Sign languages in the Romance-speaking countries constitute a rather representative sample of the languages in the visual–gestural modality documented to date throughout the world in many respects. The types of historical and thus linguistic relations that exist among them have to do with the history of education for the deaf, colonization, and missionary work. Contact phenomena with spoken languages are attested in certain parts of the grammar and the lexicon, but they also arise among sign languages. The existing language types can be classified into urban versus rural sign languages, which determines certain aspects of the languages and their sociolinguistic setup. The transmission patterns rely on educational institutions and Deaf organizations because most deaf people are born into hearing and non-signing families. Despite non-negligible differences among regions in the world (e.g., between European and West African countries), the underlying sociolinguistic issues in Deaf communities are similar, and the cross-linguistic and typological variation and similarities observed among them are comparable to those found in other sets of sign languages but also reflect the range of variation found across spoken languages. The state of research, still incipient but steadily growing, also reflects the overall situation of the field more generally.
Marcin Kilarski and Marc Allassonnière-Tang
Classifiers are partly grammaticalized systems of classification of nominal referents. The choice of a classifier can be based on such criteria as animacy, sex, material, and function as well as physical properties such as shape, size, and consistency. Such meanings are expressed by free or bound morphemes in a variety of morphosyntactic contexts, on the basis of which particular subtypes of classifiers are distinguished. These include the most well-known numeral classifiers which occur with numerals or quantifiers, as in Mandarin Chinese yí liàng chē (one clf.vehicle car) ‘one car’. The other types of classifiers are found in contexts other than quantification (noun classifiers), in possessive constructions (possessive classifiers), in verbs (verbal classifiers), as well as with deictics (deictic classifiers) and in locative phrases (locative classifiers). Classifiers are found in languages of diverse typological profiles, ranging from the analytic languages of Southeast Asia and Oceania to the polysynthetic languages of the Americas. Classifiers are also found in other modalities (i.e., sign languages and writing systems). Along with grammatical gender, classifiers constitute one of the two main types of nominal classification. Although classifiers and gender differ in some ways, with the presence of a classifier not being reflected in agreement (i.e., the form of associated words), in others they exhibit common patterns. Thus, both types of nominal classification markers contribute to the expansion of the lexicon and the organization of discourse. Shared patterns also involve common paths of evolution, as illustrated by the grammaticalization of classifier systems into gender systems. In turn, particular types of classifiers resemble various means of lexical categorization found in non-classifier languages, including measure words, class terms, as well as semantic agreement between the verb and direct object. All these three means of classification can be viewed in terms of a continuum of grammaticalization, ranging from lexical means to partly grammaticalized classifiers and to grammaticalized gender systems. Although evidence of classifiers in non-Indo-European languages has been available since the 16th century, it was only the end of the 20th century that saw a formative stage in their study. Since then, classifier systems have offered fascinating insights into the diversity of language structure, including such key phenomena as categorization, functionality, grammaticalization, and the distinction between lexicon and grammar as well as the language-internal and external factors underlying the evolution of morphosyntactic complexity.
Sign phonetics is the study of how sign languages are produced and perceived, by native as well as by non-native signers. Most research on sign phonetics has focused on American Sign Language (ASL), but there are many different sign languages around the world, and several of these, including British Sign Language, Taiwan Sign Language, and Sign Language of the Netherlands, have been studied at the level of phonetics. Sign phonetics research can focus on individual lexical signs or on the movements of the nonmanual articulators that accompany those signs. The production and perception of a sign language can be influenced by phrase structure, linguistic register, the signer’s linguistic background, the visual perception mechanism, the anatomy and physiology of the hands and arms, and many other factors. What sets sign phonetics apart from the phonetics of spoken languages is that the two language modalities use different mechanisms of production and perception, which could in turn result in structural differences between modalities. Most studies of sign phonetics have been based on careful analyses of video data. Some studies have collected kinematic limb movement data during signing and carried out quantitative analyses of sign production related to, for example, signing rate, phonetic environment, or phrase position. Similarly, studies of sign perception have recorded participants’ ability to identify and discriminate signs, depending, for example, on slight variations in the signs’ forms or differences in the participants’ language background. Most sign phonetics research is quantitative and lab-based.
