sign language used there is British Sign Language, which I didn’t know. To me it was like Chinese! Even their fingerspelling uses two hands, and not one hand, like ours does. Everything was so odd! I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself down. I arrived at the university and had a look around. I liked what I saw and found it very interesting. Using videotapes, I studied British Sign Language. After a month of great effort and intensive study, I actually became quite proficient in the language. I also took advantage of that time to tour around the area. I was the only Israeli in the program. The others came from all over Europe—England, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and other countries too. At the beginning of the first class, a sign language interpreter showed up. I was in shock: I understood everything! Interpreting was provided for all the classes, and the feeling was wonderful, incredible! It was a real revelation to me. Before, when I studied with hearing people in high school, I never could understand anything, I was completely lost in space. And here, I understood everything. I was just like everyone else, and my self-image soared. Hearing people also attended our classes. They were studying to be sign language interpreters. I felt great with them because they related to me like an equal among equals. There was no difference between us at all. In Israel, I had always felt there was a gap between hearing people and Deaf people. I had always thought that hearing people were somehow smarter than us. But in England we were equals. On tests, I would sometimes even get higher grades than my hearing counterparts, and that really made me feel good. That year was a fantastic experience. I learned about so many interesting things—Deaf culture, sign language, the difference between natural sign language and signed Hebrew, and many other exciting subjects as well.


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Orna returned to Israel after her year in England determined to fulfill her childhood dream and become a teacher of deaf children. She felt that her personal experience gave her a special understanding of their needs. She wanted to share her experiences with them and to speak to them directly in their own language. But first, she had to be trained as a teacher. After my year in England, I came back to Israel and began studying at Tel Aviv University. I went into my first class and lo and behold—there was no interpreter! That was terribly disappointing. In England I had become accustomed to learning with interpreting, and here—it wasn’t available! I felt that I couldn’t go on like that. I applied to the National Insurance Institute to subsidize interpreting services for my classes, but they turned me down. After a long struggle, they agreed to finance the cost of interpreting a few of the lectures, just a drop in the bucket. During my third year, after an ongoing battle, I received funding for interpreting a large portion of my classes, though still not for all of them. I hope that in the future deaf students will have full interpreting services available for all of their classes so they will be able to understand the lectures and not need to rely on supplementary lessons. With the help of interpreting, deaf students can participate in their classes and understand more.

Orna’s story now takes us back to the classroom, only this time it is Orna who is the teacher. Delighted with the opportunity given her, Orna wants to implement everything she learned. But she discovers that being prepared for school isn’t enough; school also has to be prepared for her. Experiences as a Teacher That year [1996] I was offered a teaching position at a school for the deaf. For years I’d dreamed of teaching at such a school, and here I was, about to realize my dream. I was highly motivated to help the children at the school. The children in my class didn’t believe I was deaf. They were so used to having hearing teachers that when they finally had a deaf teacher, they simply refused to accept it as true. They asked me, “If you’re really deaf, where’s your hearing aid?” I told them I don’t wear a hearing aid, but I’m still deaf! Then they said, “But you can speak!” And I answered them,” That’s true, I also speak.” It took some time for them to grasp that I really am deaf. To settle the matter, the children gave me ‘hearing tests.’ They would turn their backs on me and scream, and then check my response. When I failed to react, they began to believe that I am really deaf. Often the children talk among themselves in class, in sign language, of course. They talk about personal matters, they gossip a bit . . . hearing teachers can’t understand what they’re talking about. But I catch them red-handed. Sometimes they even talk about me, and then I say to them, “you’re talking about me now.” Then they get taken aback, and they try to evade me or deny it. But because I can understand their signing, they can’t pull anything over on me. Hearing teachers are at a disadvantage here because they can’t understand their students.

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Having a deaf teacher at the school was new not only to the kids but also to the teaching staff. I was the only deaf teacher, and consequently new problems arose. I’ll tell you about a few incidents that happened to me at the school, and then you’ll understand. In my classroom, a light blinks when the bell rings. The light is behind me, so that when I’m teaching, I can’t see it blinking and have to depend on the children to tell me. Sometimes the children try to pull one over on me. They say to me, “the bell rang.” I look at the clock and see that it’s still too early for recess. If the light were relocated in front of the teacher, the problem would be solved. Whoever designed that classroom did not have deaf teachers in mind. I teach a class of deaf children, and I have a teacher’s aide who can hear. Occasionally another teacher will come into my class to clarify something. She immediately turns to my aide and talks with her, disregarding me because I am deaf. I feel I am being kept in the dark because of my deafness. During recess, I go to the teacher’s room. I sit down and drink my coffee, wanting to be friendly with the other teachers, to know what they’re talking about. But the teachers talk among themselves, paying no attention to me. I try to read their lips, to fit into their conversation. I ask someone sitting next to me, “What are they talking about?” She answers, “About some child’s problems.” I want to add my input to the discussion, but they don’t even try to make the effort to use signing for me. I get bored and go out to the schoolyard, to be with the children.

The situation described here by Orna is typical not only of deaf people. When hearing people are in a foreign country where they are not fluent in the language spoken around them, they must endure similar experiences. When people are in a group making noncommittal small talk, it’s natural for them to speak in their native language. Many of us are familiar with such a situation when we have a guest from a foreign country. At first everyone makes an effort to speak the guest’s language, but even the smallest comment or expression that can be phrased only in our own language is enough to cause us to slip into back into it. It’s hard to converse, chat or gossip in a foreign language, particularly among people with whom you would normally speak your native language. Orna, as the only deaf teacher at the school, felt lonely and isolated because she had no one to talk to in her own language. Had there been even one other deaf teacher at the school, or if the hearing teachers had fluent command of sign language, the problem of her isolation would have been solved. When I’m in the schoolyard, the children immediately gather around me. They love me. We communicate naturally, fluently. They ask me lots of questions, and I want to answer them. At the same time, I try to keep some distance between us, because after all I am their teacher, not one of their peers. But it’s hard for me to do this. I am drawn to them, I identify with their problems. I feel more comfortable with them than I do with the other teachers. Sometimes I take a

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CHAPTER 13 book out of the library and tell them stories. The children really like this. I tell the stories in sign language fluently, articulately, and the kids really enjoy them. Occasionally, other teachers come to me to ask about signs to express particular concepts, as the authority on sign language. I help them, and from time to time I even correct their errors. I’m glad when they ask me and am delighted to help, but it hurts me that they don’t really know sign language. After all, they’re teaching deaf children, so they should have a good mastery of the language. That’s all I have to say for now. I hope there will be more deaf teachers and more cooperation between hearing teachers and deaf teachers, for the sake of the children.

The stories we’ve presented thus far were told by Deaf people we met during the course of our research who had grown up in Deaf families. But as we’ve already noted, most deaf people come from hearing families. Some of them are raised according to the oral method and are not exposed to sign language. Our last story is told by a Deaf woman with such a background. Lior Azen grew up on a kibbutz, where she was the only deaf child. When she was a teenager, her family relocated to Canada. Not only did she move from one country to another; she also shifted from one form of communication to another, indeed from one way of thinking to another. Like Orna’s story, Lior’s account also describes a geographic and metaphysical rite of passage, this time from the kibbutz to Toronto, Canada, then on to studies at Gallaudet University and then back to Israel, where she taught deaf children in high school. Her voyage took her from a totally oral world to the world of the Deaf. One of the outcomes of Lior’s journey is that she is now fluent in four languages: Hebrew, English, American Sign Language and Israeli Sign Language. We were aware that Lior’s personal story and her journey to the world of sign language differed significantly from the other narratives presented here and that her story has much in common with those of deaf children who grow up in hearing families. We asked Lior to write about some of the meaningful milestones in her life from the point of view of sign language. STORY 3: THE AWAKENING A Childhood Without Sign Language I grew up on Kibbutz Revivim as the only deaf person among hearing peers. I became deaf as a result of meningitis. Of course I don’t remember this because I was only eighteen months old when it happened. My memories from that time come from my parents’ stories. They told me that at first they didn’t realize I was deaf because the doctors told them that I had recovered fully, that everything was fine with me. One day I was playing on the grass outside my parents’ home. My father called me, shouted out my name, but I didn’t respond. Previ-

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VOICES FROM THE COMMUNITY ously, according to my grandfather who loved writing in his diary, my hearing had been very sharp and I could sing and talk. My parents, who were used to me responding quickly when they called me, didn’t understand what was going on. The day my father called out “Lior” when I was playing on the lawn, the truth finally dawned on them. My father saw that I hadn’t heard him at all. He took me in his arms, and his face was very red. I got really scared. One day my mother picked me up from the kibbutz children’s house. I tried to tell her that I wanted to ride in a stroller that was some distance from us. She didn’t understand me. I tried to tell her over and over again, until I finally gave up and started crying. Of course this was very upsetting for my mother, and she decided to send me to a speech therapist in Beer Sheva for speech lessons. At first my mother wanted to learn sign language as well, but in the end she decided against it. Who would I be able to talk to in sign language? Only her? She felt that I would become too dependent upon her, and so as a child I was never exposed to sign language. I have several recollections of meeting deaf people. The first time was when I was in preschool, when I visited Micha, the education center for deaf children in Beer Sheva. The class was an oral class—the teachers did not use any sign language at all. I remember that the language they used was very simple, and I found that quite disappointing. They told the children, “This is Lior. She lives very very very far away.” I couldn’t understand why they didn’t speak normally with the children, why they just didn’t say, “She lives at Kibbutz Revivim, which is quite far away.” I was left with the impression that these deaf children could not communicate or understand, and that’s why the teachers spoke to them in such simple terms. I wanted nothing to do with the world of the deaf. Later on, when I was around seven, I went to Beer Sheva with my parents. They wanted to meet with Jerry Reichstein from the Niv School for the deaf. I remember that while we were waiting for him, I met a deaf girl who signed, and I felt quite bewildered. I thought to myself, “She’s probably at this school because she doesn’t know how to talk and she’s just stupid.” I didn’t want to be anything like her, and I certainly didn’t want anything to do with the world of the Deaf or with sign language. I also remember our meeting with Jerry Reichstein. My parents told me that he’s hard of hearing and a professor as well. I thought to myself, “He doesn’t sign. I want to be like him, but I’ll surely never manage to be as smart as him, after all he speaks really well and I don’t.” When I visited my grandmother and grandfather in Tel Aviv, I went to a club for Deaf people, where I met Deaf children who signed to one another. Again I felt very uncomfortable. I was around 11 or 12 at the time. I remember thinking, “I’m different from them and I don’t want anything to do with them.” They made a lot of facial gestures, and I wasn’t used to that. Later on in my life, after I had learned sign language, I met one of the people who had been at that club when I had visited fifteen years previously. He was taken aback to meet me. “I remember you from the club,” he said. “You were a real snob, and I’m in shock that today you’re actually signing. I never expected such a transformation from you.”


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Surprising Experiences in North America And, indeed, I’ve truly changed. When I was 14, my family moved to Toronto, Canada. There I was enrolled in a regular school in which there were forty deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The teachers didn’t know sign language, and I didn’t know English. I really wanted to succeed in this new country and to fit into my new environment. During that period, my friends were, inevitably, the kids in my class who were Deaf and who communicated among themselves in sign language. They were a very nice bunch of kids, and I really wanted friends and a social life. I began learning American Sign Language so I would be popular and well liked. But at first I wasn’t exactly pleased with this option. When I brought my friends home, I felt really uncomfortable using sign language in front of my parents. In my class there were Deaf students who were very smart and talented, and for the first time in my life I realized that there is no connection between sign language and whether a person is intelligent or ignorant. I had always thought Deaf people who signed did so because they weren’t smart enough to learn spoken and written language. One of the girls in my class, Linda, had Deaf parents, and her native language was American Sign Language. Her ability to write in English was amazing, on an extremely high level. All the other kids in the class, I found out, had hearing parents. Even though some of them spoke better than Linda, none held a candle to her either academically or linguistically. I then understood that my basic conception of things had been way off mark. After four years at that school, my sign language improved considerably, and I even found that I enjoyed using it. I also made use of a sign language interpreter in the classes I attended that were integrated (Deaf and hearing students together). I realized how much I had missed at the kibbutz school. I used to just sit in class and draw, feeling more and more inferior and anxious all the time because I knew that everyone was making progress while I was pretty much staying in the same place. Here with the interpreter, for the first time I felt like I was really with it, like I was progressing. I could participate and contribute to class discussions, and the teachers encouraged me, telling me my accomplishments were as good as everyone else’s, even those of the hearing students whose native language was English. My best friends during that period were Deaf people. I went along with them to their parties and social events and for the first time in my life I felt at home because I could finally understand and communicate with everyone without having to repeat myself over and over. In that period, I visited a club for the hard of hearing in Toronto, where I felt lost. I then realized that I am not hard of hearing and that I feel more comfortable communicating via sign language than via speech. I was no longer interested in suffering and in being the outsider, like I had been up until then.

Coming Full Circle When I was a junior in high school, everyone started talking about college. I was apparently still under the influence of my old mind-set (or maybe it was that

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VOICES FROM THE COMMUNITY I still had feelings of inferiority), thinking that after graduating from high school I’d either get a job or enlist in the army. I had no ambitions, and I also didn’t believe I’d be able to advance academically. But my teachers encouraged me in that direction. They told me, “You’re going to be a teacher.” I was really in shock. “What? Me? I’m not that smart.” But I eventually realized that just about everyone in Canada and the U.S. goes to college. If they could all go, then why not me? My teachers and parents pushed me to apply to a “regular” university. But at that point in my life, I rejected the hearing world. I didn’t want to feel isolated again, to be cut off from my peers, to be constantly unable to understand. One day I went to a festival for the Deaf. I felt so wonderful seeing all those talking hands. At that moment I made my decision to apply to Gallaudet University, to the great distress of my parents and teachers who had not yet accepted sign language and the world of the Deaf. But I insisted, and I have never felt so sure about a decision as I did about that one. Words cannot express my experience at Gallaudet University. So many Deaf people—1,500!! Every day I would meet someone new who I could communicate with without any difficulty whatsoever. I didn’t need to make an effort to make myself understood, the way I did with my parents and teachers. I discovered many things about myself because when you meet new people and get to know them, you also learn a great deal about yourself. I began to find out who I really am. I started by majoring in psychology and later began studying in the Deaf Studies Department as well. This department offers courses in the linguistics of American Sign Language, anthropology, Deaf history and culture, sign language poetry, sign language education, and more. The course offered by Dr. Ceil Lucas, “Introduction to the Linguistics of American Sign Language,” made an impression on me that will last a lifetime. This course taught me that sign language has its own grammatical structure, that it is a rich language that can stand on its own, just like any other major language. This realization helped me come to terms with my identity as a Deaf person. I also discovered that I had never really understood the beauty of poetry, either in Hebrew or in English, until I studied sign language poetry with the Deaf poet Clayton Valli,1 who produced a video recording on this subject and has performed at numerous workshops and festivals. The visual nature of sign language was so natural to me because I comprehend the world through my eyes. Indeed, you might say that sign language is my natural language. These early experiences with sign language served to underscore that the proper place for me is in the world of the Deaf, and that sign language is the most comfortable form of communication for me. My studies at Gallaudet helped me realize that when people feel comfortable with themselves and with who they are, when they are aware of their needs, life is a whole lot easier. It’s a pity to waste so much effort on something that isn’t appropriate for you. This was a very important lesson for me. You might say that I divide my life into two parts, before and after my awakening.


The gifted poet Clayton Valli died in 2003.


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Part III The Big Picture: ISL and Linguistic Theory

The goal that underlies the linguistic research we have described here is to try to gain a better understanding of the remarkable human faculty called “language” through investigating one language in depth. The language we’ve dealt with is Israeli Sign Language. ISL is a language that emerged spontaneously and developed naturally, which, like all naturally occurring languages, is the product of the human brain, and, as a sign language, is conveyed in the manual-visual modality. Part I of the book was devoted to description and analysis of the language, partly through comparison with other languages, both signed and spoken. The comparison helped to better explain certain structures in ISL which at first glance may seem to people who are unfamiliar with sign languages to be unlike anything encountered before. Through such comparisons, the chapters in Part I revealed properties that are shared by languages in the two modalities, while isolating other characteristics that are found in sign languages only. The two chapters in Part III rely on the findings and discussions of the earlier chapters, and reexamine them in a broader context. The central question here is, “What is the contribution of sign language research in general, and of Israeli Sign Language research in particular, to the field of linguistics?” We develop the claim that comparing languages that are transmitted in two different physical modalities makes a unique contribution to our understanding of what language is, an understanding that could not be achieved by relying on investigations of spoken languages alone. This contribution is expressed not only by the fact that sign language research gives new answers to old questions, but also, and mainly, because such research raises new questions, questions that simply would never have arisen otherwise. These questions touch on the relation between the physical channel of transmission and the linguistic structure of language. Sign languages are different from one another; this is now clear. But as we have hinted in earlier chapters, there are also substantial similarities among them. Chapter 14 addresses the question of why these similarities among different sign languages are more evident than similarities among spoken languages. 253

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As earlier chapters have made clear, there are many grammatical structures that are common to sign language after sign language, such as a proclivity for simultaneous structuring at the phonological, morphological, and prosodic levels; use of space for encoding pronouns and verb agreement; the use of classifier constructions for expressing motion and spatial relations; a tendency to order words and constituents according to their function in the information structure of the sentence; and the use of facial expressions for certain grammatical functions. This similarity across sign languages, which makes itself felt at every level of linguistic analysis, is very surprising, given that the similarities among spoken languages are far less obvious (unless they are closely related to one another). If sign languages are languages in every sense of the word, just as spoken languages are, then we should not expect sign languages to be any more similar to one another than their spoken counterparts. In Chapter 14, we show how this paradox is resolved. The last chapter, Chapter 15, deals specifically with the issue of the relation between the structure of language and the physical channel of its transmission. A number of questions pop up in this context: Does the physical modality dictate particular linguistic structures? Or is language an autonomous mental entity which finds essentially the same kind of structure and organization regardless of modality? Are there properties of language that are modalityindependent? Are there properties that exist in one modality only, and not in the other? Questions like this cannot arise if we restrict our domain of investigation to language in one modality only. If human language existed only in the oral-aural modality, or only in the manual-visual modality, it would not be possible to isolate those properties of language that derive from the physical channel of transmission and to distinguish them from more abstract organizational properties of language. The fact that there are two types of natural human language—spoken and signed—makes it possible to pose these questions, and to attempt to find answers to them. These are the goals of the final chapter.

