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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation

Brenda Nicodemus

Chapter Two
What Is Prosody?

A stream of language, be it spoken or signed, can be examined for its various organizational components, including such units as sounds, syllables, handshapes, movements, words, phrases, sentences, and larger discourse segments. These interacting components, or constituents, are analyzed as belonging to different linguistic subsystems and are combined to create what is perceived as a stream of connected discourse (Crystal, 1969). Among the components are the segmental and non-segmental constituents of sound structure (in spoken languages) and sign structure (in signed languages). The non-segmental structure includes the language’s prosody, that is, its means of indicating prominence and grouping of linguistic units (Shattuck-Hufnagel & Turk, 1996).

Prosody plays an essential role in the production and perception of every utterance, spoken or signed, in language (Cutler, Dahan, & van Donselaar, 1997). One area of linguistic inquiry that addresses the phenomenon of prosody is phonology, traditionally defined as the study of sound patterns and phonetic variation in spoken language (O’Grady, Archibald, Aronoff, & Rees-Miller, 2001). Evidence for specific prosodic constituents has come from phonological observations and from measurements of the acoustic and articulatory patterns in speech. Studies of perception, memory, and other aspects of language behavior also have supported the existence of prosodic constituents cross-linguistically. There is variation as to which properties of spoken language are described as prosodic, but they usually include intonation, rhythm, tempo, stress, lengthening, volume, and pausing (Fox, 2000; Wennerstrom, 2001). In signed languages, prosodic structure is expressed by changes in eye aperture, head movement, body leans, lengthening of signs, cheek puffing, nose wrinkling, and hand clasping, among other physical behaviors (Sandler, 1999a). Although the prosodic patterns of language have been of interest since antiquity, it has only been in the last half century that linguists have begun to systematically address the relation between prosodic properties of language and its segmental constituents. Currently, research on prosody is being done on a variety of spoken and signed languages and in a number of linguistic contexts.

The focus of this book is the prosodic markers that occur at boundary points in a distinctive language-usage context, ASL interpretation. This book examines empirically determined boundaries, without identifying them as belonging to any specific level of linguistic structure. However, if theories of prosodic structure are correct, these boundaries are delimiting units that organize both production and perception.

This chapter provides an overview of the relevant research on prosody that has informed and guided this project. Admittedly, the overview is cursory in nature, touching only on a few of the analyses and models related to prosody and concentrating on prior research that informs the current study. Topics addressed in this chapter include the connection between syntax and prosody, prosodic properties that cue boundary points, and the theory of Prosodic Phonology. Research on prosody in signed languages has been heavily influenced by work on spoken languages; therefore, findings on the prosodic structure in both language modalities are discussed in this chapter.

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