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«Abstract Current conceptions of human language include a gestural component in the communicative event. However, determining how the linguistic and ...»

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Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth

in sign language*



Current conceptions of human language include a gestural component in the

communicative event. However, determining how the linguistic and gestural

signals are distinguished, how each is structured, and how they interact still

poses a challenge for the construction of a comprehensive model of lan-

guage. This study attempts to advance our understanding of these issues with evidence from sign language. The study adopts McNeill’s criteria for distinguishing gestures from the linguistically organized signal, and pro- vides a brief description of the linguistic organization of sign languages. Fo- cusing on the subcategory of iconic gestures, the paper shows that signers create iconic gestures with the mouth, an articulator that acts symbiotically with the hands to complement the linguistic description of objects and events. A new distinction between the mimetic replica and the iconic symbol accounts for the nature and distribution of iconic mouth gestures and distinguishes them from mimetic uses of the mouth. Symbiotic symboliza- tion by hand and mouth is a salient feature of human language, regardless of whether the primary linguistic modality is oral or manual. Speakers ges- ture with their hands, and signers gesture with their mouths.

Keywords: sign language; gesture; mouth gesture; iconic; hand and mouth; symbolization.

The vocal apparatus in spoken languages conveys the lion’s share of lin- guistic material in that medium. In sign languages used by deaf people, it is the hands that perform this role. But it has become increasingly clear that humans exploit other physical articulators in the process of commu- nication. Spoken languages are universally accompanied by co-speech manual gestures (Kendon 1980, 2004; McNeill 1992; Goldin-Meadow 2003), and by gestures of the face and body as well (special issue of Semiotica 174–1/4 (2009), 241–275 0037–1998/09/0174–0241 DOI 10.1515/semi.2009.035 6 Walter de Gruyter 242 W. Sandler Language and Speech, in press). Similarly, in sign languages, the face, head, and body contribute to the linguistic message conveyed primarily by the hands (e.g., Liddell 1978, 1980; Reilly et al. 1990; Wilbur 2000;

Nespor and Sandler 1999; Sandler in press). Yet within this panoply of corporeal activity, most researchers agree that some kinds of expression are prototypically linguistic and others prototypically gestural, while ac- knowledging that there may be grey areas in between (see Kendon 2004). The crucial point is that language — all language — requires both. Here I will argue that language in the manual modality also in- cludes a simultaneously transmitted, expressive gestural component.

The type of gesture that is the focus of this study is what McNeill (1992) calls iconic gestures. These gestures have the special function of adding meaningful, imagistic information to the symbolic content of the text, and they do so in a simultaneous and complementary fashion. In spoken language, the oral component conveys the text, and the manual component complements the text in an interaction that can be called symbiotic. In sign language, the semiotic components of the symbiosis are reversed: the hands convey the text, and the mouth simultaneously supplies the complementary gesture.

In order to demonstrate that iconic mouth gestures are indeed gestural, it is first necessary to distinguish them from the linguistic structure of sign languages, and the latter is described in Section 1. That section includes a description of non-manual signals in sign language that have linguistic functions, distinct from the gestural. The distinction is made clearer by the criteria argued by McNeill to distinguish linguistically organized material in the oral modality from gestures, described in Section 2. To specify precisely the role of these gestures, a new distinction is necessary — a distinction between the symbolic icon and the mimetic replica. This categorization is supported in Section 2.2, where the semiotic function of symbolization is attributed to the former. The heart of the paper is Section 3, where it is shown that signers of Israeli Sign Language (ISL) produce gestures that are naturally categorized as iconics, and that they do it with their mouths. The gestural properties of these mouth shapes and movements are distinguished from linguistic properties, and their distribution in the language is described.

The central claim made here is that the human ‘‘language instinct’’1 drives the hand and the mouth to create symbolic images, combining in a simultaneous and complementary fashion linguistically organized material with holistic and iconic expressions. The two modalities participate in what we may call symbolic symbiosis. The use of iconic manual gestures in spoken language is found universally, and similarly, the use of iconic mouth gestures in ISL is no fluke. Section 4 demonstrates that other esSymbiotic symbolization 243 tablished sign languages also incorporate mouth gestures. We see there that even early signers of a new sign language that arose recently within an insular community, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, accompany their signing with iconic mouth gestures. Section 5 provides an interim summary.