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14 Similarities and Differences Across Sign Languages

Many people assume that there is one universal sign language, and they are quite surprised to learn that different Deaf communities have distinct sign languages, distinguished from one another by their vocabularies, their linguistic building blocks (such as their handshapes) and their grammatical constructions. As a matter of fact, the assumption that sign language is universal was once quite common among researchers and professionals who worked with the Deaf as well as among Deaf people themselves. Battison and Jordan (1976) cite a number of people who have referred to sign language as a universal language. The following quote from Berthier, a nineteenth-century Deaf writer, is a typical example: For centuries scholars from every country have sought after a universal language and failed. Well, it exists all around, it is sign language (Battison and Jordan 1976, p. 54).

J. W. Michaels, an American author who wrote a manual for learning sign language, put it a bit differently: The sign-language is universally used by the deaf people, and though all nations do not use the same mode of signs, one having a knowledge of the signs herein delineated will experience little, if any difficulty in understanding other modes, and of being understood by those who use a different mode. (Michaels, 1923;6f. Cited in Battison and Jordan 1976, p. 54)

These two quotes represent two quite common points of view regarding sign language: that sign language is universal; and that Deaf people from different countries can easily understand one another. In contrast to Berthier, Michaels is aware that diverse ‘modes’ of signing exist in different places; yet he comments that people who use various signing modes can still understand each other quite easily. While his statement is not accurate, it does contain an element of truth that can partially explain Berthier’s mistaken impression. Deaf people from different places with differ255

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ent sign languages still manage to understand each other better than two people who speak two different spoken languages. The two points of view noted above are not identical, but they are related. Clearly, if sign language is universal, Deaf people will have no difficulty understanding one another. But if sign language is not universal, how is it that people who use different languages are able to understand one another despite the language barrier? Grappling with both of these issues can tell us a lot about language in the visual modality. To start with, we will tackle the question of the universality of sign language. Judging by the discussion and evidence in this book thus far, it is quite clear that sign language is not universal. The very term “Israeli Sign Language” points to the existence of other sign languages, as we have frequently noted throughout. Why, then, is the assumption regarding the universality of sign language so widespread? In the pages that follow, we will attempt to explain what lies behind it. To approach the issue of inter-intelligibility among signers of different languages, we will present research findings comparing several sign languages. These findings indicate that sign languages are indeed distinguished from one another by certain parameters, in particular, their vocabularies. Nevertheless, these studies also point to certain similarities in grammatical constructions among sign languages. This structural similarity among unrelated languages is of interest because it is unique to sign languages, and it provides some explanation for the fact that Deaf people from different countries manage to communicate successfully with one another. THE VIEW THAT SIGN LANGUAGE IS UNIVERSAL Among spoken languages, diversity is considered a matter of course. No one expects any particular spoken language to be universal. Why, then, should there be any expectations of universality when it comes to sign languages? What motivates the difference in attitude toward signed and spoken languages? We believe that these discrepancies result primarily from one particular property of sign languages, that is, the possibility of iconically expressing numerous concepts. Iconicity refers to a direct relationship between the form of the word or concept being represented and its meaning, and such a relationship is common in sign languages, as has been pointed out several times in earlier chapters (see Figure 1–2, for example).1 In iconic signs, the direct representation of some aspect of a word’s meaning through the form of a sign imparts a sense of “naturalness.” The quality of


Actually, most signs that are considered iconic are not precise icons of the concept they represent. Instead, it is more accurate to say that many signs are motivated by some aspect of meaning associated the concept. We will continue to use the term ‘iconicity’ here, as shorthand.

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an object or concept, and particularly its visual attributes, to a large extent determine the form of the iconic sign that represents it. The sign representing the concept ‘ball’ takes its appearance from the round shape of the ball. The verb EAT is articulated near the mouth because the act of eating is performed by the mouth. We would not expect to find a sign language in which the sign EAT is articulated near the forehead or the ear, or one in which the sign BALL is articulated by a finger drawing a square shape or any other shape that is not round, or a language where the sign denoting ‘up’ is articulated by pointing down. This sense of naturalness inherent in iconic signs is a consequence of the fact that their form is dictated to a considerable extent either by the appearance of the object they represent, or by the way a person looks manipulating it or performing some action, in other words, by the motivation for the sign. Hearing people often use gestures to express visual information that is difficult to transmit through speech alone, and this common experience adds to the feeling of naturalness associated with iconic signs of sign languages. For example, try explaining to someone what a ‘spiral’ is. Most likely you will be unable to do so satisfactorily with words alone and you will resort to gesture. What’s more, most of us will probably use the same gesture.2 Why is this so? Because there appears to be only one way to convey a spiral shape with a motion of the hand. This is the “natural” way to represent a spiral. This natural mode of expression seems to be exploited for signing many objects and actions that can be so represented. Consider, for example, activities such as eating, sleeping, bouncing a ball, writing, playing the piano, and sewing with a needle. Many people, deaf and hearing alike, will use similar gestures to express these concepts. Consequently, the feeling is that every manual/ visual representation is necessarily iconic, and that iconic representation is natural representation. In fact, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some researchers and scientists tried to account for the apparent universality of sign languages. Wundt, a German psychologist who studied signs among deaf children in Germany, expressed in his writings the belief that the direct representation of tangible concepts—such as ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘there’, ‘here’, ‘sky’, clouds’, ‘sun’, ‘house’, ‘to walk’, ‘to stand’, ‘to lie down’, ‘to hit’—resulted in universal signs (cited in Mayberry, 1978, p. 351). If all the signs in sign language are necessarily iconic, and if the visual properties of objects and concepts are not language-dependent but rather universal, the iconic representation of these objects and concepts is also assumed to be universal. This reasoning can be represented by the following equations: ‘visual/manual representation  iconic representation’; ‘iconic representation  universal representation’. From this it should follow that ‘visual/manual representation  universal representation’.


This example is taken from the PBS Television Series produced by Gene Searchinger, “The Human Language, Part I”.

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Despite the apparent logic underlying these equations and implications, we now know that they are not accurate, in large part because of research that has been conducted on a variety of sign languages beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century. We explained in Chapter 1 that a visual/manual representation is not necessarily an iconic representation. The sign EXHIBITION, for instance, is one of numerous non-iconic signs in ISL (see Figure 1–3). And the opposite implication is also flawed; iconic representation is not necessarily universal. A particular object can be represented iconically by selecting different aspects of its appearance or meaning. The sign BIRD is an iconic sign both in Israeli Sign Language and in American Sign Language, but each of these languages uses a different sign, with each sign iconically representing a different visual feature of a bird: the wings as opposed to the beak (see Figure 1–2). Because visual representation is not necessarily iconic, and iconic representation is not necessarily universal, we may clearly conclude that the third equation is also not necessarily valid—that is, visual/manual representation is not necessarily universal. There is another flaw in the reasoning behind the universal assumption based on iconicity. It implies that a language in the visual modality is not only capable of expressing concepts iconically, but is actually limited to iconic representation of concepts. In other words, a visual language is restricted to expressing only those objects and actions that can be represented iconically. That this implication is false should be obvious by now, not only because of the arbitrary signs that exist for concrete concepts, but because of the numerous arbitrary signs for abstract concepts, many of the ISL examples of which have dotted the pages of this book. Examples are CHARACTER (Figure 1–3b), BETTER (Figure 3–8a), WANT (Figure 4–4), INTERESTING (Figure 10–8b), SPOILED (Figure 10–9b). A different explanation for the universality of sign language was proposed by Tylor, a nineteenth century anthropologist who investigated sign language with the aim of understanding human communication. Tylor notes that people who make use of forms of signed communication can successfully communicate with deaf people via signs. His explanation for this is rather sophisticated, and touches not only on the iconicity of signs but also on the grammatical structure of the sign languages. This ‘gesture language’ is universal not only because signs are ‘selfexpressive’ (their meaning is self-evident) but because the grammar is international (emphasis ours, IM, WS). What is done is to call up a picture in the minds of the spectators by first setting up something to be thought about, and then adding to or acting on it till the whole story is told. If the signs do not follow in such order as to carry meaning as they go, the looker-on will be perplexed. (Tylor 1895, pp. 118–119. Cited in Kyle and Woll 1985, p. 163).

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Taylor’s notion that sign languages resemble one another because their grammars are similar (and dictated to a certain extent by the physical channel) was prescient, in advance of any systematic research. His view represents an important and interesting line of thinking that we will relate to in our discussion. COMPARATIVE STUDIES OF SIGN LANGUAGES Sign Language Vocabularies Linguistic studies of sign languages refuted the assumption that sign language is universal. Studies in a number of countries have shown that sign languages differ from one another. The most striking finding in this regard was that each sign language has its own vocabulary even though many signs are iconic to some degree. Research on sign languages has also revealed that the vocabularies of sign languages are not limited to iconic signs. Because a considerable portion of the vocabulary of every sign language is arbitrary, different languages cannot be expected to have identical vocabularies. Indeed, signs that are not iconic are totally different in different sign languages, as can be seen, for example, in the signs for BETTER in ASL and ISL, shown in Figure 14–1.



FIGURE 14–1. Two non-iconic signs for the concept ‘better’, in two sign languages.

Comparing a number of sign languages has shown that even iconic signs are not necessarily the same in all sign languages. The signs for BIRD in Israeli Sign Language and American Sign Language are both iconic, but are completely different, as noted above. The signs for TREE in American, Chinese and

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Danish Sign Languages are all iconic, but they are all different.3 Even signs that refer to the same visual attribute can vary from language to language. The signs for HOUSE in Israeli Sign Language and in American Sign Language both represent the shape of the roof of the house, but each is made with a different movement. The signs for DRINK in three distinct sign languages (ISL, ASL, and Russian Sign Language), illustrated in Figure 14–2, are articulated by the hand moving toward the mouth, but each language uses a different handshape.




FIGURE 14–2. The sign for ‘drink’ in three sign languages.

Finally, many signs are motivated not in a direct iconic fashion, but metaphorically (Taub, 2001b,a). In such cases, the likelihood that the chosen metaphor will be the same is smaller than is the case for signs that are more directly iconically motivated. For example, the signs for UNDERSTAND in ASL and ISL, illustrated in Figure 14–3, appear to be metaphorically motivated and different in the two languages. The ASL sign can be thought of as an idea in the mind acquiring substance, while the ISL sign evokes the experience of coming to see something. That different sign languages do not share a universal vocabulary has also been corroborated by comparative studies that examined the vocabularies of a number of different languages. Woodward (1976) compared 872 signs from French Sign Language and American Sign Language. From a historical perspective, these two sign languages should be related, so the expectation was that a very high percentage of their signs would be similar. But despite the historical relationship between these two languages, and the iconic basis for many signs, the study’s findings showed that only around 60 percent of their signs were similar. 3

See Klima and Bellugi (1979, p. 21).

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FIGURE 14–3. Metaphoric iconicity in the signs for ‘understand’ in two sign languages.

Woll (1983) compared a list of 257 words in 15 sign languages. Her findings indicate that the average percentage of similar signs in any two sign languages is around 35 percent–40 percent. This percentage of similarity is higher than that typically found between two different spoken languages, and would imply a historical relationship in the spoken modality. Greenberg (1957, p. 37 cited in this connection in Guerra Currie, Meier, and Walters, 2002) states, “where the percentage of [lexical] resemblance between [spoken] languages is very high, say 20 per cent or more, some historic factor, whether borrowing or genetic relationship, must be assumed.” There are two possible reasons for the high percentage of signs found to be similar across sign languages in Woll’s study. One is that the criteria she used for considering signs to be similar may have been somewhat broad. She considered two signs to be similar if they had the same meaning and were signed at the same place of articulation, even if they differed in handshape and movement. It is difficult to compare between modalities, but momentarily we will compare these criteria with those of another sign language study. The second possible explanation for the high percentage of similar signs found across sign languages is iconicity, as we explained in Chapter 12. A study by Smith Stark (1990, cited in Guerra Currie et al., 2002) found that 45–66 percent of the signs in several sign languages checked (Mexican, Brazilian, American, and French) were motivated in one way or another (though not necessarily similar). Nonetheless, Woll’s study also clearly indicates that approximately two-thirds of the vocabulary items in different sign languages are not the same, even by the broad criteria of that study. When stricter criteria are applied, the percentage of signs found to be similar across sign languages, even those known to be historically related, drops still lower. As we reported in Chapter 12, Guerra Currie et al. (2002) con-

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ducted a comparison of the vocabularies of three sign languages, two of them known to be historically related: French and Mexican (related) and Japanese (unrelated). They considered signs to be similarly articulated if they were identical in meaning and the same in two of the three articulatory parameters, handshape, location, and movement. Their results showed that the two sign languages known to have a historical relationship, French and Mexican sign languages, had an overlap of 38 percent, while the unrelated sign languages overlapped for 23 percent of the 915 sign tokens compared. The authors point out that “no signs were analyzed as similarly-articulated due to coincidence; in all cases, similarly-articulated signs could be attributed to either shared symbolism or borrowing.” Shared symbolism corresponds to what we have more roughly referred to as iconicity (see Footnote 2). It is true, then, that sign languages share some common vocabulary items due to iconicity, but the percentage of such overlapping vocabulary is much smaller than proponents of the ‘universal sign language’ view would predict, and arguably too small to account by itself for reported “easy” communication across sign languages. Battison and Jordan (1976) provide further corroboration for the diversity of sign languages in their study of the participants at an international conference of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). When interviewed, many Deaf participants indicated that they do not understand sign languages that are foreign to them (ibid., p. 59). In addition, Battison and Jordan conducted an experiment in which conference participants were asked to identify pictures based upon explanations given in a variety of sign languages. Their findings showed that the percentage of errors increased significantly when the explanations were given in a sign language with which the participant was unfamiliar. These studies, then, indicate that diverse sign languages have distinct vocabularies. As expected, the signs whose forms have an arbitrary relation to their meanings vary from language to language. But, as we have seen, even iconic signs often vary too. We conclude that the supposition that sign language is iconic and therefore universal is clearly erroneous. It follows that use of the term “sign language” to refer to all sign languages is also invalid; there is no single uniform sign language. Instead, a wide variety of sign languages exist in Deaf communities the world over. Signers of one language cannot freely understand a sign language that is not their own. Structural Similarities Across Sign Languages Alright, then, we have made the point that sign language is not universal. But we still have not told the whole story. We must still grapple with the observation that people who use different sign languages still manage to understand one another much better than their hearing counterparts can. In her keynote address at a conference of sign language researchers, psycholinguist Elissa Newport

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noted: “A group of signers from all over the world can meet for the first time, go out to dinner, and have a conversation. This is something that requires an explanation.”4,5 As we have already shown, similarities in vocabulary cannot explain this phenomenon. Spoken languages with 25 percent overlap in their vocabularies are not mutually intelligible. But an examination of research on a variety of sign languages reveals another, somewhat surprising, observation, one that we hinted at previously: it seems that the sign languages that have been investigated all have significant similarities in their grammatical structures. For example, the use of space for denoting pronouns is common to many, if not all, the sign languages that have been studied thus far. Almost every well established sign language that has been studied to date has a verb agreement system that resembles the one described in Chapter 5. The classifier constructions in these languages are also structurally similar (Chapter 7). Additional constructions shared by a variety of sign languages include verbal aspects expressed by modulating the movement of the verb and word order determined to a certain extent by the message structure (Chapter 8).6 Similarities can also be found in phonological structure as well as in phonological restrictions, such as the impossibility of combining different handshapes in the same sign (Chapter 2).7 We definitely do not intend to claim that the grammatical structure of all sign languages is identical. Such a claim would be fallacious, as we will later show. But certain key grammatical constructions of different sign languages do bear a significant resemblance to one another, and this similarity requires an explanation, because it differs from what we find in spoken languages. Spoken languages resemble one another if they are genetically related (that is, if they have common ancestry), or if they have been in regular contact so that constructions from one language have made their way into the other. An example of structural affinity stemming from a genetic relationship can be seen in the Semitic languages. Semitic languages generally are characterized by

4 Newport, Elissa (1996). ‘Sign Language Research in the Third Millenium’. Keynote speech presented at the Fifth International Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research, Montréal. 5 In the early 1970s, Izchak Schlesinger expressed similar amazement and suggested a possible direction for the explanation. At a lecture he gave at the ADI center in Tel Aviv, he asked: “Every country has its language, and nevertheless Deaf people the world over have not united although they do understand one another. When Deaf people from Israel visited Yugoslavia for the [Deaf] Olympics, they came into contact with Deaf people from other countries and found a common language with them. How could that be? Isn’t this somewhat of a paradox? The Danes understand Swedish, the Brits comprehend American English. Deaf languages from all over the world have enough in common to make communication possible, thus enabling mutual dialogue.” (Demama, 102, January-February 1973, p. 29). 6 For linguistic constructions common to a variety of sign languages, see Fischer (1978). 7 More precisely, there can only be one handshape in a morpheme. Signs with affixes and compound signs may have more than one.

