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American Annals of the Deaf

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Prosodic Markers and Utterance Boundaries in American Sign Language Interpretation

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This section has reviewed some of the research on how prosody interacts with syntax to create boundaries in discourse. However, many questions remain to be answered. In the following section, a description is given of how prosodic structure can be organized into a phonological hierarchy, similar to what has been suggested for syntactic structures.

Hierarchical Organization of Prosodic Constituents in Spoken Languages

Early generative theory characterized phonology of a language by a linear organization of segments and phonological rules of the surface morphosyntactic structure (Chomsky & Halle, 1968). Reaction to this theory resulted in other models that viewed phonology as a set of interacting subsystems, each governed by its own principles, and included theories of the metrical grid, autosegmental phonology, and prosodic phonology (Nespor & Vogel, 1986). One approach to accounting for prosodic patterns is found in theories that propose a hierarchy of phonological constituents. Following earlier work on hierarchy in syntactic tree structures, Liberman and Prince (1977) suggested a similar organization of rhythmic units of spoken languages. The notion of a hierarchy provided a way to account for the multiple levels of prominence in language.

Bolinger (1981) suggested that there are different types of prominence, rather than different degrees of it. Bolinger’s view was that primary and secondary word stress differs, not in degree or type of articulatory or acoustic prominence, but in where the prominence occurs. Other researchers (e.g., Beckman & Pierrehumbert, 1986; Ladd, 1986; Pierrehumbert, 1980; Selkirk, 1978, 1980, 1986) proposed hierarchies of constituents that characterize various phonological levels, although there remains ongoing debate about which phonological constituents comprise each of the levels. Other studies supported the claim that various types of prominence correspond to different levels in the hierarchy (e.g., Shattuck-Hufnagel, Ostendorf, & Ross, 1994; Sluijter, 1995).

Although the theory of hierarchical organization was originally created to account for syntactic structure, the proposed prosodic structure is separate from, but influenced by, the morphosyntactic structure of the utterance. The theory of prosodic phonology was put forth by Nespor and Vogel (1986) as a phonological model of the organization of prosodic constituents in spoken language. According to this theory, the mental representation of speech is divided into a hierarchy of units, or chunks, and each prosodic constituent serves as a “domain of application” (Nespor & Vogel, 1986) of rules and phonetic processes. Therefore, prosodic phonology theory provides a model of how morphosyntactic structure is linked to a hierarchy of prosodic constituents and how phonological patterns correlate with the different constituents.

To validate these claims of a prosodic structure that interfaces with syntax, a number of issues needed resolution. One limitation on researchers’ ability to test theories was the lack of a standardized transcription method for the prosodic dimensions of speech. Since prosodic features are not represented in English orthography, researchers relied on punctuation in their descriptions. This need stimulated the development of schemes for prosodic annotation, such as the ToBI system (Beckman, Hirschberg, & Shattuck-Hufnagel, 2005) that allows researchers to compare their findings more easily, within and across spoken languages, and facilitated the construction of annotated speech corpora.[2]

Prosody in Signed Languages

To date, the majority of research on prosody has been on spoken languages and the acoustic and articulatory dimensions specific to speech. Signed languages are expressed and perceived through the visual-manual modality dimension; therefore, the study of their prosodic structure must take into account their distinct form. Although different in means of expression, prosodic systems in signed languages are comparable in function to spoken language (Wilbur, 1999). For example, the cessation of speech, or a pause, is a frequently used prosodic cue to mark boundaries in spoken languages. The pause also occurs in ASL, but with a different means of production. In ASL pausing, there is a cessation, not of sound, but of movement, and the signer can continue to hold the sign in space while maintaining the watcher’s attention on the sign (Winston, 2000, p. 109).

Another example of modality variation between sign and speech has been described as “layering” (Wilbur, 2000). Layering is the capability to simultaneously produce multiple phonological elements while each retains a specific meaning or function. For example, in sign production, a particular handshape can convey an object of a certain size or shape, or the agent handling the object, while the verbal aspect can simultaneously be represented through movement modifications. According to Wilbur (2000), layering is a “linguistic adaptation” (p. 217) to the visual modality of signed language. It serves prosodic and pragmatic purposes, and is distinct from the linear organization of spoken language. Layering is exploited in the production of nonmanual markers produced simultaneously with manual signs.


2. ToBI stands for Tones and Break Indices.
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