Irit Meir and Oksana Tkachman
Iconicity is a relationship of resemblance or similarity between the two aspects of a sign: its form and its meaning. An iconic sign is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way. The opposite of iconicity is arbitrariness. In an arbitrary sign, the association between form and meaning is based solely on convention; there is nothing in the form of the sign that resembles aspects of its meaning. The Hindu-Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3 are arbitrary, because their current form does not correlate to any aspect of their meaning. In contrast, the Roman numerals I, II, III are iconic, because the number of occurrences of the sign I correlates with the quantity that the numerals represent. Because iconicity has to do with the properties of signs in general and not only those of linguistic signs, it plays an important role in the field of semiotics—the study of signs and signaling. However, language is the most pervasive symbolic communicative system used by humans, and the notion of iconicity plays an important role in characterizing the linguistic sign and linguistic systems. Iconicity is also central to the study of literary uses of language, such as prose and poetry. There are various types of iconicity: the form of a sign may resemble aspects of its meaning in several ways: it may create a mental image of the concept (imagic iconicity), or its structure and the arrangement of its elements may resemble the structural relationship between components of the concept represented (diagrammatic iconicity). An example of the first type is the word cuckoo, whose sounds resemble the call of the bird, or a sign such as RABBIT in Israeli Sign Language, whose form—the hands representing the rabbit's long ears—resembles a visual property of that animal. An example of diagrammatic iconicity is vēnī, vīdī, vīcī, where the order of clauses in a discourse is understood as reflecting the sequence of events in the world. Iconicity is found on all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. It is found both in spoken languages and in sign languages. However, sign languages, because of the visual-gestural modality through which they are transmitted, are much richer in iconic devices, and therefore offer a rich array of topics and perspectives for investigating iconicity, and the interaction between iconicity and language structure.
Language is a system that maps meanings to forms, but the mapping is not always one-to-one. Variation means that one meaning corresponds to multiple forms, for example faster ~ more fast. The choice is not uniquely determined by the rules of the language, but is made by the individual at the time of performance (speaking, writing). Such choices abound in human language. They are usually not just a matter of free will, but involve preferences that depend on the context, including the phonological context. Phonological variation is a situation where the choice among expressions is phonologically conditioned, sometimes statistically, sometimes categorically. In this overview, we take a look at three studies of variable vowel harmony in three languages (Finnish, Hungarian, and Tommo So) formulated in three frameworks (Partial Order Optimality Theory, Stochastic Optimality Theory, and Maximum Entropy Grammar). For example, both Finnish and Hungarian have Backness Harmony: vowels must be all [+back] or all [−back] within a single word, with the exception of neutral vowels that are compatible with either. Surprisingly, some stems allow both [+back] and [−back] suffixes in free variation, for example, analyysi-na ~ analyysi-nä ‘analysis-ess’ (Finnish) and arzén-nak ~ arzén-nek ‘arsenic-dat’ (Hungarian). Several questions arise. Is the variation random or in some way systematic? Where is the variation possible? Is it limited to specific lexical items? Is the choice predictable to some extent? Are the observed statistical patterns dictated by universal constraints or learned from the ambient data? The analyses illustrate the usefulness of recent advances in the technological infrastructure of linguistics, in particular the constantly improving computational tools.
Bert Le Bruyn, Henriëtte de Swart, and Joost Zwarts
Bare nominals (also called “bare nouns”) are nominal structures without an overt article or other determiner. The distinction between a bare noun and a noun that is part of a larger nominal structure must be made in context: Milk is a bare nominal in I bought milk, but not in I bought the milk. Bare nouns have a limited distribution: In subject or object position, English allows bare mass nouns and bare plurals, but not bare singular count nouns (*I bought table). Bare singular count nouns only appear in special configurations, such as coordination (I bought table and chairs for £182). From a semantic perspective, it is noteworthy that bare nouns achieve reference without the support of a determiner. A full noun phrase like the cookies refers to the maximal sum of cookies in the context, because of the definite article the. English bare plurals have two main interpretations: In generic sentences they refer to the kind (Cookies are sweet), in episodic sentences they refer to some exemplars of the kind (Cookies are in the cabinet). Bare nouns typically take narrow scope with respect to other scope-bearing operators like negation. The typology of bare nouns reveals substantial variation, and bare nouns in languages other than English may have different distributions and meanings. But genericity and narrow scope are recurring features in the cross-linguistic study of bare nominals.