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the salience of the consonantal root (usually consisting of three consonants) which enters into a large number of derivational patterns to form a variety of nominal and verbal paradigms. The other source of structural affinity, regular contact between languages resulting in what linguists call ‘areal features’, can be found in the languages of the Balkan region. Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian and Romanian are languages that do not share a common origin, yet in all four languages the definite article appears after the noun, while in other languages that are closely related to these languages, this is not the case (Crystal, 1987, p. 33). Nonetheless, the similarities noted here are limited to very specific constructions in particular language groups and are not general attributes of spoken languages as a whole. When it comes to sign languages, the situation is different. First, even though not much is known about historical ties among different sign languages, it is clear that at least some of the languages that have been investigated to date are not historically related. Sign languages from a variety of locations in Asia—among them India and Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan—have no historical ties to European sign languages.8 Nor can the language contact explanation provide a convincing answer, because many sign language communities do not come into regular contact with others. Nonetheless, the points of similarity among sign languages are many and are not limited to a single linguistic phenomenon or restricted to a particular level of grammar. In short, sign languages structurally appear to constitute a single linguistic type, though they are neither historically nor geographically related. This remarkable characteristic of sign languages can be understood from a number of perspectives. One point of view suggests that some of the common attributes stem from the physical channel in which sign languages are articulated, i.e., that they convey visuo-spatial representations. Another implicates the relatively young age of most known sign languages. The majority of sign languages that have been studied to date are no more than two or three hundred years old, at most. ISL is only about 70 years old. Young languages, whether spoken or signed, share certain traits, such as a lack of morphological inflection for marking plurals and tenses for example, minimal derivational morphology (McWhorter, 1998), and others as well.9 8

See Zeshan (2000) and the references cited there. Young spoken languages are languages created as a result of intensive contact among people who have no language in common. Languages such as these emerged, for example, in slave colonies in different locations worldwide (primarily in America and the Atlantic and Pacific Islands). These languages are known as pidgins. When languages like these persist over time and become the native language of a second generation of speakers, they are known as creoles (e.g., Sankoff, 1979). For more on similarities between sign languages and creoles, see Fischer (1978). Other sources on creoles appear in the Suggested Reading list at the end of the chapter. 9

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The Impact of the Visual/Manual Modality on the Linguistic Structure of Sign Languages How does the physical modality affect the linguistic structure of sign languages? We believe that a key point in understanding this relationship is that the visual channel facilitates the direct expression not only of the visual features of objects or actions but also of the spatial relations among the characters and objects participating in an event, such as source-goal relations. Spatial relations are at the root of many linguistic constructions, in both spoken and signed languages. Many verbs in a language, any language, express movement in space. Some of these verbs represent actual motion, such as wander, move, walk, travel, come, arrive, etc. But many others denote movement that is much more abstract. Verbs that represent transfer of ownership, for example, signify the abstract movement of an object that has changed hands. In the sentence, ‘Danny gave the book to Ruth,’ the book can be seen as an object that has ‘moved’ from Danny (the source) to Ruth (the goal). Other verbs, such as borrow, take, steal, hire, rent, and even performative verbs, such as tell, announce, ask, command, denote the transfer of an object or an utterance from a source to a goal. In many spoken languages, movement from source to goal is articulated through prepositions. These prepositions represent actual movement as well as abstract movement, as sentences (218)–(222) demonstrate. In these sentences, the prepositions from and to mark the source and the goal. 218. 219. 220. 221. 222.

Matilda traveled to New York. Matilda sent a letter to Jasper. Matilda came from New York. Matilda borrowed a book from Jasper. Matilda told a story to Jasper.

While sign languages clearly must express such concepts as movement from source to goal, there is no need for special words like prepositions to perform this function. Instead, the movement can be represented directly within the signs of the language through the direction of movement of the hand or hands. Consider example (223), illustrated in Figure 14–4. 223. JERUSALEM INDEXa TEL-AVIV INDEXb CAR aPATHb ‘The car traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.’

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FIGURE 14–4. Expressing spatial movement in sign language in the sentence, ‘The car traveled from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv.’

10 The ISL sign for JERUSALEM is hard to show in a still photograph. It involves rotating the palms of the hands outward from the mouth, thought to indicate kissing the Wailing Wall (the extant wall that surrounded the ancient Temple).


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Referential loci for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are established, then the method of transportation, by car, and finally a motion from the source of the driving, Jerusalem, to the goal, Tel Aviv. More abstract movement, such as that expressed by verbs representing transfer of ownership, can be conveyed in a similar fashion, as seen in (224)– (225), pictured in Figure 14–5. 224. BOOK INDEXa 1GIVE-BOOK3. ‘I gave him the book.’ 225. BOOK INDEXa 3TAKE-BOOK1. ‘I took the book from him.’

(a) ‘I gave him/her the book’

(b) ‘I took the book from him/her’

FIGURE 14–5. Verbs expressing transfer of ownership (giving and taking) in Israeli Sign Language.

These sentences in ISL do not contain prepositions. Movement from source to goal is expressed by movement of the hand from one point to another. The person being spoken to can identify the source and the goal because the starting point of the hand movement is always the source and its end point is always the goal. The direction of movement articulated by the hand reflects the direction of movement of the object, which is always from source to goal. The physical channel, then, enables the speaker to articulate direction of movement in a straightforward manner. Established sign languages tend to take advantage of this option.11 Sign languages encode movement from source 11

We use the term ‘established sign languages’, because recent research indicates that brand new sign languages do not necessarily have this structure, as we explain in Chapter 15.

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to goal through the direction in which the hand moves while articulating a sign, rather than through prepositions. As a result, verbs that express movement, whether concrete or abstract, are similar in form: they are comprised of a movement from the source reference point to the goal reference point. In Chapter 5, we showed that verbs in Israeli Sign Language can be divided into three categories: spatial verbs, agreeing verbs and plain verbs. This classification, first established by Padden (1988) for American Sign Language, is directly related to linguistic encoding of spatial relations. Spatial verbs such as PUT, MOVE, WALK, recreate a map of the locations involved in the action they encode. Agreeing verbs like GIVE, TAKE, SEND, TEACH, INFORM, express transfer, literally or metaphorically, as explained in Chapter 5 (Meir, 2001). The movement is more metaphorical in agreeing verbs, and the more metaphorical the transfer, the more abstract the interpretation of the movement. Finally, plain verbs do not encode spatial movement at all. This division has been found in almost all sign languages that have been studied to date. Moreover, verb inflection in each of these categories displays similar morphological features in the sign languages that have been studied. The strong resemblance in verb systems across different sign languages is now explained: it lies in the spatial encoding of movement from source to goal (Aronoff, Meir, & Sandler, 2000, 2005). Sign languages articulate source-goal relations in a very similar way because the visual modality facilitates direct expression of such relations. As the expression of spatial relations in the auditory channel is by its very nature arbitrary, the option taken by sign languages is unavailable to spoken languages. Consequently, different spoken languages articulate source-goal relations differently. Some spoken languages use prepositions for this purpose, while others use specific morphemes to indicate the direction of the movement. But in spoken languages, the relation between the form of words or morphemes and the source-goal relations they denote is necessarily arbitrary: a stream of sounds cannot iconically represent movement in space. As they are arbitrary, they are likely to differ from one another unless the languages are genetically (or sometimes geographically) close. The explanation we have proposed regarding the impact of the physical channel on the linguistic structure of sign languages can be summarized in the following way. The visual/spatial channel makes it possible to directly and iconically articulate a variety of spatial relations, which we have exemplified here with movement from source to goal. Sign languages take advantage of this possibility and express such relations directly. Therefore, different sign languages have a similar system of verbs. The fact that most of the sign languages that have been studied to date behave in this manner signifies the central importance of iconic expression in human communication. It leads us to assume that spoken languages would behave similarly, if only they could. But because the auditory channel does not allow for iconic representation of movement from source to goal, spoken languages are forced to find other ways of expressing such relations. Any means of

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encoding spatial relations in the auditory channel is necessarily arbitrary, so different spoken languages signify source-goal relations in different ways. This line of thinking can also explain the similarity in classifier constructions among different sign languages. These classifier constructions (see Chapter 7) encode both an object’s motion or placement in space as well as physical or semantic properties of the object itself. The object is represented by the handshape, and its motion or location are mapped to movements and locations articulated in space. Here, too, the event finds iconic expression. That is, this combination of handshape and movement signifies in a relatively direct way the moving object, the path, direction and manner of motion, and the relationship between two objects involved in the situation being conveyed. It may be that additional properties shared by a variety of sign languages are also motivated by real-world spatial layouts and the way in which events occur in them. The use of points in space to represent referents (reference points, see Chapter 4) may be explained in this way. Certain common characteristics in the way that constituents are ordered in the sentence might be explainable along similar lines. When describing something that has taken place in some physical setting, the setting is typically described before the characters or the event (see Chapter 8). The order of constituents in such descriptions may also be motivated, in the sense that the existence of a physical setting is prior to the presence of characters in it, and both are generally prerequisites for the events that occur against it. It makes no sense visually for spatial relations or the placement of objects in space to be expressed before the space itself has been specified. This contrasts with spoken languages which may or may not express things that way. The following sentence is not at all remarkable in English, while in sign languages the order of the elements in it would be decidedly odd if not unacceptable: The little girl entered the lobby of the grand theater building situated in the far corner of Serendipity Square, accompanied by her grandmother. In a sign language, the order of occurrence of the elements and events is likely to be: the square, the theater, the lobby, the girl and her grandmother, their entrance. This order reflects what Haiman (1980) calls diagrammatic iconicity, found also in spoken languages, but not as systematically and not universally when depicting spatial relations and events. We hasten to add that iconicity or motivatedness alone will not suffice to explain these systems in sign language. For one thing, there are differences across sign languages even in these motivated aspects of structure, described in the next subsection. That these systems are grammatical and not gestural is clear from language acquisition as well. Both verb agreement and classifier constructions are difficult to acquire, and children make many mistakes along the way (Meier, 1982; Schick, 1990b; Slobin et al., 2003; Supalla, 1982). Alongside structures that are similar across sign languages and related to the visual modality are other similarities across different sign languages that cannot be explained by the line of thought we have developed here—features such as the lack of a plural inflection for nouns, the encoding of aspect in verbs

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but not of tense, and pragmatic determinants of word order within a sentence (i.e., the strong preference for Topic-Comment structure, see Chapter 8). All of these are similar across sign languages, but cannot be explained on the basis of spatial relations or diagrammatic iconicity. A number of investigators have tried to explain these points of similarity. One argument attributes these characteristics to the youth of sign languages. We will return to that idea below.

DIFFERENCES ACROSS SIGN LANGUAGES If the preceding section of this chapter has given the impression that the grammatical structures of sign languages are the same, then we must dispel that impression right away, because it is not correct. All the above notwithstanding, sign languages still vary, even in the details of the types of linguistic constructions that they do have in common. Sign languages are fully linguistic systems, as we have demonstrated for one of them in much detail in Part I of this book. Linguistic systems are conventionalized, and it is to be expected that different language communities conventionalize things in different ways, whether or not the concepts expressed are iconically motivated. Several differences in the verb agreement and classifier construction systems have already emerged in the literature. For example, in addition to spatial reference points, the system of verb agreement in Japanese Sign Languages also uses the non-dominant hand to represent the referents of the source and the goal, and the shape of the nondominant hand encodes gender if the source or goal is human (Fischer & Osugi, 2000). In some sign languages, agreement is expressed for plain verbs as well, by inserting an auxiliary element that inflects for agreement directionally, like agreeing verbs do (Bos, 1994; Smith, 1990). The classifier system is also a conventionalized linguistic system, as Supalla (1982) demonstrated, and here too there are some differences across sign languages. Israeli Sign Language makes more use of the body itself to represent animate beings than does American Sign Language, as explained in Aronoff et al. (2003). The same study shows that ASL uses more of the abstract entity type of classifier, standing for semantic categories such as VEHICLE or UPRIGHT-OBJECT, than does ISL. The handshapes in classifier constructions also vary from one sign language to another, and there are other differences as well. Other ways in which sign language grammars differ are only beginning to emerge. The sense prefixes of Israeli Sign Language described in Chapter 3, grammaticalized from independent words, are specific to ISL. ASL has a negative suffix glossed -ZERO that is specific to that language—and unlike the ISL negative suffixes described in Chapter 9, for example—and ASL has other suffixes as well, all language particular. Such prefixes and suffixes develop over time from independent words, due to various historical processes subsumed by the term ‘grammaticalization’, which has long been known to be widespread

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in spoken language. In Aronoff et al. (2005), we explain that arbitrary word complexity of this kind takes much longer to develop in languages, and suggest that sign languages don’t have much of it yet because of their youth. What this means in the present context is that sign language grammars may become more and more different from one another, given time. To sum up, in the past it was widely assumed that sign languages closely resemble one another because their vocabularies are similar. We have seen that this is not the case. On the other hand, the supposition that sign languages differ from one another just as spoken languages do is also not completely accurate. Comparative studies of a number of sign languages have indicated that different sign languages resemble each other in their grammatical structures much more than do different spoken languages. Sign languages have complex linguistic structures and are governed by rules, as we have demonstrated in this book with respect to Israeli Sign Language. At the same time, the manualvisual channel of sign languages has had a special impact on the structure of their linguistic systems, resulting in certain similarities across them. In our view, this similarity justifies viewing sign languages as a language type, even though many of the languages that belong to this type are not historically related.

COMMUNICATION AMONG DEAF SIGNERS OF DIFFERENT LANGUAGES Let us now consider the second common assumption regarding sign languages and communication among Deaf people: that Deaf people who use different sign languages can understand each other quite easily. While this has been shown to be an overstatement, this view does have some basis in reality. If a Deaf person from Greece observes Deaf people from America conversing, chances are he or she will understand little if anything. But if s/he is included in the conversation and there is a desire to communicate, then communicate they will. It is an indisputable fact that Deaf people who come from different countries where different sign languages are used often manage to communicate with each other much more successfully than do hearing people who speak different languages. When describing encounters with Deaf people from other countries, many Deaf people report that they were able to conduct interesting and lengthy conversations even though the sign language of each is different. Indeed, some claim that communicating with Deaf foreigners is not a problem. After two or three days, they are able to understand one another quite well (Battison & Jordan, 1976, p. 60). Reports from international congresses of the Deaf that took place even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indicate that conference participants conversed among themselves using a form of communication that was understood by all. Today, there are more such events, some of them quite specialized, such as the biennial conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Lan-

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guage Research. At such international conferences, many of the formal talks are typically simultaneously interpreted by professional interpreters into a variety of sign languages. But participants manage to communicate with each other and even to give and understand formal presentations, despite the fact that they come from a variety of language backgrounds. At events such as these that are attended by both Deaf and hearing participants, the Deaf people can be seen mingling easily, often congregating in small groups and chatting animatedly. Those hearing participants who share no common language require the help of an interpreter. In fact, even hearing people who have achieved some degree of proficiency in the sign language of their own country are often confounded by the prospect of communicating with a Deaf person who uses a different sign language. As we have seen, sign language is not an international language. How, then, do Deaf people communicate so successfully despite the differences in their languages? Perhaps they do not communicate using sign language at all, but rather resort to communication through gestures and pantomime? Or maybe when a Deaf person signs in his own language, other Deaf people are able to understand him even though they do not use his language (that is, sign languages can be mutually understood, as is the case, for example, with Norwegian and Danish). The answer apparently lies in a combination of these factors. That is, under such circumstances, Deaf people use a special form of communication that includes elements common to sign languages in general as well as gestures and pantomime when necessary. Battison and Jordan (1976) conducted a study using questionnaires to investigate the form of communication used among Deaf people from different countries. They asked Deaf people how they communicated in these situations. Most of the participants responded that under such circumstances they do not use their own sign language. They also said that they rely heavily upon pantomime and gestures. The following picture emerges from the results of this study, supplemented by our own observations and speculations. In such situations, Deaf people use a hybrid form of communication, composed of their own sign language, elements that they deem to be common to all sign languages, and pantomime. They may change signs from their own language so that they will be more easily comprehended by their interlocutor. A clever communicator no doubt makes judgments as to whether a sign is iconic enough to be understood even though it may be particular to their own sign language. Signers have had a good deal of experience with the way in which different aspects of meaning and appearance are encoded iconically in the signs of a sign language. This means that coining new signs that are likely to be mutually intelligible is a skill which they are in a good position to have cultivated. Also, the communicators borrow signs from each other’s sign language as they go, and adopt linguistic constructions common to both sign languages. Some Deaf people are proficient in communication through gesture as a result of their attempts to com-