While iconic mouth gestures have a particular role to play in a comprehensive model of language, there are several other widespread functions of the mouth in sign languages, which Section 6 describes briefly. Their existence, and their coordination with the manual linguistic signal, provide further evidence for the drive to use hand and mouth in language.

The findings reported here are integrated into a broader research context pointing to the hand-mouth relation in language in Section 7, specifically noting studies in language evolution, including certain implications of mirror neuron research. Section 8 is a summary and conclusion.

1. Sign languages are linguistically structured

Sign languages are spontaneously occurring languages that arise whenever a group of deaf people has opportunity to meet and interact regularly. They are not consciously invented by anyone, nor are they derivative of ambient spoken languages. Sign languages are the product of the same human brain and social interaction as spoken language, but selfstructured in a di¤erent physical modality. Over half a century of intensive research on sign language has demonstrated that there are substantial formal similarities between languages in the two modalities, though they di¤er in certain interesting ways from one another (see Sandler and LilloMartin 2006).

1.1. Phonology

Working against a backdrop on which sign languages were pictured as crude gestural systems with no inherent linguistic structure (e.g., Bloomeld 1933), it was William Stokoe who first demonstrated that sign languages have formal linguistic structure of their own, in his aptly named monograph, Sign language structure (Stokoe 1978 [1960]). There he showed that signs are not holistic hand pictures, but that they are comprised of a discrete, finite set of meaningless elements belonging to the major categories of handshape, location, and movement. Minimal pairs (corresponding to pairs like ‘‘pat’’ and ‘‘bat’’ in English) are distinguished by these elements (Klima and Bellugi 1979), and rules can alter them 244 W. Sandler Figure 1. The ISL minimal pair (a) INTERESTING, and (b) DANGEROUS, distinguished only by features of hand configuration.

Figure 2. Handshapes minimally distinguishing ISL signs.

discretely in certain environments (Liddell and Johnson 1986; Sandler 1987, 1989, 1993). An example of a minimal pair in Israeli Sign Language (ISL) is shown in Figure 1, distinguished only by the meaningless hand configurations shown in Figure 2. Several pieces of independent evidence have led researchers to argue that another phonological element exists in sign languages: the syllable, which functions as a rhythmic and organizational unit (Coulter 1982; Sandler 1989, 2008; Brentari 1990, 1998; Wilbur 1993; Perlmutter 1992; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). That these Symbiotic symbolization 245 discrete elements are meaningless, that they can make contrasts between words, and that they can be manipulated by rules that refer only to their form and not to meaning, these characteristics warrant the use of the term ‘‘phonology’’ in describing this system. The existence in sign languages of a phonological level of structure alongside the meaningful level of morphemes and words shows that these languages have duality of patterning, claimed to be an essential design feature of human language (Hockett 1960).

1.2. Morphology The basic words of sign languages can be made more complex by altering their form in ways that add elements of meaning or grammatical function. Sign languages have morphological systems characterized by both inflectional and derivational morphology and even by


linguistic properties such as allomorphy (Brentari 1998; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). While sequential a‰xation is less common in signed than in spoken languages, it does exist. For example there is a negative verbal su‰x in American Sign Language (ASL) that means ‘‘not X at all,’’ while a group of sense prefixes in ISL generally add the meaning, ‘‘do X by seeing, hearing, smelling (intuiting), etc.’’ (Arono¤ et al. 2005; Meir and Sandler 2008). Far more common in sign languages is a more simultaneously structured kind of morphological complexity. These typical morphological patterns can be said to characterize sign languages as a language type (Arono¤ et al. 2004). For example, many sign languages have verb agreement systems that change the beginning and ending location of the basic form to agree with referential loci in the signing space associated with participants in the discourse (Padden 1988). Specifically, verbs denoting transfer (literally or metaphorically) agree for person and number with source and goal, which in turn are associated with subjects and objects (Meir 2002). Figure 3 illustrates the sign SHOW in ISL with various inflections for person and number.

