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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

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Signed languages have multiple articulators including the head, body, and hands, but these broad categories of articulators have smaller components that can behave independently in creating prosodic structures. For example, eye gaze has been shown to mark prominence of specific ideas in ASL discourse (Mather, 1989; Mather & Winston, 1995). Functions of eye gaze have been categorized into three types in a study of ASL narrative structure: gaze at audience, gaze of character, gaze at hands (Bahan & Supalla, 1995). Eye gaze coupled with head tilt expresses agreement by referencing the same spatial locations as manual marking; eye gaze marks the object and head tilt marks the subject (Bahan, Kegl, MacLaughlin, & Neidle, 1995). Studies of eye gaze by English speakers and non-native signers show that English speakers do not change their gaze to “imagine” objects in space; rather, they continue to look directly at the addressee, whereas non-native signers use eye gaze in a random fashion or by “overgeneralizing” where the eye gaze falls (Thompson & Emmorey, 2004).

Changes in eye gaze are not the only behavior that can serve as a marker at intonational phrase boundaries performed by the eyes during the production of signed languages. Eyes can perform several types of movements because the musculature that controls them can occur independently. Another area of study in signed languages has been eyeblinks. Baker and Padden (1978) brought eyeblinks to the attention of signed language researchers by suggesting their connection to conditional sentences. It has also been suggested that eyeblinks in signed languages have similar functions to breathing in spoken languages because both are physical actions using articulators distinct from the main language production mechanism; in addition, eyeblinks and breaths occur at intonational phrase boundaries (Nespor & Sandler, 1999). Wilbur (1994) suggested that there are two types of eyeblinks with linguistic purposes—inhibited involuntary eyeblinks, which can serve as boundary markers at intonational phrase boundaries, and voluntary eyeblinks that can be markers of emphasis as well as signal a marker of the final sign in a chunk of information.

There has been research that indicates that sections of the face may be described using categories of syntactic structure. For example, the nonmanual markers performed by the upper part of the face and head occur with higher syntactic constituents (clauses, sentences), even if such constituents contain only a single sign (Wilbur, 2000). A head thrust typically occurs on the last sign of the first clause in conditionals (Liddell, 1986). Eyebrow raising and lowering has been claimed to signal rhetorical questions, yes-no questions, and conditionals in ASL (Coulter, 1979; McIntire, 1980). In Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT), the position of the eyebrows and the whole head are involved in distinguishing sentence types, such as yes–no questions versus wh-questions (Coerts, 1992). The lower portion of the face has been shown to provide adverbial and adjectival information. Movements of the mouth, tongue and cheeks are associated with specific lexical items or phrases (Liddell, 1978, 1980).

As in spoken language, research has shown that lengthening is another behavior that can be used prosodically in ASL. Holding or lengthening of signs has been analyzed by Perlmutter (1992) as application of the Mora-Insertion rule in ASL. Miller (1996) followed with a similar study of lengthening in Langue des Signes Québécoise (Sign Language of Quebec). Sandler (1999c) discussed lengthening in Israeli Sign Language and claimed that lengthening of movement occurs at the right edge of a phonological phrase.

Signed languages also utilize the entire body as an articulator. The movement of the torso in space serves as a prosodic marker. Syntactically, torso leans have been attributed to linking units of meaning in discourse, including the inclusion or exclusion of related information, providing contrastive focus, and creating affirmation of larger chunks of discourse (Wilbur & Patschke, 1998).

In viewing the human capacity for language as a specialized behavior, the pervasiveness of rhythmic patterning in biological systems can be applied to language as an organizing principle of phonological structure. Nespor and Sandler, for example, describe head positioning as a “rhythmic cue” (1999, p. 165) in signed languages, although they do not specify which particular constituent is being cued. This proposal was strengthened by Boyes-Braem’s (1999) study that described the occurrence of temporal balancing in Swiss German Sign Language. This behavior, similar to the balancing of unit size in Gee and Grosjean’s (1983) study of speech, suggests that signers attempt to create equitable temporal partitions in their utterances. That is, the length of a spoken and signed utterance is determined in part, not by syntactic structure, but by a tendency to divide the utterance into equal parts using prosodic structure.

Increasingly, typological information on signed languages around the world is becoming available. Examination of grammatical patterns in multiple signed languages shows similar paths of development. A recent report on negation strategies of various signed languages finds that nonmanual negation is created by the use of head movements and facial expressions in many languages (Zeshan, 2004). A survey of 17 signed languages showed that raised eyebrows, a common nonmanual gesture used in signed languages around the world, developed from gesture, acquired new meaning, and grammaticized, thus becoming a linguistic element (MacFarlane, 1998).


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