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municate with hearing people who do not know sign language, a proficiency which can help them to augment their intra-sign language communication with gestures as well (see also Deuchar, 1984). As might be expected, this form of communication is marked by a slower rate of signing and by a great deal of repetition. Signers also pause often to make sure that they are being understood. Deaf people have commented that this form of communication is a skill that improves over time, and that not all Deaf people excel at it equally. People experienced with intra-sign language communication agree more quickly upon a common vocabulary, and after that, communication becomes easier. Communication systems such as the one just described which emerge when people who speak different languages meet and try to converse are known as ‘contact languages’. Contact languages—also called pidgins (see footnote 9)—are no one’s native language. They are used for limited purposes, and their expressive ability is more restricted than that of ordinary languages, as they were intended only to meet a narrow range of communicative needs. Spoken contact languages are, predictably, characterized by a very simple grammatical structure (Todd, 1990). Contact languages for Deaf people arise when Deaf people from different countries meet. Just as there is no precise way of determining at what point random attempts at communication across different languages converge to form a contact language in spoken language, we cannot say at what point intra-sign language communication accrues enough conventionalized features to be deemed a contact language. But it has been reported that, over the years, a single, official and established contact sign language has emerged, known as International Sign Language. This form of communication is used primarily at international conferences of the Deaf (such as the conferences held by the World Federation of the Deaf ) that are attended by Deaf people from numerous countries. Today International Sign Language is recognized by organizations of the Deaf as the official language at their international conferences. Supalla and Webb (1995) studied the linguistic structure of International Sign Language. Deaf people who use it claim that International Sign Language is more limited in form and poorer in expressive capacity than their regular sign languages (ibid., p. 335). Despite this claim, the investigators sought to examine the grammatical structure of this language, and in particular to see whether International Sign Language has simple grammatical structure, as do spoken contact languages. They found that in contrast to spoken pidgins, the linguistic structures of International Sign Language are more complex. Verb agreement constructions, consistent ‘topic-comment’ word order, and complex negation constructions that mark fully-fledged sign languages are also found in International Sign Language. The investigators attribute this relative complexity of International Sign Language to the strong structural similarities including complex structures that are similar, which can be recruited in the

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contact language. Presumably, Deaf people proficient in their own sign language intuitively sense that other sign languages share certain similar grammatical constructions with their language, such as verb agreement and classifier constructions—structures that we contend are at least partially determined by the manual-visual channel. CONCLUSION The notion that sign language is universal is a myth, but the observation that signers of different sign languages can communicate with each other pretty effectively is a fact. Both are easily understood when we consider them in two contexts: the modality in which they are expressed, and the social conditions in which they arise and develop. Since sign languages are visual and lend themselves to iconic motivation, they share a certain amount of vocabulary. Yet sign languages arise spontaneously and independently all over the globe, and sign languages typically do not share the majority of their vocabularies with other sign languages. The lack of common vocabulary is either because many signs are not iconic but arbitrary, or because the aspect of the concept represented iconically (or metaphorically) in a given sign may well be different from the aspect selected to represent the same concept iconically in a different language. Where vocabulary is not shared, experienced signers can often surmise the meaning of a motivated sign in another sign language based on experience with their own, leading to a degree of mutual intelligibility. The use of space to map referential and grammatical relations is even more important to our understanding of cross sign language similarities, this time at the level of the grammatical structure rather than vocabulary. As sign languages are relatively young, these motivated similarities are salient and result in a considerable degree of success in communicating across sign languages. Yet sign languages also have arbitrary grammatical elements, such as certain prefixes and suffixes that have developed over time from what were once independent words. As sign languages get older, we would expect to find more differences of this kind. Meanwhile, and for the foreseeable future, signers have the enviable advantage of being able to converse quite freely with people from all over the world. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Kyle, J. G., & Woll, B. (1985). (Chapter 4). Sign language: The study of Deaf people and their language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Newport, E. L., & Supalla, T. (2000). Sign language research at the millennium. In K. Emmorey & H. Lane (Eds.), The signs of language revisited: An anthology to honor Ursual Bellugi and Edward Klima (pp. 103–114). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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For those with a linguistics background Aronoff, M., Meir, I., & Sandler, W. (2005). The paradox of sign language morphology. Language, 81(2), 301–344 Fischer, S. D. (1978). Sign language and creoles. In P. Siple (Ed.), Understanding language through sign language research (pp. 309–331). New York: Academic Press Gee, J. P., & Goodheart, W. (1988). American sign language and the human biological capacity for language. In M. Strong (ed.), Language learning and deafness (pp. 49–74). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Guerra Currie, A.-M., Meier, R. P., & Walters, K. (2002). A cross-linguistic examination of the lexicons of four signed languages. In R. P. Meier, K. Cormier & D. QuintoPozos (Eds.), Modality and structure in signed and spoken language (pp. 224–237). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Supalla, T., & Webb, R. (1995). The grammar of international sign: A new look at pidgin languages. In K. Emmorey & J. S. Reilly (Eds.), Language, gesture, and space (International Conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research) (pp. 333–352). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

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15 The Contribution of Sign Languages to Linguistic Research

The description of Israeli Sign Language presented in this book is the product of research conducted by applying the well-honed tools of linguistic analysis. It has demonstrated that ISL has complex linguistic structure, grammatical rules, and a rich vocabulary, and that it meets all the diverse communicative needs of its community of users. Studies of other sign languages have established that these conclusions are valid for sign languages in general. Sign languages, then, are like spoken languages: languages in both modalities are fully fledged human languages, the product of the human brain. And just as linguists have investigated a variety of spoken languages, we can assume that they will study and examine a range of sign languages as well. Every language contributes to our knowledge and enhances our understanding of the fundamental nature of human language in general. So it would be reasonable to expect that the contribution made by research on sign languages would be similar to that made by studies of spoken languages, such as English, Chinese, Hungarian, Azerbaijani and Yupik-Eskimo—no more, no less. But this isn’t exactly the case. The very existence of a language system that relies on a different physical transmission channel challenges our conception of the nature of human language. For this reason, sign languages have made a unique contribution to linguistic research, one that studies of spoken languages alone, as varied as they may be, could not have made. The unique impact that sign language investigation has had on the study of linguistics is best understood within the context of the goals of modern linguistic research in general, and we begin this final chapter with a brief examination of these. With this theoretical base, we can then evaluate the contribution of sign language studies to this program, which we do in the section that follows. In this context, and keeping in mind the similarities and differences among sign languages described in Chapter 14, we go on to consider the theoretical value of research on Israeli Sign Language specifically. In addition to the modality difference, there is another factor that makes sign languages interesting from a theoretical perspective: every now and then a new sign language is born. Spoken languages are all very old or descended from old languages. But sign languages may be born whenever a situation arises 277

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in which deaf people who have no sign language around them must find a way to communicate. When this happens, we have a rare opportunity to see what a truly new language is like. THE GOAL OF MODERN LINGUISTICS: CHARACTERIZING HUMAN LINGUISTIC ABILITY Many linguists are no longer content with describing one language or another, or even with comparing languages for the sake of arriving at a taxonomy of linguistic possibilities. The fundamental goal of modern linguistics is to characterize the linguistic competence of human beings, to answer the question, “What do people know when they know a language?” This linguistic competence1 is what enables humans to acquire a language and to understand and use it. Consider the following points: A. Every human society has a language. B. The speakers of any language can produce and also understand an infinite number of sentences they have never heard before. C. Children acquire language without having it taught to them intentionally. Exposure to a language from infancy and normal interaction in it are sufficient. These points may perhaps appear to be obvious, and in fact throughout history philosophers have referred to or assumed one or more of them. The modern linguist credited with explicitly formulating these points and considering them together to build a coherent scientific paradigm is Noam Chomsky (see Chomsky, 1957, 1965, 1981). Chomsky regarded these three observations as fundamental to our understanding of human language, and claimed that one of the primary objectives of linguistic theory was to explain them. In his view, they lead to the conclusion that the structure and propensities of the human brain imbue all human languages with certain shared characteristics that are naturally learnable by any child. This view has been very influential, and has led to the development of models of language that aim to make the right predictions about the nature of human languages generally. The models of language structure that have resulted from this perspective have been adopted—and sometimes tested—by scientists in other fields, such as cognitive psychology, brain sciences, and computer science. 1 ‘Competence’ is Chomsky’s term used to describe the idealized knowledge that people have about their language—the grammar that exists in the mind. It is distinguished from ‘performance’—the language that people actually produce, which can be affected by factors other than their idealized knowledge, such as noise, fatigue, laughter, memory, etc. Experimental linguists sometimes design experiments to elicit particular types of linguistic responses, and use the subjects’ performance on these tasks as evidence for theories or hypotheses about language. In this way, performance can shed light on competence.

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However, the issue of innateness—structures, knowledge, or propensities that we are born with—is controversial. There is no consensus among language researchers as to how much and what type of knowledge about language form may be innate, or whether this knowledge is explicitly linguistic. A number of influential linguists and psychologists, Bates (1979) and Tomasello (1999) for example, have developed theories that oppose Chomsky's view that much of our language ability is innate, arguing instead that more general cognitive, cultural, and social factors are responsible for language structure and its acquisition. We take no position on the innateness issue here, although we believe that sign language research can contribute to the debate. What we focus on here are those properties that languages generally are known to share. What about sign languages? Can they shed light on these theoretical issues? Before considering this question, it will be useful to consider two particular properties of the human language capacity. The first property is the apparently universal ability to create and understand a potentially infinite number of sentences, mentioned above as one of the key observations about language that must be explained. This property is important in any discussion of the nature of language, because it sets human language apart from other communication systems. The second is the unconscious nature of many of the key aspects of linguistic knowledge. Language Is Non-Finite According to contemporary linguistic theory, a key mechanism of language structure is the combination of a finite set of units and a relatively small set of rules and constraints on their combination. New linguistic expressions in some language can always be generated by applying the same rules to the available forms in the language. We explained in Chapter 2 that every language is constructed from a limited list of sounds. These sounds are combined according to certain principles and constrained in certain ways to produce the phonological system. The different possibilities for combining sounds in a language result in potentially enormous vocabularies, or ‘mental lexicons’ as linguists call them.2 The principle of combining existing units to generate new combinations by applying a system of rules is not limited to the level of phonology. In fact, the creativity of language emerges most clearly when we consider the syntactic level, where words combine to make sentences. Some examples will serve to better clarify this point. Let us assume a set of linguistic elements consisting of a list of words in a given language, and a set of rules in the form of a list of sentence patterns existing in this language. 2 In fact, the lexicon is the one part of our linguistic knowledge that contains a vast number of forms: the words of our language. At the same time, rules for combining word parts (see Chapter 3) serve to multiply and re-multiply the number of words at our disposal.

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Our list includes the following seven words: the, dog, big, boy, my, run, after. The sentence pattern is as follows: Noun Phrase (determiner3  (modifier)  noun)—Verb Phrase (verb  preposition  Noun Phrase). This single pattern with these seven words together can generate at least eight different grammatically acceptable sentences: 226. 227. 228. 229. 230. 231. 232. 233.

The big dog ran after my boy. My boy ran after the big dog. My dog ran after the big boy. The big boy ran after my dog. The dog ran after my big boy. My big boy ran after the dog. My big dog ran after the boy. The boy ran after my big dog.

If we add one more word to our list, for example, cat, we can generate an additional 16 sentences because the word cat can be used instead of dog or boy in each of the above sentences. If we add another word or another pattern, we will considerably expand the possibilities for generating sentences. Using a limited system—a very small number of elements and syntactic rules—a vast number of sentences can be created. Considering that every language has at its disposal tens of thousands of words, and that the number of syntactic rules is greater than two, the possibilities for generating sentences in a language are indeed vast. Syntactic rules are characterized by an additional property that can explain the non-finite nature of language. This property is known as recursion. We are all familiar with this feature, even it we are not acquainted with the term. The children’s story “The House That Jack Built” makes use of this property, creating the whole story in a single sentence: This is the farmer sowing the corn, That kept the cock that crowed in the morn, That waked the priest all shaven and shorn, That married the man all tattered and torn, That kissed the maiden all forlorn,


Determiners are a type of words—articles, possessive pronouns, or numbers—that come before nouns in noun phrases.

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That milked the cow with the crumpled horn, That tossed the dog, That worried the cat, That killed the rat, That ate the malt That lay in the house that Jack built. In this story, the rule that creates a relative clause (here, the clauses beginning with that) has been applied repeatedly to the noun phrases inside other relative clauses. This repeated application of the same rule to create more and more complex sentences is an example of recursion. The fun in “The House that Jack Built” is precisely in knowing that the sentence could go on forever. Diane Lillo-Martin and Steve Martin decided to play around with “The House that Jack Built” for a book chapter written together with one of us4, and embedded the whole thing yet again: This is the banker, his honor forsworn, That foreclosed on the farmer sowing the corn, That kept the cock that crowed in the morn . . . There is no theoretical limit to the length of the sentence, as there is no linguistic restriction on the number of times the rule can be applied. Recursion explains the non-finite nature of language. Every speaker of a language can create what is for all practical purposes an infinite number of infinitely long sentences by recursively applying the rules of syntax. Speakers Are Unaware of Their Linguistic Knowledge The linguistic knowledge of speakers, that is, the forms they know and the rules they apply in order to create new and more complex forms, is unconscious knowledge. As speakers of a particular language, we are not aware of the rules that we apply, and for the most part we are incapable of articulating them in words. We know these rules without having learned them and without being aware of them. But we do know them, without a doubt, for without them we would not be able to communicate as effectively as we do. The notion of linguistic rules that “reside” in our brain without our having deliberately learned them and without our even being aware of them may seem odd at first. An example will help to illustrate this idea with some sentences of English. All native speakers of English will either understand these sentences in the same way if they are sentences of English, or intuitively know that 4

Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2001; 2005).

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they are not possible sentences of English. Yet we can be sure that none of the speakers acquired this knowledge intentionally or is aware of applying a linguistic rule in order to understand the sentences. 234. Jasper saw him in the mirror. 235. Jasper saw himself in the mirror. In sentence (234), it is clear that Jasper saw someone else in the mirror. The word him does not refer to Jasper. In sentence (235), the word himself refers to Jasper and not to someone else. These two sentences show that him ≠ Jasper and himself  Jasper. Now consider the following pair of sentences: 236. Jasper told me that Genevieve does not love him. 237. *Jasper told me that Genevieve does not love himself. In sentence (236) the word him can refer to someone else but also to Jasper. But any English speaker would sense that in sentence (237), the word himself is ungrammatical. Why is it that in sentence (234) the word him cannot refer to Jasper, but can in sentence (236)? And why does the word himself form an acceptable sentence in sentence (235) but an ungrammatical sentence in sentence (237)?5 The answers to these questions are complex and will not be elaborated upon here. But the point is that it doesn’t matter. English speakers know the rules intuitively, whatever they are. While no one intentionally learns syntactic rules, speakers of a language are in general agreement regarding their application. Perhaps the reader is still not convinced. Let’s look at some more sentences. 238. Jasper promised me to amuse him all day. (Jasper ≠ him) 239. Jasper promised me to amuse himself all day. (Jasper  himself) 240. Jasper told me to amuse him all day. ( Jasper  him or someone else  him) 241. *Jasper told me to amuse himself all day. (ungrammatical sentence) Sentences (238)–(239) behave like sentences (234)–(235) from the point of view of the relationship between the words Jasper, him and himself, while sentences (240)–(241) behave like sentences (236)–(237). But if him can only refer to someone else in (238), why can it refer to either Jasper or someone else in (240)? And if sentence (239) is okay, why is (241), which seems to have 5 The terms ‘grammatical’ and ‘ungrammatical’ are more useful than the terms ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ for linguistic discussion. This is because the former relate to the way language is actually used, while the latter have normative connotations.

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the same form, ungrammatical? The only difference between sentences (238)– (239) and sentences (240)–(241) is the main verb, promise as opposed to tell. The question of why the verb promise behaves differently is an interesting linguistic issue that we needn’t go into here. What is important in the context of this discussion is that every English speaker unequivocally makes the same judgment, that is, that sentences (238)–(240) are acceptable while sentence (241) is not, and that sentence (240) has two possible interpretations. Clearly, we are all applying a linguistic rule here, even though we never learned this rule and are not conscious of it. We Know-with-a-capital-“K” how promise and tell are different, but we don’t know we Know! We Know how him and himself pattern differently, but we don’t know we Know that either. The role of the linguist is to try to accurately and thoroughly formulate rules describing when speakers use him and when they use himself, and to explain how the different verbs behave in a language. The linguist must extrapolate the unconscious rule from the possible sentences of language and formulate it explicitly. Undoubtedly some sort of regularity exists here because we all agree on the meaning of the sentences. Luckily, ordinary folks never have to worry about such rules. But these are precisely the worries that the linguist welcomes. We now return to the question, What do people know when they know a language? What is this abstract ability? How can we describe it and learn more about it? This is where the linguist enters the picture. Linguistic research is not carried out directly but rather indirectly, through in-depth examination of specific languages. On the basis of studies of one language or another, linguists formulate the rules that govern the regularity found in a particular language. Comparing languages then makes it possible to understand features that are common to different languages. We are interested in those general characteristics in order to get to the bottom of our capacity for language as humans. There are many reasons for assuming that general organizing principles underlie all languages. One of the most compelling reasons comes from studying language acquisition. While there may be some differences in acquiring particular aspects of Turkish or Chinese, English or Navaho, by and large, children pass through the major milestones at similar ages. Even cultural differences do not matter much. In some cultures, there is a great deal of linguistic interaction between adults and children, and in others such interaction is quite limited (Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986). But such differences do not seem to affect the outcome. Children reach the adult level of competence in the same time frame. This demonstrates that human linguistic ability is not aimed at acquiring a particular language in a particular setting, but rather at acquiring language in general, and implies that ‘language in general’ has a core of common characteristics. Linguists aspire to discover just what it is that characterizes languages generally. Linguistic theory must be sufficiently comprehensive to explain all the forms and rules of all human languages, but it must also be sufficiently limited to rule out anything that does not exist in any human language.

