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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

David Quinto-Pozos, Editor

Editor’s Introduction: Outlining Considerations
for the Study of Signed Language Contact

David Quinto-Pozos

To my knowledge, this volume represents the first book-length collection of various accounts of contact between sign languages, and this brings with it excitement as well as the realization of challenges that lie ahead.1 As many researchers who are interested in language contact might suggest, it is exciting because these chapters contribute to our understanding of the structural and social aspects of contact and how such contact affects language in the visual-gestural modality. They provide us with information about Deaf communities throughout the world, as well as language data that speak to the ways in which contact is manifested in those communities. This global perspective allows us to examine contact situations in search of commonalties and recurring patterns. It also enables us to see how some outcomes of contact between sign languages might or might not fit the general patterns of contact that have been demonstrated for spoken languages. Perhaps as a way to balance the excitement about this topic, the sobering truth is that we know so little about contact between sign languages. As a result, we are faced with the task of documenting examples of such contact and the challenge of examining the effects of visual meaning creation on linguistic structures that occur in these contact situations. By focusing on this area of inquiry, we stand to gain much knowledge about how language works.

The study of language contact among signed languages forces us to carefully consider how the visual-gestural modality of human communication influences language birth, development, change, and decay or loss from disuse. Sign languages and sign language varieties are emerging in various parts of the world, and they are developing quickly. It is unclear how such rapid birth and development are paralleled in spoken language situations, although likely candidates for cross-modal comparisons would be spoken language pidgins and creoles. Some varieties of signed language might also be quickly declining in use as a result of influence from other sign languages. This phenomenon is to be expected because it also occurs when spoken languages come into contact, although what we know about these cases is minimal. I suggest that certain characteristics of language in the visual-gestural modality influence the results of contact between sign languages. These factors and some of the relevant works from the literature are discussed in this introductory chapter.


Language contact has been an active area of linguistic inquiry in the past few decades. Within the last decade alone, several volumes have been devoted to various approaches to the study of contact between spoken languages and the multitude of phenomena that result. For example, one of the authors of a classic work on language contact (Thomason and Kaufman 1988) has published an introductory book on the topic that serves as a useful resource for various students and those who are interested in linguistics (Thomason 2001). Another work presents a framework composed of several models that have been suggested in previous writings to account for various types of contact data — mostly from a code-switching perspective (Myers-Scotton 2002). Holm (2004) presents data from various language varieties as he explores the concept of “semi-creolization,” although the author uses the term “partially structured grammars” in that work. As further testament to the importance of publishing entire volumes on the topic of language contact, Cambridge University Press has begun an interdisciplinary series devoted to the topic, and three volumes have been published to date (Mufwene 2001; Clyne 2003; Heine and Kuteva 2005).

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