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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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Prosody and Segmentation in ASL Interpretation

This chapter has provided an overview of research literature on spoken and signed language prosody, specifically the relation of prosody to morphosyntactic structure and the theory of prosodic phonology. The study of prosodic features in spoken and signed languages is an emerging area of linguistic investigation. Interest in prosody has grown over the past several decades, driven by new theories and increasing applications for the findings, all leading to a deeper understanding of prosody as an integral part of linguistic communication. Linguists are only beginning to explore questions about the use of prosody when two language modalities, speech and sign, occur in rapid succession during the process of interpreting.

The expression of prosody in signed language interpreting raises questions in a number of areas of inquiry. In spoken language linguistics, for example, studies have examined the differences in prosodic structure of planned speech compared to spontaneous speech (Brennan & Schober, 2001; Clark & Wasow, 1998; Thorsen, 1983). Prosody in interpretation contains elements of both planned and spontaneous communication, which makes it an interesting linguistic area for study. Interpreted communication is planned because the interpreter has, at the very least, a few seconds of processing time to prepare how to construct a message in the target language. At the same time, interpretation is a spontaneous speech act because each interpreter makes rapid decisions about how to construct that message and the result is personal and stylistic. Therefore, the study of the unique language-usage context of interpretation can provide interesting insights on how prosody is structured when two language modes are merged.

Another area of inquiry is the relationship between language and mental operations, including memory. Chafe (1994) states that, during the production and reception of language, the mind operates in one of three activation states: active, semiactive, or inactive. Although the boundaries between these states may not be strictly demarcated, this proposed system may represent the cognitive tasks required of an interpreter who is moving rapidly from a source to target language. The notion of activation levels may be useful in studying how interpreters express prominence of concepts in the discourse that are active in the mind and create meaningful chunks within their interpretations.

Additionally, work has been done on “synchrony” in language. Synchrony is the study of the various, interlocking systems that occur in the context of communication and their dynamic operations. Synchrony argues for an embodiment of language, that is, that the body moves in synchrony to reflect language structures, including prosody (Condon, 1986). Signed languages are ideal systems to study synchrony since the language, by its very nature, is embodied through its articulators. Synchrony suggests that prosodic information in spoken languages is encoded in the body (Wiltshire, 1999). If so, signed languages, because of their physical articulators, provide a fertile venue for further exploration into the notion of synchrony.

The present study differs from earlier work in at least two ways: It examines the use of prosody in ASL interpretation rather than native signers’ production of prosody, and it involves Deaf participants in the identification of boundaries in interpretation. Using locations that have been perceptually marked by language users, this study identifies those physical features that may be responsible for the perception. This research project takes the view that it is not the individual physical event, but the production of one event relative to a series of physical productions that creates the perception of stress, prominence, and focus. Prior work on prosody in signed language interpretation focused primarily on the occurrence of pausing in transliteration, whereas this study examines prosodic features in interpretation. In addition, this study examines the occurrence of 21 different prosodic markers at perceived boundary points in the interpreted discourse.

This book provides an investigation of prosodic cues that occur in signed language interpretation, at boundaries perceived by Deaf people who use interpreters. As stated by Winston and Monikowski, “Perhaps one day, interpreter educators can help our students better understand prosody and teach them to produce dynamically equivalent texts that ‘look like’ the ASL of the Deaf community” (2003, p. 219). Studying the types of prosodic cues that function to mark utterance boundaries in interpretation is a first step to achieving this goal and improving the teaching of prosody in interpreter education.


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