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HOW SIGN LANGUAGES HELP TO IDENTIFY UNIVERSAL CHARACTERISTICS OF LANGUAGE What can linguistic studies of sign languages contribute to constructing such a theory? Before the advent of linguistic research on sign languages, linguistics focused on describing spoken languages only, and attempted to define linguistic ability based on these descriptions alone. This meant that it was impossible to know to what extent properties considered to be universal were actually dictated by the physical channel of transmission rather than by more abstract principles of linguistic organization, and the role of physical modality tended to be downplayed in theoretical models of language. The inclusion of sign languages—naturally arising languages transmitted in a different modality—in linguistic investigation offers researchers a peephole into the black box of human linguistic ability. By comparing languages in the two modalities, we can try to ascertain the basic properties characteristic of all languages and to distinguish between them and other properties that are dictated by the modality of transmission. The other side of the coin is no less interesting. After we have distinguished between more abstract linguistic properties and organizing principles and those that are dictated by the physical channel, we will also be able more accurately to examine how the physical channel affects a language, how it molds its form and possibly even its content. The following examples illustrate our point. First and foremost, sign languages teach us that the physical channel of spoken languages, the oral/auditory channel, is not essential to human language. Language is not necessarily a collection of sounds; language and speech are not synonyms. While language is made up of units or building blocks, these do not have to be acoustic units. Sign languages are also composed of building blocks, but these units are visual rather than acoustic (see Chapter 2). From the point of view of linguistic theory, this indicates that it is not sufficient to arrive at an accurate list of possible sounds in a language and to identify the rules for combining these sounds. A more abstract model is required, one that can explain the principles according to which the basic units are selected, the way they are organized into words, and their behavior in language use. The same is true of many other constructs that linguists have deemed universal—prematurely, in our view, because they did not take sign languages into consideration. Another example can be found in the linear structure commonly attributed to language. The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, often described as the father of modern linguistics, described the ‘linguistic sign’, by which he meant the word, as linear in nature: the consonants and vowels that make up the word follow one after the other, like beads on a string. For example, in the word rabbit, the sounds [r,æ, b, I, t] follow one another in a sequence. For Saussure, this property is one of the most fundamental features of human languages (see Saus-

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sure, 1959, p. 70). But is it? Linguistic research that relies exclusively on spoken languages cannot provide a complete answer to this question. Linearity may, in fact, be a result of limitations of the oral-aural channel, which is incapable of producing and perceiving many elements of different types simultaneously. Let’s delve into this question a little more deeply, starting with spoken language. Air comes up from the lungs and passes through the vocal cords causing them to vibrate, and the resulting sound is further influenced by rapid changes in the configuration of the vocal apparatus. For the word cat, for example, a constriction is first formed by placing the back of the tongue against the back part of the roof of the mouth to produce the ‘c’ sound, [k]. In actual pronunciation, there is typically a kind of ‘h’ sound after the [k], transcribed phonetically with a superscript symbol: [kh]. Then the tongue moves down and forward inside the mouth while the vocal cords are drawn together and the air from the lungs causes the vocal cords to vibrate, making the vowel sound [æ], corresponding to the written ‘a’. Finally, the tip of the tongue creates another constriction in the mouth by touching the ridge behind the upper teeth, while the vocal cords are drawn apart, to produce [t]. The particular sound waves set up by these events cause the eardrum to vibrate accordingly, and an acoustic signal corresponding to the word cat, is heard and interpreted by the brain. This signal can be represented in visual form by recording it with a spectrograph, an instrument that produces a visual image (a spectrogram) of the frequencies, timing, and intensity of acoustic energy during speech. Figure 15–1 is a spectrogram of the word cat spoken by a young man.6 The sequential position of each sound is indicated in the figure.

FIGURE 15–1. A spectrogram of the word cat: an acoustic event resulting from a sequence of articulations.


We thank John Kingston for generously providing the spectrogram.

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It is primarily these acoustic signals that we perceive as speech, and not the visible movements of the throat and mouth which create the signals (the reason we can talk over the phone).7 While there is a considerable amount of overlap in the motion of the vocal cords, tongue, and lips during speech, we still seem to produce and perceive the sounds of speech as a linear sequence— here, [kh], [æ], and [t]. The spectrogram shows us how remote the acoustic signal is from the concept it represents. The sign for CAT in ISL is made by the two hands in a shape producing a double movement outward from the sides of the mouth.

FIGURE 15–2. The ISL sign, CAT: Hand Configuration, Location, and Movement simultaneously present in the signal.

We can see that signs are quite different. They are articulated by the hands, and the articulators are visible to the person being signed to. Unlike the vocal articulations in speech, the form of the sign is perceived directly. While there is reason to analyze signs as having a certain amount of linear structure (see Chapter 2), the overall impression is one of images formed by simultaneously occurring hand configurations, locations, and movements. So, there seems to be a paradox here. Everything we have said so far in this book leads to the conclusion that sign languages are fully on a par with spoken languages. Their function, the course of their acquisition, and even their grammatical structure strongly suggest that sign languages are the product of the same kind of mental system that is responsible for spoken languages. But it is equally clear that they are transmitted in a completely different way. If we rely on spoken languages only, we can’t determine whether the pervasive property of linearity is the result of constraints on the oral channel of 7 If the mouth of the speaker is in view, however, we also attend to its configuration in processing speech. But the point is that the visual image is not primary and not even necessary for speech perception.

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transmission or whether it is a more abstract and fundamental property of linguistic organization. Here studies of sign languages can make a unique contribution, as they are produced by the same mind but transmitted differently by the body. If it had turned out that sign languages display the same type of linearity, we would have even stronger evidence for claiming that this feature is a general and universal characteristic of linguistic organization. But since it is evident that sign language words are not particularly linear, relying more on the simultaneous layering of linguistic information, it is reasonable to assume that this feature is a consequence of the physical channel in which a language is articulated. In other words, it means that the meaningless units that make up the words of language need not be linearly sequenced in order for us to conceive of and understand them; they only come out in a sequence in spoken language because the oral-aural modality squeezes them out that way. In Chapters 5 and 7 we explained that the meaningful word parts (morphemes) in Israeli Sign Language are also combined in a more simultaneous manner (for example in verb agreement constructions and in classifier constructions), in contrast with the linear prefixes and suffixes that are so common in spoken languages. Studies have shown that in most cases, the word in sign languages consists of a single syllable (Coulter, 1982) even when it is morphologically complex (that is, when it includes a number of meaningful units, morphemes). The difference between a sign meaning ‘to look at’ and a sign inflected for agreement, to mean ‘s/he looked at me’, is only in the direction of movement. The parts of the sign standing for ‘s/he’ and ‘me’ are simultaneously incorporated into the beginning and endpoints of the movement path. In spoken languages, similar morphological complexity is usually expressed by sequentially stringing together prefixes and suffixes to some base, a construction that yields a word with a sequence of meaningful parts.8 The simultaneity of structure found in the complex words of all sign languages that linguists have studied appears to be due to the modality of transmission. There are apparently several different modality-driven factors that conspire to produce this kind of structure.9 Another property of words established by de Saussure as fundamental is arbitrariness, long believed to be one of the most important characteristics of words in language. That is, the relationship between the sound of a word (or of what Saussure calls a sign) and its meaning is completely arbitrary, and the form of a word does not reflect its meaning. For example, the sounds [kh][æ][t] are not in any way related to the meaning of the word cat, a point that is brought home clearly by the spectrogram in Figure 15–1. This property is considered of paramount importance because it frees a language to create an unlimited number of words. If words were restricted to iconic representation of concepts only, our language would include only animal sounds and ono8 9

This issue is dealt with in Sandler (1993). See Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2006), Chapter 25, for a discussion.

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matopoetic words like buzz and mumble and cockadoodledoo. The fact that words do not have to reflect their meanings directly makes it possible to generate words for abstract concepts such as ‘brotherhood, ‘benefit’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘conflict’, for places like ‘hospital’, ‘library’, ‘capital’, and, in fact, for any concept we wish to refer to. The property of arbitrariness is considered to be so central that in the past sign languages were thought to be an inferior form of communication because a large proportion of signs are to some extent not arbitrary. Only after extensive linguistic investigation of sign languages clearly demonstrated that sign languages are not limited to iconic or motivated signs, and that many signs are indeed arbitrary, did sign languages begin to be considered ‘real’ languages. Yet, sign languages do contain many signs like CAT above that are motivated in one way or another, that are not arbitrary. At the same time, sign languages are fully-fledged languages in every sense of the word. This seems to contradict the common wisdom regarding the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (word). But this contradiction can teach us something fundamental about the nature of human communication. First, a certain degree of iconicity seems not to hamper the linguistic richness of a language. A language can iconically represent objects or actions that lend themselves to iconic expression and arbitrarily represent those concepts that resist such expression. A speaker of Japanese, for example, a language with a large vocabulary of onomatopoetic words called mimetics, might argue that such iconic devices enrich their language.10 In fact, exploiting iconicity can actually be a very effective communication strategy. In sign languages, iconicity is manifested not only in the lexicon but also in certain grammatical constructions, such as verb agreement and classifier constructions (see the discussion in Chapter 14). The various ways in which sign languages exploit iconicity suggest that languages will take advantage of it if they can. Sign languages have the ability to utilize iconicity or motivatedness in a wider variety of structures and forms than spoken languages do, and so, of course, they do. Spoken languages are more limited in this regard since the oral-aural channel is restricted in its ability to represent concepts iconically. Consequently, then, the arbitrariness of the linguistic signal in spoken language seems to be dictated to some extent by the constraints of the physical modality, rather than an inexplicably given characteristic. This finding fits well with the claim of many investigators who are convinced that spoken languages are also characterized by a degree of iconicity, particularly at the level above the word, the syntactic level.11 For example, the following two sentences are understood differently: Joyce got married and became pregnant as compared to Joyce became pregnant and got married. The


See Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2006) for a discussion of Japanese mimetics in this context, and references to sources found there. 11 For classic articles on this topic, see Haiman (1980, 1985).

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order of the predicates in a sentence is perceived as representing the order of events as they happened, so that switching their order is interpreted as a change in the order in which the events occur. The ordering of predicates, then, iconically conveys the sequential time relations among events as they actually happened. Iconicity of this sort is called ‘diagrammatic iconicity’. The assertion of those researchers who claim that spoken languages do make considerable use of iconicity, and would do it more if they only could, is reinforced by sign language. Sign language research demonstrates that arbitrariness, like linearity, is largely dictated by the constraints of the oral-acoustic channel. Linguistic Universals Readers may now be asking themselves, “Then are there any basic properties of human languages that are not dependent on the modality of communication?” There are indeed. First of all, both spoken languages and sign languages are marked by what Hockett (1960) calls ‘duality of patterning’, that is, by the ability to generate a vast number of meaningful words from a limited list of meaningless units. Chapter 2 described Stokoe’s discovery that signs combine and recombine the same meaningless primitives to form meaningful words, regardless of whether the resulting words are iconic or not. This property, which enables languages to be exceptionally economical systems on the one hand and extremely rich on the other, is a fundamental feature of human language in both modalities. Sign language research has shown other central features of language to be universal as well. The infinite nature of language, which arises from the possibility of constantly generating new expressions by combining elements in accordance with rules, is shared by spoken and signed languages alike. Human language is infinite in the sense that each and every speaker is capable of generating and understanding new expressions all the time. Human languages in both modalities also share the property of recursion that we sketched above. For example, in Chapter 10, relative clauses in ISL were mentioned, in which one sentence is embedded in another, as in The girl [that I met yesterday] left; the complex sentence Adam wants me to meet him was introduced in Chapter 4; and embedded questions were presented in Chapter 9. Differences among verbs such as to tell and to promise of the kind illustrated for English in sentences (238)–(241) exist in ISL and other sign languages as well. In both modalities, the stages and timetable for language acquisition are about the same, and in both, language is acquired from infancy without instruction (Meier, 1991). In other words, the mind of a child doesn’t care in which modality its language is wrapped. Their minds are “designed” in such a way as to acquire language, whether it is spoken or signed.12 That children 12

Hearing children of deaf parents who communicate primarily in sign language with their children acquire sign language the same way deaf children do under similar circumstances.

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behave in this way strongly suggests that there are other organizing principles of language, beyond the physical modality of transmission, that are shared by the two modalities, some of which have been pointed to in acquisition studies (Meier, 1982, 1991; Newport & Meier, 1985; Supalla, 1982), while others may not yet have been discovered. Although these more abstract properties are formal and their descriptions quite technical, some linguists believe that they form the real nuts and bolts of linguistic competence, so that discovering their existence in a sign language is proof positive of their existence within the general language faculty. Because of their technical nature, we cannot elaborate these properties here, but we list some of them with references, for the linguists in the audience. In addition to recursion in the syntax of American Sign Language (Padden, 1988), linguists also have discovered ‘pro-drop’ in that language. This means that it is possible to delete pronouns under specific conditions required in spoken languages as well (Lillo-Martin, 1991). It has also been argued that the surface structure of wh-questions in ASL is different from their underlying structure, in that the wh- element in wh-questions is moved from its basic place in the sentence, as it is in English, for example Lillo-Martin (2002) and Neidle et al., (2000). That is, in both language modalities, declarative sentences and questions are structurally related to one another in similar ways. At the level of morphology, both inflectional and derivational processes have been shown to exist—the two basic types of morphological devices in word formation (Aronoff et al., 2000, 2005; Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Padden & Perlmutter, 1987; Supalla & Newport, 1978; Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006). The “simultaneous” morphology of sign languages has been shown to be formally comparable to the nonconcatenative morphology of Semitic languages (Sandler, 1990). Also, a key aspect of the architecture of grammar was shown to exist in ASL: a division between lexical and post-lexical processes (Padden & Perlmutter, 1987; Sandler, 1993, 1999a). This means roughly that rules affecting the pronunciation of words at their formation are different from rules that affect them once they are put into sentences. Perhaps the biggest surprises lie at the phonological level, which, despite the obvious difference in production and perception apparatus, has many properties in common with spoken language phonology. Despite the tendency for simultaneity mentioned above, there is significant linear phonological structure as well (Liddell, 1984a; Sandler, 1989). The simultaneous appearance of sign language words is formally comparable to autosegmental organization, e.g., the way tones are integrated into words in tone languages (Sandler, 1986, 1989). Even a unit comparable to the syllable has been argued for on formal grounds (Brentari, 1990, 1998; Perlmutter, 1992; Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006, Chapter 14). The system of prosody, which divides the language stream rhythmically into interpretable chunks, and nuances it with intonational melodies, finds its parallel in sign language, where facial expression has been argued to fulfill

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the same function, and to pattern in much the same way, as intonation in spoken language (Nespor & Sandler, 1999; Reilly, McIntire, & Bellugi, 1990b; Sandler, 1999b, 1999c; Wilbur, 2000). The significance of these results lies not only in demonstrating that sign languages are formally similar to spoken languages, but also in uncovering those properties of language that are truly universal, in that they characterize all naturally occurring languages, regardless of the physical channel of their transmission. Of course, there are differences too, and these must be attributed to modality—to each modality, manual-visual and oral-aural. Some of the major differences, such as the degree of linearity in language structure and the notion of arbitrariness, were outlined in the preceding section. Here we look at subtler ways in which the two systems differ, and what we stand to learn from these differences. Non-Universals: Differences between Spoken and Signed Languages First of all, sign languages can reveal and clarify properties of human language that are more salient in signed than in spoken languages because of limitations imposed only by the oral-aural channel of transmission. One example is the linguistic encoding of spatial relations. Some researchers claim that spatial relations form the cognitive basis of many grammatical systems within languages. In many spoken languages, for example, prepositions that mark spatial relations and locative adverbials also are used to indicate temporal relations (The lesson will be on Thursday; before noon, etc.), ownership relations (This book belongs to me), and existence (There is a boy in the room). The underlined words in each of these sentences signify spatial or locational relations, but we extend their meaning to express other types of relations as well. In spoken languages, the spatial basis of a variety of linguistic constructions is often obscured or only partially evident. In sign languages that are articulated in space, it is conceivable that spatial relations can be expressed across a wider variety of linguistic constructions. And indeed, studies of verbs and other predicating constructions in sign languages have shown that spatial relations form the basis of linguistic systems in those languages (e.g., verb agreement, classifier constructions). This property is more conspicuous in sign languages because they offer the option for expressing spatial relations directly (Meir, 2002; Aronoff et al., 2005). By studying sign languages, then, we gain insight into the relation between space and grammar in language in general. There is another important lesson to be learned from the fact that sign languages constitute a language type, whose characteristics were described at length in Chapter 14. Although sign languages do not seem to violate the predictions of linguistic theory, the fact that as a group they share certain key properties that do not cluster in spoken languages is a generalization often missed. Characteristics like simultaneous layering of morphological structure,

