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Volume Nine: Issue Two

Winter 2009

COMMENTARY
Research Ethics in Sign Language Communities

Raychelle Harris, Heidi M. Holmes, and Donna M. Mertens

Abstract

ARTICLES
Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

John D. Bonvillian, Vicky L. Ingram, and Brendan M. McCleary

Abstract

Does ASL Really Have Just Two Grammatical Persons?

Peyton Todd

Abstract

Which Fragments of a Sign Enable its Recognition?

G. A. ten Holt, A. J. Van Doorn, H. de Ridder, M. J. T. Reinders, and E. A. Hendriks

Abstract

BOOK REVIEW
Writing Deafness: The Hearing Line in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Christopher Krentz

H-Dirksen L. Bauman
ABSTRACTS
Research Ethics in Sign Language Communities

Codes of ethics exist for most professional associations whose members do research on, for, or with sign language communities. However, these ethical codes are silent regarding the need to frame research ethics from a cultural standpoint, an issue of particular salience for sign language communities. Scholars who write from the perspective of feminists, indigenous peoples, and human rights advocates have commonly expressed dissatisfaction with their lack of representation in conversations about research ethics. Members of sign language communities and their advocates can learn from others who share in this struggle and contribute much to this topic. We propose the development of sign language communities’ terms of reference (SLCTR) as a means to research by, for, and with sign language communities.

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Observations on the Use of Manual Signs and Gestures in the Communicative Interactions between Native Americans and Spanish Explorers of North America: The Accounts of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

The accounts of two men who participated in several Spanish-led expeditions to the New World in the early 1500s document the frequent use of manual signs and gestures in the initial interactions between European explorers and the indigenous peoples of North America. Bernal Díaz del Castillo described the events that occurred during three expeditions to lands that are part of present-day Mexico. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca recounted the incidents that took place during his trek across much of the North American continent. Their reports reveal that both the European explorers and the indigenous peoples relied on manual signs and gestures to help overcome spoken-language communication barriers. They also show that manual signing was already being widely used by the native peoples of North America at the time of their first contacts with European explorers.

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Does ASL Really Have Just Two Grammatical Persons?

Vincent, a hearing child of deaf parents who was fluent in ASL by the time of his first exposure to a spoken language (English) at about age 3, needed only a few months to learn the distinction between English first person pronouns and pronouns referring to other grammatical persons, but it was several years before he learned all the other distinctions made by English pronouns: second vs. third person, singular vs. plural, near vs. far from the speaker (e.g., this vs. that), objects vs. persons (it vs. he), objects vs. places (that vs. there), objects vs. directions (thatone vs. thatway), and gender (he vs. she). This provides some support for the now widely accepted view proposed by Meier (1990) that ASL distinguishes only two grammatical persons: first and other, with the distinctions just listed expressed mostly by pointing, thus on transparent, analog principles quite unlike the opaque, discrete system used for pronouns in English. Nonetheless, it is argued in this article that the view of ASL as having only a two-person pronominal system is only an approximation to the reality of its pronouns, which intertwine iconic and arbitrary means of expression throughout.

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Which Fragments of a Sign Enable its Recognition?

In sign language studies, it is generally assumed that a sign can be divided into several phases in time (preparation, stroke, and retraction) and that the stroke contains all of the necessary information. However, this has not been tested empirically.

In order to learn where the information truly resides, we present an experiment that investigates the distribution of information in a sign. Signers were shown isolated fragments of Dutch Sign Language signs (citation form) and were then asked to identify the sign. The results show that the stroke alone performs as well as the entire sign. However, the preparation, together with the transition from preparation to stroke, produces equally good recognition, thereby suggesting that most of a sign’s information is available early. Surprisingly, in many cases preparation alone and retraction alone also produce quite good recognition (66 percent and 60 percent, respectively). The recognition pattern across signs gives an indication of signers’ recognition strategy.

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