Temporal aspect is marked in many sign languages through reduplication and changing the shape and rhythmic properties of the movement (Klima and Bellugi 1979; Sandler 1990). Another morphologically complex system in sign languages is the system of classifier constructions (Supalla 1986). These are complex forms that are unique to sign languages, comprised of nominal classifiers in the form of handshapes (standing for classes of nouns, e.g., HUMAN, SMALL-ROUND-OBJECT) combined with movement manners and shapes, and with locations (see Emmorey 2003). It is these structures that are most often accompanied by the iconic mouth gestures, and we will have more to say about them in Section 5.

246 W. Sandler Figure 3. ISL SHOW inflected for verb agreement (clockwise from top left): I-SHOWYOU; YOU-SHOW-ME; S/HE-SHOWS-YOU; I-SHOW-YOU (exhaustive); I-SHOWYOU (multiple).

1.3. Syntax Those sign languages whose syntax has been studied have been shown to have an underlying basic word order, though this order can change for various pragmatic reasons. Sign language sentences can be complex, and syntactic tests have been developed for ASL to distinguish coordinate structures (Babsy hit Bobby and Bobby told his mother) from subordinate structures (Bobby told his mother that Babsy hit him) (Padden 1981, 1988). The existence of subordinate clauses in ASL and other sign languages demonstrates that the property of recursion — a phrase within a phrase of the same type or a clause within a clause — is present in these languages. Recursion has been argued to be the quintessential and even defining property of human language (Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch 2002), making its existence in sign languages an important discovery.

Constraints posited as universal that hold on the movement of syntactic elements have been argued to exist in ASL (Lillo-Martin 1991) and a number of other kinds of evidence have accrued to demonstrate that sign Symbiotic symbolization 247 languages indeed have syntactic structure, comparable in nontrivial ways to that of spoken languages (Neidle et al. 2000; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006; Pfau and Quer 2007).

1.4. Prosody In addition to the primary manual signal, sign languages make use of the face, head, and body in systematic ways. Certain types of structures in ASL are accompanied by conventionalized non-manual displays (Stokoe et al. 1976 [1965]; Bellugi and Fischer 1972; Baker and Padden 1978;

Liddell 1978, 1980). For example, ASL relative clauses are typically marked by head back, raised brows, and raised upper lip (Liddell 1978, 1980). Since those discoveries, many researchers have studied this area in ASL and other sign languages, some proposing that conventionalized non-manual signals are among the syntactic devices of the grammar (e.g., Liddell 1980; Petronio and Lillo-Martin 1997; Neidle et al. 2000; Wilbur and Patchke 1999), and others attributing them to the prosodic component (e.g., McIntire and Reilly 1988; Reilly, McIntire, and Bellugi 1990;

Nespor and Sandler 1999; Sandler 1999a, 2005, in press; Wilbur 2000;

Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006; van der Kooij et al. 2006).

A model developed on the basis of Israeli Sign Language demonstrates the nature of the system. The model is based on evidence that facial expressions as well as head and body positions align with rhythmic manual features of the signing stream to mark prosodic constituent boundaries at di¤erent levels of the prosodic hierarchy (Nespor and Sandler 1999;

Sandler 1999a, 2005). In this model, conventionalized facial expressions so aligned are seen as analogous to linguistic intonation in spoken languages. Figure 4 exemplifies this system. It shows the two signs on either side of an intonational phrase boundary in an ISL counterfactual conditional sentence meaning ‘‘If the goalkeeper had caught the ball, they would have won the game.’’ Observable in 4a is the following intonational configuration on CATCH-BALL: head forward, brows raised, eyes squinted. In 4b, the second intonational phrase, WIN, is characterized by a di¤erent head position and neutral facial expression. This change in head or body position and across the board change in facial expression typically mark the boundary between intonational phrases.

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