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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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Figure I. The emblem/gesture well as produced in the LSM-ASL contact data.
If Liddell’s account is accurate, the variability of the directional component of the sign provides a challenge for contact researchers because they normally rely upon fixed linguistic components of lexical material (e.g., signs, words) from the two (or more) source languages to investigate the forms that the lexical items in the contact variety take. If there are no fixed components of signs, as Liddell suggests, then the investigator must devise other means to determine what is influencing what — at least when it comes to the directional component of signs.

The Interlingual Structural Similarity of Sign Languages

Based on the sign languages that have been studied thus far, it seems that the majority (if not all) share various structural features. Lucas and Valli (1992) suggest that sign language phonologies are more similar to each other than spoken language phonologies, and Newport and Supalla (2000) point out that sign languages show more typological similarity to each other than spoken languages, at least in terms of their morphological structure. If one uses an agreement analysis for sign language verbs, signs languages seem to favor object agreement over subject agreement.4 Additionally, sign languages tend not to use lexical items for spatial descriptions (e.g., where a spoken language would use a preposition) but rather use the signing space for indicating such relationships. All sign languages seem to have a subset of verbs that do not indicate subject and object by using the sign space, and those verbs — commonly referred to as “plain verbs” — rely on word order for indicating the subject and object of a verbal construction within a clause (Padden 1983). However, certain sign languages have auxiliary verbs that indicate subject and/or object in the sign space — thus providing a way for most (if not all) of the verbs in those languages to use pointing for grammatical relationships (Rathmann 2000). Finally, all of the sign languages studied thus far contain classifier constructions, which allow the signer to communicate various types of information such as figure, ground, motion, location, orientation, direction, manner, aspect, extant, shape, and distribution (Schembri 2003).

There are, of course, some differences across sign languages. For example, differences in phonetic inventories and phonological processes exist, but, compared to phonetic and phonological variations across spoken languages, they seem to be relatively few. As mentioned earlier, some sign languages have auxiliary verbs that aid in the use of the sign space to depict grammatical relationships, while some do not. Basic word order across sign languages is not as uniform as the use of space for showing grammatical relationships in conjunction with the verb (Newport and Supalla 2000). Moreover, signers certainly use nonmanual signals (e.g., head tilt, eyebrow raise and furrow) in different ways for grammatical and prosodic functions. As an example, a wh-question in ASL requires a brow furrow, whereas the same type of question in LSM requires a backward head thrust.

Some writers have suggested that the similarities among sign languages may be partly due to the fact that they are relatively young (it is believed that the oldest sign languages currently in use date to approximately the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that the youngest have been created within the last twenty to thirty years). Their histories are thus not long enough to show evidence of significant divergence (Newport and Supalla 2000; Meier 2002; Aronoff, Meir, and Sandler 2005). The similarity across sign languages is true for those that are genetically related, as well as those that are purported to have developed with little or no historical or genetic relationship to other sign languages.


One must also keep in mind various other points when studying signed language contact. Several sociolinguistic factors make them unique and different from most spoken languages. Whether or not these factors influence the outcomes of signed language contact, they should be considered in discussions of this topic.

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