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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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As a final note, there is a category of behaviors in signed languages that are not a part of prosodic structure. These behaviors are sometimes labeled “extralinguistic” features and may be manifestations of internal states or external restrictions on the signer, such as nervousness or restricted signing space. These extralinguistic movements are not considered a part of the prosodic system. Additionally, a signer’s idiolect must be considered in any linguistic analysis, including that of prosodic structure. Each signer may elect to use a combination of prosodic markers, which may vary based on the setting (Winston, 2000).

Hierarchical Organization of Prosodic Constituents in Signed Languages

The field of sign language phonology is new, yet there exist a variety of models of phonological structure for signed languages (e.g., Brentari, 1990, 1998; Corina, 1989; van der Hulst, 1993; Liddell, 1984; Liddell & Johnson, 1989; Sandler, 1989, 1993, 1996; Wilbur, 1993). Theories of a prosodic hierarchy in spoken languages have inspired the investigation of the phonological structure of signed languages. A range of studies have proposed that signed languages group syntactic constituents into hierarchical prosodic domains, comparable to the domains in spoken languages.

An early model of the phonological structure of signed languages was based on a proposal for a moraic theory of prosodic structure by Hayes (1989). Examining ASL and Langue des Signes Québécoise, Miller (1991) formulated a mora-based model of sign language. He argued that the structures and principles of prosody constitute an autonomous model within phonology. Miller suggests that moraic theory based on the syllable as the core unit is superior to other models of sign language phonology that are based on the assumption that movement is the central element in sign segmentation.

Other researchers followed suit and developed models with more complex proposals for syllable structure in signed languages. Corina (1996) investigated the constraints on syllabic well-formedness and argued that ASL signs require at least one dynamic component realized as a sequenced articulation of a structural parameter. Analysis of these components supports a division into mono- and disyllabic signs. He further argues for the existence of constraints on possible syllable nuclei in ASL. A prosodic account is offered in which a limited set of moraic elements compose a sign syllable. This recognition of a prosodic level separate from melody allows categorization of possible nuclei expressed over different sign parameters.

Another model of prosodic constituency in signed languages emphasizes that prosodic structure may be identifiable by a number of behaviors and the timing relationships among those behaviors. Brentari’s (1998) prosodic model suggests that two kinds of phonological features can be systematically identified in core lexical items: those that are necessary for describing a sign’s movement (the prosodic features) and those that describe properties of the sign that do not participate in movement (the inherent features). One claim of this theoretical framework is that, because of signed language’s visual-gestural phonetic basis, the consonant-like and vowel-like units are expressed simultaneously with one another, rather than sequentially as in spoken languages. A second claim is that movements operate as the most basic prosodic units of a signed language.

Nespor and Sandler (1999) examined Israeli Sign Language using prosodic phonology (Nespor & Vogel, 1986) as their theoretical basis. Nespor and Sandler argued that ISL sentences are divided into prosodic constituents, phonological phrases, and intonational phrases. Sandler argued that the prosodic system demarcates prosodic constituents by exploiting the non-dominant hand as a redundant element. Its handshape, location, and movement are severely restricted, giving it a subordinate role in the prosodic hierarchy, but allowing it to mark constituents. This work is now being extended to Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) and results from investigations of other sign languages (ASL, ISL, LSQ) will be compared in order to identify linguistic universals of hierarchical structure in phonology.

The above models suggest that spoken and signed languages share a similar phonological-syntactic organization, although their phonetic systems bear no physical similarity to one another (Nespor & Sandler, 1999). The models of signed language phonology contribute to the study of cross-modal linguistic patterns and demonstrate universals in prosodic structures despite the completely different phonetic mediums of signed and spoken languages.

Although this book is not investigating any particular theory of prosodic organization, the hierarchical nature of prosodic structure is relevant because it speaks to the nature of the linguistic structures under investigation. Theoretical studies support the notion that universally, the stream of language is broken up into prosodic constituents. This study focuses on what happens at the boundaries of constituents. The descriptive examination in this study will increase our understanding of how prosodic constituents are produced in signed languages.

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