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spatial organization of verb agreement and classifier constructions, facial intonation, and phonological features like [open hand] are present in sign languages as a group, but do not characterize any spoken language group. At the same time, basic spoken language characteristics such as pervasively linear structure and overwhelming arbitrariness of linguistic symbols are not typical of sign languages. Such characteristics are often taken as somehow preordained universal linguistic properties despite the fact that they do not characterize sign languages to anywhere near the same extent as they do languages that are spoken. The lesson is that there is a gap in linguistic thinking. Although the goal of a scientific theory is to explain the phenomena within its domain, theories of language have neglected to grapple with the effect of the modality of transmission on language structure. So we see that sign languages have made a significant contribution to linguistic research precisely because they are the same yet different. By comparing languages in the visual channel to those transmitted in the acoustic channel, we can distinguish those properties that are essential to human language from those that are imposed by the channel through which language is transmitted. Consequently, in recent years, linguistic investigation of sign languages has become an integral part of linguistic research in general. LANGUAGE OUT OF NOTHING: COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS THAT HAVE DEVELOPED WITHOUT A LANGUAGE MODEL Up to this point, we have focused on the importance of sign languages to linguistic research based upon their status as human languages that are articulated in a different physical modality. Yet because the linguistic environments of deaf people are often quite extraordinary, the study of sign languages can make another unique contribution to linguistic science. These exceptional linguistic conditions provide a kind of natural laboratory for examining various aspects of language and language acquisition. Here we describe two such remarkable situations that are of particular interest because they have enabled researchers to document communication systems that developed without exposure to language. One is the home sign created by deaf children in hearing families who are not exposed to any sign language, and the other is the creation of sign language from scratch within a community. Home Sign We have emphasized that the key to normal language acquisition among children is exposure to a model in the form of an adult speaker or speakers of that language. Children acquire the language to which they are exposed from birth or

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from a very young age, without instruction. But what happens when a child is not exposed to any language at all? Can he or she develop language independently? Clearly we cannot attempt to answer this question by experimental means—it’s inconceivable to even consider isolating a baby from all exposure to language. The very few known instances of children who grew up in such isolation are cases of children who were abandoned outside of human society. One instance is documented in ‘The Wild Boy of Aveyron’ (Itard, 1962) whose story was later enacted in Truffaut’s 1969 film, ‘L’enfant Sauvage’. Another example is Genie, the girl who until the age of 13 grew up in total isolation, locked in a small room without contact with any other human beings (Curtiss, 1977). These cases, which thankfully are very rare, cannot provide an answer to the question we have raised here, for these children had no interaction whatsoever with any other human being. Although Genie’s language development after her rescue was documented and is certainly of theoretical interest (see Curtiss, 1977), her mental and emotional states were so clearly compromised that they inevitably must have had an impact on her ability to acquire language. Among the deaf population, in contrast, there are children who do interact with other people yet are not exposed to any linguistic model. These are deaf children with profound hearing loss raised in hearing families that strictly and exclusively enforce oral education without relying on any form of manual communication. Deaf children cannot naturally absorb spoken language, and if they are not exposed to the linguistic model provided by sign language they will grow up without having been naturally exposed to language over the course of several years. As opposed to cases of “feral children” like those described in the previous paragraph, these deaf children are not raised in social isolation or under inhuman conditions. They grow up in the bosom of their own families, interacting normally in every way except one: language. Yet communicate they must, and they do—and the system they devise sheds light on the development of language without a linguistic model. For many years, Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues have been investigating the form of communication developed by such children (GoldinMeadow, 2003). Their findings indicate that even though these children were not exposed to a linguistic model, they did evolve a communicative system of gestures and signs. The children they studied systematically developed signs that denoted the names of objects and specific actions as well as ways to combine a number of different signs to form more complex expressions. This form of communication has been labeled ‘home sign’. While such communicative systems are far from the complexity and richness of authentic sign languages, home sign systems do contain the seeds of a number of the linguistic structures found in sign languages (and in spoken languages as well). Goldin-Meadow’s studies indicate that the human brain has an irrepressible instinct for creating a communicative system. The research also reinforces the argument that some of the constructions found in all sign languages are the result of the nature and

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constraints of the visual modality (see Chapter 14) and not, for example, of any historical connection between these sign languages. The linguistic units exhibited by children using home sign, though rudimentary, are also evident in corresponding constructions in the spatial grammar of real sign languages. The research suggests that the system developed by these children recombines meaningless units like handshapes in different signs, and that a basic meaningful sign can change its form with concomitant changes in meaning. Even certain sign order generalizations have emerged. In addition, it was shown that the system developed by these children is significantly richer and more systematic than the gestures used by their mothers. The system of the home-signing children—showing certain tantalizing regularities but remaining very limited in lexicon and structure—may be thought of as a kind of pre-language, exhibiting the kernels of language as we know it. As far as we know, there is nothing equivalent in spoken languages. There is no ‘home-speak’ because the circumstances that would engender such a communicative system simply do not exist. Consequently, investigation of communication in the manual-visual modality without a language model is uniquely enlightening, as it affords us a glimpse into what Steven Pinker (1994) calls ‘the language instinct’, in its primal form. The Emergence of a New Language: A School in Nicaragua and a Bedouin Village in the Israeli Negev Desert How is a new language created out of nothing? This question is certainly intriguing, but difficult to answer, since every hearing human society already has a language.13 But here again, the circumstances that groups of deaf people sometimes find themselves in can shed some light on this issue. The development of Israeli Sign Language provides some grounds for thinking that at the boarding school for the deaf in Jerusalem (see Chapters 11 and 12), a system of sign communication emerged without a linguistic model, as must have been the case at countless boarding schools for deaf children elsewhere when they were first established. Unfortunately, no documentation of the development of that system is available to us. There are rare instances, however, of the emergence of language from scratch, which are being carefully documented and analyzed. One is a sign language that arose among children at a school for deaf children in Nicaragua, and the other is a sign language that was born in a community of Negev Bedouins in Israel.

13 Contact languages or pidgins, described in chapter 14, do not arise out of nothing, because the speakers of the pidgin each have their own native languages, which provide a linguistic resource on which the speakers can rely.

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Nicaraguan Sign Language began to evolve when deaf children and young people were brought to a school for the deaf, where they met each other for the first time (Kegl, Senghas, & Coppola, 1999; Senghas & Coppola, 2001; Senghas, Kita, & Özyürek, 2004). Until the establishment of this school, these deaf children were raised at home in hearing families, without contact with any other deaf people and often without any education at all. This means that they had not been exposed to any language whatsoever. The researchers report that they had used only home sign before meeting other deaf people at the school. In the late 1970s, a school for the deaf was established, and for the first time in their lives deaf children had the opportunity to meet other deaf people. The teachers at the school were all hearing, and attempted, apparently without much success, to teach the children Spanish. Nonetheless, the teachers quickly discovered that the children were successfully and efficiently communicating among themselves through a system that they, the teachers, could not understand. A conventional communication system had begun to emerge. This system developed out of nothing more than the idiosyncratic home sign of the individual children. As time went by, after the first group of children had converged on a linguistic system, other children enrolled at the school. The nascent language of the first cohort served as a linguistic model for them, and there is clear evidence that these young children developed the language further. Just as the children of pidgin speakers automatically elaborate on the input they receive to create creole languages, so did the second cohort in Nicaragua forge the input they received into a more complex and systematic language. These findings support the idea that children impose structure on the input to which they are exposed, as part of the acquisition process. Records of the language as it evolves in Nicaragua also corroborate the theory that we have supported here, that properties common to sign languages in general arise from the physical modality, and not from any connection among these languages. The basic elements of both verb agreement (Chapter 5) and classifier constructions (Chapter 7), that are typical of sign languages generally, are discernible in Nicaraguan Sign Language, a language that arose de novo. More recently still, the present authors began investigating another new language, this time one that arose within a whole community rather than at a school. Together with our colleagues Mark Aronoff and Carol Padden, we have been studying the sign language of the Al-Sayyid Bedouins, a community of approximately 3,500 people, about 100 of whom are deaf. This represents about 2.5 percent of the population, 20 times the incidence of deafness found elsewhere. A group of geneticists determined the genetic cause of deafness in the community, which has been perpetuated by the custom of marriage within the family (Scott et al., 1995). The high preponderance of deafness in this community has resulted in the appearance of a village sign language, used by deaf and hearing people alike, and viewed by the people of Al-Sayyid as an alternative language of the community (Kisch, 2004). Deafness carries no stigma (though it is sometimes seen

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as a practical disadvantage), and deaf people are fully integrated into the community, holding jobs, marrying (hearing people), and interacting freely in Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) with spouses, children, and friends, deaf and hearing alike. The first deaf people of the village, now all deceased, were born about 70 years ago. Most of our work so far has been on signers of the second generation, people now in their 30s and 40s. Most of the people in this group were relatively isolated from other signed and spoken languages. Our research verifies that the vocabulary of ABSL is distinct from that of ISL, and that the languages are not mutually intelligible. Considering that the community is so insular and that its members share so much common context, we did not know how much grammatical regularity had evolved at this early stage of its development. From ABSL, we have learned, however, that the language instinct makes itself felt almost from the beginning. Specifically, we found that ABSL has developed a highly regular word order in the space of one generation (Sandler, Meir, Padden, & Aronoff, 2005). The order of constituents in the relatively simple sentences of the language of generation two is Subject first, then Object, and then Verb (SOV), for example, WOMAN APPLE GIVE. Even the smaller units, the phrases of the language, have internal regularity. The main word in a phrase (called ‘the head’) precedes its modifier, for example, SHIRT RED, CUP THREE. The SOV word order, as well as the noun-numeral order, differ from those of ISL, Hebrew, and the local dialect of Arabic, and are believed to have arisen independently in ABSL. Word order is one way that languages have of encoding grammatical relations among parts of a sentence. For example, in English, the order of words in the sentences Jan hugged Kim and Kim hugged Jan is the means by which the language tells us who did the hugging and who got hugged. The patterns found in ABSL show us that a language develops a formal way of encoding grammatical relations in a very short time. The vocabulary of the language demonstrates conventionalization at this level as well. We know the vocabulary is broad because we have witnessed conversations in ABSL about topics as complex and diverse as building construction, fertility, national insurance, and folk remedies. In the course of creating a dictionary for the village, we have already discovered hundreds of words that are shared among signers, and have even come upon conventionalized compounds. The sign for KETTLE, shown in Figure 15–3, is such a compound, consisting of a sign for ‘tea’ and a sign indicating the size and shape of the kettle. But it is not only the systematicity that we have found in the language that is of interest; what we have not found in the language may be just as instructive. For example, we mentioned in Chapter 14 that most established sign languages apparently combine morphemes to make complex forms such as verbs marked for agreement and classifier constructions. This is striking because young languages are not expected to have complexity of this sort. We claimed together with our colleague Mark Aronoff that the relatively quick de-

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FIGURE 15–3. The compound sign for KETTLE in ABSL.

velopment of morphological complexity is possible because such morphology is iconically motivated (Aronoff et al., 2005), and we expected to find it in ABSL as well—but we have not. It appears that the language has not yet developed a verb agreement system, although its rudiments are found in the language, in the form of localizing referents at different points in space (Aronoff, Meir, Padden, & Sandler, 2004). Classifier constructions that combine classifiers with locations and movements are not found either, but specifiers of size and shape, as in the word KETTLE, do occur. The language has simply not systematically incorporated these locations and classifiers into complex forms as older sign languages do. We learn from this that even the sign language typical, motivated morphology does not develop overnight. Regardless of any innate potential for linguistic structuring that humans may have, grammatical complexity still takes time and communicative experience among members of a community to develop. How Many Brains Does It Take to Make a Language? Considering together the home sign research with the research on new languages in Nicaragua and Israel leads to some intriguing conclusions. Home sign shows important regularities of structure that the gesture of hearing parents does not possess, yet it lacks the complexity and range of expression of a language, even a new language like Nicaraguan Sign Language or Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. The latter do show important structural properties that are conventionalized and grammatical, and a large enough lexicon for complex interaction on a wide range of topics beyond the here and now. Still, fully developed systems of verb agreement and classifier constructions have not been reported in these languages, despite the fact that such systems appear to develop in older (but still relatively young) sign languages, probably helped along by their iconicity.

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We learn two important lessons from this research. First, it takes more than one brain to make a language; a community is necessary. Even the smallest Al Sayyid deaf children we have encountered appear to have a system that is more extensive, more complex, and more regular than that of home signing children. And second, the complex grammatical structure typical of more familiar languages should not be taken for granted; it takes interaction among members of a community, and transference of the language from one generation to another over time, in order for it to develop. This second lesson lends indirect support to theories of language evolution that highlight the importance of communication (e.g., Pinker & Jackendoff, 2005). It also presents a challenge to a theory holding that language is ‘not properly regarded as a system of communication . . . and [that communication] may even be of no unique significance for understanding the functions and nature of language’ (Chomsky, 2000, p. 75). Research on home sign and emerging sign languages shows that communication is important in developing a language. Neither of these theoretically significant lessons would have been within our reach, without sign language research. THE CONTRIBUTION OF RESEARCH ON ISRAELI SIGN LANGUAGE Linguistic investigation of sign languages beginning in the 1960s focused primarily on one sign language at first, American Sign Language. When studies of this language began to be published and make their way into the body of general linguistic knowledge, it became evident that this research had something significant to contribute to our understanding of human language in general. First of all, these studies demonstrated that ASL is a language in every sense of the word, refuting the assumption that language and speech are one and the same. Second, the research showed that sign languages and spoken languages have much in common, in their grammatical structure, communicative function, and course of acquisition. These points of resemblance substantiated the theory that language has universal properties, regardless of the modality in which it is articulated. Subsequently, studies of other sign languages were also carried out, including those of Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Italy, Australia, Britain, Germany, India and Pakistan, Japan, Taiwan, and, of course, Israel. These studies corroborated the findings of earlier research regarding the existence of universal properties. They also revealed an unexpected finding: the different sign languages that were investigated were remarkably similar to American Sign Language in certain ways.14 This similarity manifested itself not in vocabulary 14

See Newport and Supalla (2000) for a survey of the development of linguistic research on sign languages over the past forty years.

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but rather in the grammatical structure of the languages. The unexpected similarities across sign languages raised a number of new questions and suggested different directions for research, such as the issue of whether some of the properties of a language stem from the physical channel in which it is conveyed. Some of these issues were discussed in Chapter 14. Today, sign language research is branching out while at the same time delving deeper into the issues. Sign languages that had not yet been researched are now being scrutinized by linguists, enabling us to put to the test assumptions and hypotheses that were based upon a more limited number of languages. Also, the better-studied sign languages are now being investigated in more depth, and a wider variety of linguistic phenomena are being considered. These studies are showing that despite their surprising structural similarity, sign languages also differ significantly from one another. Examining these similarities and differences more rigorously will expand our understanding of the reciprocal relations between the physical modality and the linguistic structure of a language. ISL and Other Languages, Signed and Spoken Every sign language that is investigated adds new layers to the growing body of knowledge in this field. Studies of a variety of sign languages and the linguistic phenomena they manifest can confirm or refute existing hypotheses, and can even raise new questions that had never before been considered. The study of Israeli Sign Language, described in detail in this book, has made headway in four major areas: (1) description and theoretical analyses of structures it shares with other sign languages; (2) studies of forms and processes that are unique to Israeli Sign Language; (3) specific comparisons of ISL to other sign languages; and (4) new analyses of a more theoretical nature, contributing to how we understand what language is more generally. The investigation of verb agreement in ISL exemplifies how ISL research has advanced our understranding in all four ways. A wide range of sign languages are characterized by the verb agreement patterns described in Chapter 5. Meir (1998b; 2002) offers a linguistic analysis in which she demonstrates how verb agreement patterns in Israeli Sign Language derive from certain elements in the meaning of the verb. This analysis makes it possible to predict which verbs are agreement verbs and which are plain verbs that are not conjugated. Such predictions can now be tested on other sign languages. That line of research also uncovered a specific object pronoun marking objects of particular categories of verbs, which appears to be particular to ISL (see Chapter 4). In addition, as the semantic basis of sign language verb agreement systems makes them different from spoken language verb agreement, which is syntactically based, this analysis offers a broader understanding of the kinds of categories that human languages may refer to in agreement systems. Another ISL research project has found evidence that facial expressions act like intonation in spoken languages, though they are instantiated in a dif-

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ferent physical modality (Dachkovsky, in press; Nespor & Sandler, 1999; Sandler, 1999c; Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2006). Some aspects of these results were previously reported for ASL (e.g. Reilly, McIntire, & Bellugi, 1990; Wilbur, 1999), suggesting the existence of some commonalities across sign languages. Other characteristics, such as the componential nature of the system, which creates complex intonational patterns by simultaneouly combining simpler elements, are presented for the first time on the basis of ISL (see Chapter 10). These findings provide a theoretical basis for comparison with other sign languages. Like the verb agreement research noted in the previous paragraph, the research on facial intonation in ISL provides a basis for comparison with spoken language as well. For example, in ISL, the facial expressions of intonation are present throughout the whole part of the utterance (constituent) that they characterize.15 But in spoken language, intonational melodies tend to occur only on much smaller units within those constituents, either where there is special emphasis, or at the beginning or end of the constituent. Why should this be so? The answer speaks again to the predominately linear nature of spoken language and the more simultaneous nature of the sign language signal. Without studies like these, these questions would never have been asked. Our research findings have also indicated that Israeli Sign Language includes a number of unique grammatical constructions. Of special interest are prefixes marking one of the senses or sense organs, as described in Chapter 3 (for example NOSE  TO-SUSPECT), and the negative suffix (NOT-EXIST) described in Chapter 9. These prefixes and suffixes are interesting from a number of perspectives. First, they show that sign languages do differ from one another, not only with respect to vocabulary but also with respect to their grammatical constructions, as we mentioned in Chapter 14. Second, the process of deriving new words using prefixes and suffixes is a sequential morphological process. We have already seen a strong tendency in sign languages toward morphological constructions that are not linear in nature, for example the simultaneous combining of morphemes in classifier constructions and in verb agreement as well. Linear (or sequential) morphology, in which morphemes concatenate one after the other (as in the word un-avoid-able), is, indeed, one of the most salient characteristics of word-building in spoken languages. The existence of prefixes and suffixes in Israeli Sign Language indicates that sign languages are not limited to the ‘simultaneous’ type of morphology exemplified by verb agreement and classifier constructions and that they can make use of the range of morphological resources available to human languages in general. A comparison of morphological structures in languages in both modalities reveals that sign languages as well as spoken languages make use of linear mor15

Liddell (1980) and Baker-Shenk (1983) were the first to show that linguistic facial expressions of ASL characterize whole constituents. In that work, the constituents were defined syntactically, while the ISL work cited above and described in Chapter 10 associates facial intonation with explicitly prosodic constituents.

