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American Annals of the Deaf

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Primary Movement in Sign Languages: A Study of Six Languages
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All this led us to suspect we would find the movement parameter the most salient in a phonetic approach to a typology of sign languages. In support we note that the parameters of movement and location exert a stronger influence on the retrieval of signs during language perception or production than do the parameters of handshape or orientation (Corina and Hildebrandt 2002; Dye and Shih 2006). The movement parameter, however, is complex in a number of ways that were not accessible to us in our particular database (described in chapter 2). Still, the primary movement path was, for the most part, transparent; hence our choice. Since we are looking at movement paths in isolated citation forms of signs (rather than in conversations) and without regard to other parameters of the sign (rather than noting context), this is a purely phonetic study. It is arguable that our study is a comparison only of (part of the) syllable nuclei of signs.

The very narrowness of our study’s focus increases its potential to be important for typological considerations. To see this, consider, for example, syntactic studies. In comparing studies of syntactic phenomena, one faces the difficulty of different (or, worse, inexplicit) criteria for identifying syntactic units, of myriad theoretical approaches that affect one’s interpretation of the results, and so on (see Johnston et al. 2007 for a detailed discussion of such problems in comparing studies on word order in sign languages)—factors that impede attempts at corroboration of findings and at a true understanding of findings. Another possible hindrance in the search for syntactic typologies of sign languages is that syntactic characteristics of the contact spoken language (especially of its written form) can influence those of the sign language (Fischer 1975; van den Bogaerde and Mills 1994; De Lange et al. 2004; Milkovic, Bradaric-Joncic, and Wilbur 2007; Yau 2008; Wojda 2010), particularly in the type of laboratory context so common to elicitation tasks (Deuchar 1983; Coerts 1994; among many others). Our study, instead, explicitly outlines our method of data collection and analysis, so others may attempt to (dis)confirm our findings without having to enter into any interpretations of a theoretical nature. Further, by looking at the direction of movement along a path, there is little chance that properties of the contact spoken language can influence our findings (although, in fact, we will see that gestures of the contact spoken language may be relevant, where whether those gestures are one-handed, two-handed and asymmetrical, or twohanded and symmetrical is the important factor, not direction of movement along a path). One might say, then, that a phonetic study like ours has the chance to offer an ideal typology of sign languages; indeed, the corpus is remarkably clean.

The Languages in Our Study

In this work we offer the results of a study of five sign languages: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), Italian Sign Language/lingua italiana dei segni (LIS), French Sign Language/langue des signes française (LSF), and Australian Sign Language (Auslan). We chose these particular languages for several reasons. First was serendipity: At an international sign conference at Swarthmore College (outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) in spring 2008, we observed a conversation in which people were comparing ASL and BSL and claiming that BSL was rich in movements going away from the signer whereas ASL was rich in movements going toward the signer. This piqued our interest, so we questioned other signers there about the general idea, and some went as far as to claim that from watching a conversation at a distance, even without catching any particular lexical items, they could distinguish certain sign languages from other sign languages. We then set about trying to gather information on multiple sign languages and quickly found that either the corpora were limited or our access to them was inhibited by our inability to read the spoken language of the country the sign language is used in. So we opted for sign languages with dictionaries written in languages we read.

We settled on these five languages both because we read English, French, and Italian and because they offered the possibility of looking for generalizations within and across language families, as we will now discuss. We then added a sixth language to test some of our resulting hypotheses on.

Clusterings of Languages: Genetic and Origin-Bound/Diaspora

BSL and Auslan share a common ancestor; likewise ASL, LIS, and LSF share a common ancestor, although in all cases there are multiple ancestors (as we will discuss). Accordingly, our selection of these particular five sign languages allows the possibility of finding genetic clusterings—which, in fact, we did. BSL and Auslan turn out to have a variety of similar characteristics, whereas LSF, LIS, and ASL group together in differing from BSL and Auslan on those characteristics and in a similar way.

We also found, however, that BSL and LSF cluster together on a number of phenomena, in contrast to the other three languages. This prompted us to reconsider the pertinent aspects of the languages’ histories. Although BSL and Auslan share a common ancestor (McKee and Kennedy 2000), Auslan also has influences from Irish Sign Language (ISL) and ASL ( Johnston and Schembri 2007). And although ASL, LIS, and LSF share a common ancestor (see Lane 1984 and Van Cleve and Crouch 1989 for a discussion of the first Deaf school in the United States in Hartford, Connecticut, where Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet used LSF in teaching; also see Radutzky 1993, 243, for a discussion of the first Deaf school in Italy in Rome, where Tommaso Silvestri used the methodical signs of Epée from LSF), ASL has also had strong influence from the sign languages used in the United States before LSF was introduced (Woodward 1978). This is particularly true of the sign languages used in Martha’s Vineyard, Philadelphia, and New York (Tabak 2006). LIS, likewise, was influenced by the sign languages used in Italy before the introduction of LSF, particularly by the signs used in Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Parma, Genoa, Pisa, and Modena (Radutzky 1993).

Given that the languages that developed from the earlier languages without much interference from or contact with other sign languages (BSL and LSF) exhibit certain similarities, we might conclude that the particular similarities are representative of an unadulterated stage, so to speak. The languages that experienced significant contact with other sign languages (ASL, LIS, and Auslan) may, accordingly, show the types of variation that can happen from such contact, including creolization or borrowing. We therefore have adopted the terms “origin-bound” for BSL and LSF and “diaspora” for ASL, LIS, and Auslan.

From the way the languages cluster on various characteristics, we conclude that languages with a direct line of descent are distinct from languages with a line of descent affected by contact with another language (or languages); this may surprise (and perhaps disconcert) readers. Certainly, at least as far as historical linguists are concerned, including Lehmann (1962), Crowley (1992), and Joseph and Janda (2004), no such distinction is generally made. Rather, the two are the same except when the contact is so extreme that the genetic tree is rerooted.


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