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phology as well as a type of morphology that does not string morphemes together in a sequence. This type of morphology, which interweaves sequences of consonants representing the root with vowel patterns, is called non-concatenative morphology (McCarthy, 1981). Semitic languages, for example, employ non-concatenative morphology when combining root and pattern in word formation. The Hebrew words lamad (‘learned’), limed (‘taught’), limud (‘instruction’), lemida (‘learning’) all share the same roof (l.m.d), but they differ in their vowel pattern; the word talmid (‘a student’) combines the same root with a particular vowel pattern as well as an additional consonant, [t]. The difference between the two types of languages, sign languages and spoken languages, then, is a matter of degree: spoken languages have a tendency to use linear morphology, while sign languages draw more frequently upon simultaneous morphology. This difference in degree can be attributed to the properties of the channels in which these languages are transmitted. Another exceptional feature of Israeli Sign Language is its relatively young age and the fact that we can identify quite accurately when it came into being. A comparison between specific constructions in Israeli Sign Language and in older sign languages can enable us to isolate language age as an additional factor that has an impact on the structure of a language. Our comparative study of classifier constructions in Israeli Sign Language and American Sign Language (Aronoff, Meir, Padden, & Sandler, 2003) revealed that ISL tends to use the signer’s body to represent animate beings, while ASL more often represents them more abstractly, using handshapes. For example, in order to signify a crawling baby, ISL signers used their hands and arms to indicate the baby’s crawling motion; in contrast, ASL signers are more likely to use the handshape, with the fingers denoting the crawling motion of the baby’s limbs. In ISL, a dog’s gait is denoted using the hands and arms, which represent the dog’s forelimbs; in ASL, the two hands in the handshape represent the four legs of the dog. That is, in Israeli Sign Language, the signer himself “enters into” the body of the person or animal being represented, using his body, hands and arms to represent that person’s or animal’s body and limbs. In contrast, in American Sign Language, this representation is usually conveyed using the hands only. Using the fingers and hands to represent a person or animal is less direct than using the signer’s body. While the classifier handshape involved is iconically motivated, its representation of the legs is still symbolic of the whole animal. But use of the upper body to represent the upper body is a more direct enactment of the event. This contrast between the two languages is not, however, unequivocal. Both languages contain constructions that utilize each of the structures described here. The point is that ISL has a tendency to use the body in a wider range of contexts, while ASL is more likely to save the use of the signer’s body for contexts and registers that are more dramatic, for example in stories and poems. This difference and others as well

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lead the authors to suggest that the age of a language is a factor that has an impact upon the degree of abstractness found in some of its constructions. American Sign Language is approximately 250 years old, while Israeli Sign Language came into existence only around 70 years ago. Our research findings suggest that certain linguistic constructions can become more abstract as languages mature. Our more recent research on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language described above provides data from another young sign language, and corroborates our claim that time plays an important role in the development of a language.16 Watching ISL Develop Over Time Due to its youth, ISL presents us with yet another welcome opportunity for linguistic investigation. As we’ve explained, it is rare that linguists are able to document the historical development of a language from its inception. Having the chance to study the Nicaraguan and Bedouin sign languages is very valuable for that reason. The fact that Israeli Sign Language arose quite recently provides us with another opportunity to watch a language grow—a research opportunity with certain specific advantages of its own. Within the ISL Deaf community today, four generations of signers exist simultaneously: the very first generation, which contributed to the earliest stages of the formation and development of the language, and three subsequent generations which have acquired and further developed the language. Our research on the development of the lexicon (chapter 12) revealed that at the earliest stage, ISL was far simpler than it is today. Contermporary ISL is a well-developed, rich and complex linguistic system, as we have shown in the first 10 chapters of the book. What is unique about the social context of ISL is the fact that signers of the first generation are still with us, making it possible to study the linguistic developments that led to the full language system we witness today. It is generally assumed that the linguistic structure in the language of an individual tends to form during childhood, and to be relatively fixed by around puberty (Lenneberg, 1967). This means that, although ISL has developed greatly over the years, the language of the older signers has not changed at the same pace. Instead, their language is expected to reflect structures that existed at earlier stages. This state of affairs enables us to trace the emergence of the language, and to investigate some of the diachronic processes that have influenced it. A current research project by one of the authors (Meir) aims to discover how the historical developments of several linguistic systems within the language— including verb agreement and affixal morphology—unfolded. Although the 16

ISL and ABSL each emerged roughly 70 years ago. But the social conditions, contact with other sign languages or lack of it, interaction with people of different backgrounds, and access to education in the two communities all differ. These differences lead to differences in the languages themselves, which we have only been able to touch on briefly here.

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research is still in its early stages, a few interesting findings and hypotheses have already emerged. First, signers of the first generation do not use R-loci in space to identify referents, and they do not have a fully developed system of verb agreement. This is similar to our ABSL findings, which show a lack of agreement morphology in that new language as well, and further supports our hypothesis that the development of grammatical categories takes time. However, some signers do use devices that can be regarded as precursors of a fully developed verb agreement system, such as the use of space to represent realworld locations of referents (as in describing ‘a person is seated at my right’), and then using these locations when referring back to the referents. Signers of the second generation show more systematic use of space, and by the third generation, the fully grammatical system of establishing R-loci and using the various verb agreement forms is in place. Another interesting observation concerns the role of signers from nonEuropean countries in the development of the language. We traced some of the vocabulary of ISL back to German Sign Language in Chapter 12, where we attributed similarities to the central role of immigrants from Germany in the young Deaf community in the country. Yet up to now we’d known nothing about the development of grammatical structures in the language, or of the possible influence of people from other parts of the world. In this new project, signers from both European and North African countries are being interviewed and video-taped. Comparisons seem to point in the following direction: while German Sign Language had an impact on the vocabulary, grammatical structures such as word order and use of space arose from the signing of people from North Africa. The older subjects from Germany who had been given an oral education rely on the grammatical structure of Hebrew in their ISL signing, which is much like the Signed-Hebrew system we described in Chapter 11. Signers from countries like Morocco and Algeria arrived in Israel with no formal education, so that, on the one hand, their language was not influenced by a spoken language, and on the other, there was no conventionalized system for them to use with other Israeli Deaf people when they arrived. In the recorded data, signers from this background seem to try a variety of devices in order to convey the message. These devices include the use of space to signal different referents, and Topic-Comment word order. While such mechanisms are not systematic in their language, it seems reasonable to assume that these signers have contributed to the development of the syntactic structure of ISL, which became conventionalized over time. We have mentioned that Israeli Sign Language is not the only indigenous sign language in Israel. Other sign languages have emerged among small groups of deaf people in Arab, Druze and Bedouin towns and villages. So far, we have begun investigating one of them, ABSL. This makes it possible to examine and isolate another factor that may play a role in language development—the size of a community and its social makeup. Do the size and relative homogeneity of a community have an impact on the linguistic structure of its language? Will a

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language that evolved in a smaller community have structural properties that differ from those found in the language of a larger, more diverse community? What is the effect of interaction among all the sign languages that have developed in Israel? Apparently, our work here has just begun. CONCLUSION In the fifteen chapters of this book, we have described one sign language— Israeli Sign Language. Since no language exists without the people who use it, we have displayed something of a tapestry, weaving together the evolution of the Deaf community in Israel and the development of ISL. In the process, we’ve been able to look at the language from a number of different perspectives: its grammatical structure, its history, the role it plays in the lives of Deaf people, and its contribution to general linguistic research. Each language is an instance of the more general capacity of humans to ‘do’ language. Determining how each language does it, and in what social and linguistic context, gives us more insight into that capacity, and each language adds something of its own to the account of what language is. Exploring sign languages allows us to break the sound barrier and gain more insight still: there are only two kinds of language that occur naturally among humans, and both have to be investigated in order to really understand the nature of language. Israeli Sign Language, a particular language transmitted in space that developed in certain ways under specific circumstances, has been the focus here. Its story is one chapter in the tale. SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING Crain, S., & Lillo-Martin, D. (1997). An introduction to linguistic theory and language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell. Emmorey, K., & Lane, H. L. (2000). The signs of language revisited: An anthology to honor Ursulla Bellugi and Edward Klima. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct (1st ed.) (pp. 36–39). New York: W. Morrow and Co. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. (2001). Natural sign languages. In M. Aronoff & J. ReesMiller (Eds.), The handbook of linguistics (pp. 533–562). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

For those with a linguistics background Aronoff, M., Meir, I., Padden, C., & Sandler, W. (2004). Morphological universals and the sign language type. Yearbook of Morphology, 19–40. Bates, E. (1979) The emergence of symbols: Cognition and communication in infancy. New York: Academic Press.

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Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language. New York: Psychology Pres. Meier, R. P. (2002). Why different, why the same? Explaining effects and non-effects of modality upon linguistic structure in sign and speech. In R. P. Meier, K. Cormier & D. Quinto-Pozos (Eds.), Modality and structure in signed and spoken languages (pp. 1–25): Cambridge University Press. Sandler, W., Meir, I., Padden, C., & Aronoff, M. (2005). The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language. PNAS, 102(7), 2661–2665. Sandler, W., & Lillo-Martin, D. C. (2006). Sign language and linguistic universals. New York: Cambridge University Press. Slobin, D.I. (1985) The cross-linguistic study of language acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. van der Hulst, H. G. (1993). Units in the analysis of signs. Phonology, 10(2), 209–241.

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Appendix A



We thank Doron Levy for providing this table.


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Appendix B

MAIN PLACES OF ARTICULATION IN ISRAELI SIGN LANGUAGE There are four major places of articulation on the signer’s body:

(a) Head

(b) Chest

(c) Non-dominant hand

(d) Arm

In addition, signs can be articulated in neutral space, the space in front of the signer’s body:

(e) Neutral space In each of these major places of articulation, there are finer distinctions. Each sign is characterized by a specific height (high, medium, and low), and laterality with respect to the dominant hand (ipsi-lateral, contra-lateral, and central).


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Appendix C


SIGN[aspect] SIGN[x3] aSIGNb


English glosses in capital letters stand for signs with approximately the same meaning as the English word. If more than one English word is required to gloss a single sign, the words are connected with hyphens. Fingerspelling, representing each letter of a spelled out English word by a different handshape, is indicated using hyphens. Compounds are indicated with a  between component signs. Non-manual markers are indicated by a solid line above the glosses for the signs they co-occur with: ‘hs’ indicates head-shake; ‘br’ indicates brow-raise; ‘sb’ indicates slanted brows; ‘sq’ indicates squint. When a sign is marked for an aspectual inflection, the name of that inflection is given in subscripts in square brackets. The subscript [x3] indicates that the sign is iterated three times. Subscript letters are used to indicate spatial locations. Nouns are marked with an index at the beginning of the gloss to indicate the locus with which they are associated. Verbs are marked with an index at the beginning to indicate the onset location, and/or at the end to indicate the endpoint location. Subscript numbers stand for 1st, 2nd and 3rd person referents. Pointing signs, including pronouns, demonstratives, and locatives, are glossed INDEX. The subscript indicate spatial location. An asterisk indicates an ungrammatical string. The gloss POSS represents the possessive pronoun. A sign with an uppercase superscript indicates that this is one of two distinct signs with the same English gloss.


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Author Index

Numbers in italics indicate pages with complete bibliographic information.

A Aarons, D., 101, 313 Ahlgren, I., 73, 313 Anderson, D. E., 177, 313 Aronoff, M., 88, 118, 120, 270, 272, 273, 277, 292, 293, 297, 298, 302, 305, 306, 313, 319

B Bahan, B., 88, 101, 159, 166, 292, 313, 317 Baker, C., 166, 313 Baker-Shenk, C. 300, 313 Battison, R., 32, 54, 257, 264, 267, 273, 274, 313 Bellugi, U., 6, 36, 58, 73, 94, 106, 166, 182, 202, 262, 292, 301, 313, 316, 318 Benedicto, E., 120, 313 Bos, H., 272, 313 Boyes-Braem, P., 182, 314 Brennan, M., 58, 314 Brentari, D., 94, 120, 292, 313, 314 Briggs, R., 70, 314

C Carmi, R., 297, 319 Chomsky, N., 280, 299, 314 Clark, H. H., 103, 314 Cohen, E., 58, 203, 220, 239, 314 Cokely, D., 166, 313 Comrie, B., 89, 90, 94, 101, 314 Coppola, M., 296, 315, 319 Cormier, K., 72, 314 Coulter, G., 289, 314

Crain, S., 305, 314 Crystal, D., 43, 266, 314 Curtiss, S., 294, 314

D Dachkovsky, S., 170, 301, 314 Deuchar, M., 275, 314 Duyk, G. M., 297, 319

E Ekman, P., 181, 314 Elbedour, K., 297, 319 Elton, F., 200, 320 Emmorey, K., 35, 73, 108, 120, 305, 314 Engberg-Pedersen, E., 6, 71, 314

F Fischer, S. D., 36, 72, 106, 131, 133, 265, 266, 272, 277, 313, 315 Friedman, L., 131, 133, 315 Frishberg, N., 238, 239, 315

G Gee, J. P., 277, 315 Givón, T., 131, 315 Goldin-Meadow, S., 294, 295, 305, 315 Goodheart, W., 277, 315 Gough, B., 106, 315 Greenberg, J., 223, 263, 315


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Grinevald, C., 119, 315 Guerra Currie, A.-M., 222, 263, 277, 315 Gur, H., 211, 315 Gussenhoven, C., 164, 315

H Haiman, J., 271, 290, 315 Hockett, C. F., 20, 291, 315 Hoiting, N., 271, 319 Humphries, T., 201, 215, 318

I Itard, J. M. G., 294, 315

J Jackendoff, R., 299, 318 Janis, W., 65, 88, 315 Janzen, T., 131, 133, 315 Johnson, R. E., 35, 316 Johnston, T., 58, 315 Jordan, I. K., 257, 264, 273, 274, 313

K Kakoon, Y., 213, 320 Kegl, J., 101, 159, 166, 292, 296, 313, 315, 317 Kennedy, G., 223, 317 Kisch, S., 297, 316 Kita, S., 296, 319 Klima, E. S., 6, 58, 62, 73, 94, 106, 202, 262, 292, 316, 318 Kuntze, M., 271, 319 Kyle, J. G., 6, 103, 222, 223, 260, 277, 316

Liddell, S. K., 35, 73, 88, 94, 131, 166, 171, 178, 182, 292, 301, 316 Lillo-Martin, D., 36, 50, 55, 62, 71, 73, 109, 120, 122, 131, 132, 159, 166, 182, 283, 289, 290, 292, 293, 301, 305, 306, 314, 316, 318, 319 Lindert, R. B., 271, 319 Lucas, C., 120, 320

M MacLaughlin, D., 159, 166, 292, 317 Mandel, M., 32, 316 Mathur, G., 88, 316 Mayberry, R. I., 259, 316 McCarthy, J., 302, 316 McDonald, B., 119, 317 McIntire, M., 164, 166, 180, 292, 301, 318 McKee, D., 223, 317 McWhorter, J., 266, 317 Meier, R. P., 73, 222, 263, 277, 291, 305, 314, 317, 318 Meir, I., 67, 81, 84, 88, 90, 106, 118, 120, 135, 158, 220, 270, 271, 272, 273, 277, 292, 293, 297, 298, 300, 302, 305, 306, 313, 317, 319 Michaels, J. W., 257, 317 Miller, C., 71, 318

N Namir, L., 58, 122, 132, 148, 203, 220, 239, 314, 317 Neidle, C., 101, 159, 166, 292, 313, 317 Nespor, M., 165, 172, 173, 182, 292, 301, 317, 318 Newport, E., 42, 265, 277, 291, 292, 300, 318, 320

O L Ladd, P., 164, 316 Lane, H. L., 305, 314 Lawrence, E., 119, 316 Lee, R. G., 159, 166, 292, 317 Lees, R., 221, 316 Lenneberg, E. H., 296, 303, 316 Li, C., 130, 132, 316

Osugi, Y., 72, 272, 315 Özyürek, A., 296, 319

P Padden, C. A., 78, 84, 88, 118, 120, 131, 201, 215, 270, 272, 292, 298, 302, 305, 306, 313, 318, 319

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AUTHOR INDEX Patchke, C., 166, 320 Perlmutter, D., 292, 318 Petronio, K., 159, 318 Pinker, S., 13, 75, 299, 305, 318 Poizner, H., 73, 318 Poulin, C., 71, 318 Pyers, J. E., 271, 319

Smith, C. S., 90, 91, 319 Smith, W., 72, 272, 319 Stokoe, W. C., 23, 36, 320 Stone, E. M., 297, 319 Supalla, T., 42, 109, 119, 120, 271, 272, 275, 277, 291, 292, 300, 318, 320 Sutton-Spence, R., 6, 36, 58, 106, 132, 133, 158, 173, 177, 180, 182, 200, 314, 320 Swadesh, M. H., 221, 320

R Reilly, J. S., 73, 164, 166, 177, 180, 292, 301, 313, 314, 318 Rimor, M., 203, 239, 317 Rosenstein, O., 126, 130, 131, 132, 318

T Tang, G., 117, 320 Taub, S. F., 58, 88, 103, 106, 262, 320 Thompson, S., 130, 132, 316

S V Sandler, W., 35, 36, 50, 55, 73, 87, 88, 94, 109, 118, 120, 122, 131, 132, 159, 165, 166, 172, 173, 182, 267, 270, 272, 273, 277, 283, 289, 290, 292, 293, 297, 298, 301, 302, 305, 306, 313, 317, 318, 319 Sankoff, G., 266, 319 Saussure, F., 286, 319 Savir, H., 222, 319 Schembri, A., 58, 119, 315, 319 Schick, B. S., 109, 271, 319 Schiffrin, D., 101, 319 Schlesinger, I. M., 58, 122, 132, 148, 203, 220, 239, 314, 317 Scott, D. A., 297, 319 Seago, H., 164, 180, 318 Selkirk, E., 173, 319 Sella, Y., 203, 239, 317 Senft, G., 120, 319 Senghas, A., 296, 315, 319 Sheffield, V. C., 297, 319 Siple, P., 235, 319 Slobin, D. I., 271, 319

Valli, C., 120, 320 van der Hulst, H. G., 305 Vogel, I., 173, 318

W Walters, K., 222, 263, 277, 314, 317 Webb, R., 275, 277, 320 Weinberg, A. M., 271, 319 Wilbur, R. B., 158, 166, 172, 178, 292, 301, 320 Woll, B., 5, 6, 36, 58, 103, 106, 132, 133, 158, 173, 177, 180, 182, 200, 222, 223, 260, 263, 277, 316, 320 Woodward, J., 262, 320

Z Zandbereg, S., 213, 320 Zeshan, U., 6, 72, 118, 133, 158, 166, 266, 321

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Subject Index

Page references followed by f indicate figure. Page references followed by t indicate table.

A Agreement markers, 75 marking numbers, 86–87, 87f Allophones, 21 Alphabet, handshapes, 307f ALREADY, ISL, 99 Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), 10, 296–297, 297f Alternating and non-alternating hand movement, 29f American Sign Language (ASL), 3–4, 3–4f, 6 borrowing, 52 classifiers in, 117–118 comparison of facial modifiers, 176f facial expressions, 171, 174–176f fingerspelling in, 51, 175, 208 grammatical distinction encoded in, 72 handshape assimilation in, 35 influence on ISL, 220 linguistics, 290, 298–301 metaphoric iconicity, 261f morphological manifestations, 94 non-iconic signs, 259–260f non-manual markers, 153–156, 164 noun/verb pairs, 46 pronouns, 66–68 sentence ambiguity, 65 signs with special negation, 144 spatial relations, 103 subordinate interrogative clauses, 156 time adverbials, 101 topic- or subject-prominent, 130–131 vocabulary, 259 Arbitrariness, fundamental property of words, 288 Articulation, main places in ISL, 309f

Aspects, 89–106 in ISL, 91–99 morphological modulations marking distinctions, 92–94 perfect tenses, 94–95 Assimilation, handshapes, 34–35, 34f Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI), 8, 189–195, 193–195f, 197, 199, 210–213, 229

B Bamberger, Moshe, 185–194, 187f, 193f Berthier, on sign languages, 255 Borrowing from other sign languages, 53, 53f partial, 51–53, 52f whole words, 51, 51f

C Children, sign language developed independently, 292–298 Choice questions ISL, 153, 154f raised eyebrows, 164–165, 165f Chomsky, Noam, studies on linguistics, 200, 278 Classifier constructions, 107–120 definition, 108–111, 108f, 110f in different sign languages, 117–118 examples in ISL, 111t in spoken languages, 118–119 when to use, 112–116f, 112–117


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Cochlear implant, history of Deaf community in Israel, 209 Communication terms, 43–46 types, 44f Communication systems, developed without a language model, 292–304 Community. See Deaf community Competence, in language, 278 Compound words, 47, 48f Conditionals, raised eyebrows, 165, 165f Consonants, 22 Contact languages (pidgin), 2, 5–6, 273–274 Creole languages, 2, 5–6

D Deaf community, 8–9 communication among signers of different languages, 256, 271–274 Deaf society and culture, 210–213 early years in the State of Israel, 185 Helen Keller House, 192–200 Helen Keller lecture, 191 history in Israel, 17, 183–214, 185f how many brains does it take to make a language?, 297 snapshot today, 213–216 voices from, 239–251 Deaf culture, 210–212 Deaf-Mute Association of Tel Aviv, 191 Declarative sentences, 152–153, 161 Derivation, 43–45 Duality of patterning, sign language, 20, 32, 36, 59, 289

E Educational systems, attitudes toward sign language, 197–209 Emmerik, Wim, poetic devices, 55–56, 56f Emotions, nonlinguistic facial expressions, 179–180 Eshkol-Wachmann Movement Notation System, 200

denoting adjectival modifiers, 175t denoting manner adverbials, 174t as intonation, 164 as modifying morpheme, 173–175 nonlinguistic, 179–180 words as part of, 171–173, 172–173f Field linguistics, 15 Fingerspelling, words borrowed from foreign languages, 51f Foreign languages, borrowing from, 50–55 Furrowed brows, 149, 151t, 165

G Gallaudet University research on ASL, 201 William Stokoe, 23 Gender cultural environment and, 43 differences across sign languages, 270 form of the verb, 75, 77 history of the Deaf community in Israel, 205 mouthing and, 177 pronouns, 60–61, 72 prosodic structure of language, 161 German sign language, impact of other sign languages, 184, 191, 198, 218–222 Gesture language, 194, 258 Glottochronology, 219

H Handshapes assimilation, 34–35, 34f borrowed from manual alphabet, 307f ISL, 307f in minimal pairs, 22–26, 22–26f Hebrew verb form, 75–77 Helen Keller House, Tel Aviv, construction, 191–194, 193f, 195f, 196–200 History, Deaf community in Israel, 8, 183–214 Home sign, 222, 292–293

I F Facial expressions combinations, 168–169, 169f comparison in ISL and ASL, 176f

Iconicity to create new words, 53–55, 54f metaphoric, 260, 260f view that sign language is universal, 256–259 Iconic signs, 2–4, 4f

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SUBJECT INDEX Initialization history of the deaf community in Israel, 208 partial borrowing, 52–55 Innateness, in language, 279 Institutes and organizations Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI), 8, 189–195, 193–195f, 197, 199, 210–213, 229 Fourth International Conference on Deafness, 199 Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel, 210, 212 Micha Society for Deaf Children, 202, 249 World Federation of the Deaf, 262, 273 Internal movements, 28f Interrogative sentences, 147–156 in ISL, 148–156, 151–152t linguistic structure of, 147–148 subordinate interrogative clauses, 154–155 Interrogative words, in declarative sentences, 153, 153f Intonation, facial expression as, 164–168 Israel early years of the State, 190–199 educational attitudes toward deafness, 197–209 Israeli Sign Language (ISL), 3, 3f ALREADY and Hebrew Already compared, 99 aspectual system of, 91–99 classifiers in, 117–118 comparison of facial modifiers, 175, 175t, 176f contact among different sign languages in Israel today, 223–224 contribution of research on, 298–304 description of, 6–7 emergence and development of, 217–237 examples of classifiers, 111t expression of time, 100–105 facial expression as intonation in, 159, 164–168 impact of other sign languages on, 218–224 interrogative sentences in, 148–156, 151–152t the language and its community, 183–185 lexicon impressiveness, 43–46 linguistic structure of, 11–17 linguistic theory and, 253–255 list of handshapes, 307f main places of articulation, 309f mechanisms that correspond with spoken languages, 11 metaphoric iconicity, 261f mouthing in, 99, 134, 160, 177–181, 179t

negating words in, 137–144, 138–144f non-iconic signs, 259–260f organizations with an influence on, 210 perfect aspect in, 95–99, 96f Prof. Izchak Schlesinger study of, 200–201 research, 14–16 versus signed Hebrew, 203–207, 204f, 206f spatial relations, 103 stages in vocabulary development, 224–235 structural levels, 11–12 verb expressing transfer of ownership, 267f word order, 121–133

J Jerusalem School for the Deaf first generation, 224–226 vocabulary at, 225–228 vocabulary ten years after establishment, 229–230, 231f Johnny Belinda, screening by Association of the Deaf, 191

K Keller, Helen, visit to Israel in 1952, 191–192, 192f Known or shared information, squints, 167–169

L Language characterizing human linguistic ability, 280–285 community and, 8–9 ISL and linguistic theory, 253–254 linear structure of, 284–286 misconceptions about, 2 oral/auditory channel not essential, 284 people and, 1–10 richness in, 37 sequentiality and simultaneity in phonology, 35–36 Lexicon, 37–58 adding words, 46–55 Linearity, sign language, 35, 285–291 Linguistic research contribution of sign languages to, 277–304 sign languages, 213–214

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Linguistic theory characterizing human linguistic ability, 279–284 ISL and, 253–254 speakers unaware of their linguistic knowledge, 281–283 where do sign languages come in?, 285–293 Location, hand, in minimal pairs, 22–26, 22–26f

M Manual-visual modality, 5 Mental lexicon, 279 Michaels, J. W., on sign languages, 257 Micha Society for Deaf Children, 202, 249 Minimal pairs in distinct sounds, 22 units that combine to make a sign language word, 22–26, 22–26f Morpheme, 20 agreement, 75–76, 86–87 facial expressions as modifying, 173–175 meaningful word parts, 287 Morphological modulations, marking aspectual distinctions, 92–93f, 92–94 Mosheiof, Yosef, Tel Aviv Deaf community, 189 Mouthing, 99, 134, 160, 177–181, 179t Movements, hand, 22–26, 22–26f complex, 28f grammar in space, 59–73 number of times, 27–29, 28–29f rhythm pattern, 46 types of communication, 45

P Perfect in ISL, 95–99, 96f special aspectual marker, 94–95 Phonemes, 20 Phonological changes, ISL vocabulary, 231–233 Phonological constraints, 2, 32–35, 52–54, 131 in linguistics, 279, 286 selected finger constraints, 33f symmetry constraint, 33f Phonology sequentiality and simultaneity in, 35–36 sign language as a system, 32–35, 33–34f Pidgin (contact) languages, 2, 5–6, 275–276 Plural pronouns, 68–69, 68–70f Poetry, novel word formation, 55–57, 56–57f Possessive constructions, word order in, 127–129, 128f Possessive pronouns, 67 Prefixes, 6–7 complex words, 49–50, 49f Preschools, deaf children, 202–203 Pronominal system, 59–73 Pronouns definition, 60–61 in English and in ISL, 66t marking number in, 68–69, 68–70f other sign languages, 71–72 in sign languages, 61–63, 62f Prosody in ISL, 161–173 in linguistic structure, 11, 162–165

N Negation, 6–7 Negation words, rules for occurrence of, 145–147 Negative sentences, 136–149 Negative suffix, 133, 142–144 Nicaraguan Sign Language, 294–295 Non-iconic signs, 2–4, 4f, 261f Nonlinguistic facial expressions, 179–180 Nonverbal material, use in study of linguistic topics, 16 Notational conventions, 311

O Object pronouns, 67–68 Oxford English Dictionary, 37

R Raised eyebrows, 126, 164–165 Reference, indicating with the body, 69–71, 70f Reference points, avoiding ambiguity, 63–66, 64–65f Referential locus (R-locus), 61–66, 62–65f Reflexive pronouns, 67 Relative clauses, squints, 168, 168f Rhythmic constituents, dividing sentences into, 169–171 Role shift, 69–71, 70–71f Root, 43–45 Russian Sign Language, 3, 3f

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SUBJECT INDEX S Salk Institute, research on ASL, 201 Sapir Dictionary, 37 Scientific inventions, adding new words to the lexicon, 46–55 Selected finger constraint, 33f Semantic changes, ISL vocabulary, 230–231 Sentences declarative, interrogative words in, 152–153, 161 dividing into rhythmic constituents, 169–171 interrogative, 147–156 negative and interrogative, 133–157 Shapes, locations, and motion, 107–120 Signed Hebrew, ISL versus, 203–207, 204f, 206f Sign languages big picture, 9–10 borrowing from, 53, 53f classifiers in, 117–118, 272–273 communication among deaf signers of different languages, 271–274 comparative studies, 259–270 comparison of facial modifiers, 176f contribution to linguistic research, 279–306 description of, 6–7 developed without a language model, 292–304 dictionaries, 200–201, 220, 224, 230, 232 differences across, 270–271 educational systems and its changing attitudes toward, 197–209 hand configuration, location, and movement, 286, 286f impact of visual/manual modality, 265–270 implementing change, 203–204 lack of direct counterparts of spoken words, 39–41, 41f linguistic research, 210–211 linguistic studies of, 285–293 need for more words fast, 207–209 phonology of, 32–35 pronominal system in, 61–63, 62f sequentiality and simultaneity in phonology, 35–36 similarities and differences, 254–274 social context, 8–9 structural similarities, 262–264 universal view, 256–291, 259–260f verb agreement in, 78–80f, 78–84 vocabularies, 2–4, 3f, 258–262, 260–261f

Signs (word) additional formational characteristics, 26–30 changes that facilitate production of, 233–234 changes that facilitate the perception, 232–233 common confusions for beginners, 30–32, 31f disappearance from the language, 234–235 facial expressions in, 30, 30f language of, 2–4 main places of articulation, 309f meaningless building blocks of, 22–26 negating words in ISL, 137–144, 138–144f one-handed, 234 small but meaningful differences between, 41–42, 42f special negative marking, 143–145, 144f SMS, 214 Sounds building blocks of words, 19–22 pattern in languages, 21 Spatial relations, in linguistic constructions, 265–266, 266f Spectrogram, spoken word, 285, 285f, 287 Squints, 167–169 Stokoe, William, internal structure of signs, 23, 203 Subordinate interrogative clauses, 156–157 Suffix, 6–7 negative, 133, 142–144 Superarticulation, 164 Syllable closed, 26, 32 open, 26, 32 stressed, 42 Symmetry constraint, 33f Synonyms, in sign language, 40–41, 41f Syntax, 121–133

T Tel Aviv Hanukkah celebration, 1943, 189–190, 189f Mugrabi Square, 1936, 189, 189f Tel Aviv Association for the Deaf, 191–192 Tenses, 89–106 versus aspect, 90–91 Time expression, 100–105 functional characteristics of words for time concepts, 101–103, 102f number of fingers to indicate temporal units, 103–104, 104f vocabulary of time, 105

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Topic determination of, 126–127 first in word order, 123–126 topic-comment structure in other languages, 129–132 Translation method, study of linguistic topics, 15–16 TTY (text telephones), 213 Two-handed signs symmetrical and asymmetrical, 26–27, 27f types of communication, 45, 45f

V Verb agreement, 75–88 definition, 76–77 morphological structure, 83–84, 83–84f signed versus spoken languages, 85–86 in sign languages, 78–80f, 78–81 Verbs differences across sign languages, 270–271 expressing abstract movement, 267, 267f resemblance across sign languages, 268–270 spatial, agreeing, and plain, 75–88, 270 Visual/manual modality, effect on linguistic structure of sign languages, 265–270 Vocabulary, 37–58 in ABSL, 297, 297f comparative studies, 258–262, 260–261f physical and cultural environment effects, 43–46 stages in development, 224–235 stages over the past thirty years, 229–230 time, 104f, 105, 106f

W Weinstock, Shoshana, 204–205 Wh-questions furrowed brows, 165, 166f ISL, 149–153, 150f, 151–152t Word order, 121–133 in ABSL, 296–297 in possessive constructions, 127–129, 128f topic-comment structure in other languages, 129–132 topic determination, 126–127 topic first, then comment, 123–126 Words (sign) adding words to the lexicon, 46–55 basic components of, 19–36 compounding, 47, 48f difficulties in finding and recording, 39–42 facial expressions as part of, 171–173, 172–173f iconicity for creation, 53–55, 54f internal organization of, 11, 12–13 meaningless building blocks of, 19–22 negating words in ISL, 137–144, 138–144f novel formation in poetry, 55–57, 56–57f occurrence of negation words, 145–147 World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), diversity of sign languages, 262

Y Yes/no questions ISL, 148, 149 raised eyebrows, 164, 165f requesting additional information, 165–166, 165f Young languages, 264