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WIREs Cogn Sci
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One grammar or two? Sign Languages and the Nature of Human Language

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Linguistic research has identified abstract properties that seem to be shared by all languages—such properties may be considered defining characteristics. In recent decades, the recognition that human language is found not only in the spoken modality but also in the form of sign languages has led to a reconsideration of some of these potential linguistic universals. In large part, the linguistic analysis of sign languages has led to the conclusion that universal characteristics of language can be stated at an abstract enough level to include languages in both spoken and signed modalities. For example, languages in both modalities display hierarchical structure at sub‐lexical and phrasal level, and recursive rule application. However, this does not mean that modality‐based differences between signed and spoken languages are trivial. In this article, we consider several candidate domains for modality effects, in light of the overarching question: are signed and spoken languages subject to the same abstract grammatical constraints, or is a substantially different conception of grammar needed for the sign language case? We look at differences between language types based on the use of space, iconicity, and the possibility for simultaneity in linguistic expression. The inclusion of sign languages does support some broadening of the conception of human language—in ways that are applicable for spoken languages as well. Still, the overall conclusion is that one grammar applies for human language, no matter the modality of expression. WIREs Cogn Sci 2014, 5:387–401. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1297

This article is categorized under:

  • Linguistics > Linguistic Theory
ASL sign BOOK.
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Signer producing the ASL sign DEAF with her dominant hand while simultaneously holding an IX sign with her non‐dominant hand.
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Signer producing the ASL sign ASK, moving from a location near her own body, toward a non‐first person locus. If the locus had previously been associated with a referent, say, ‘Bill’, the sign would be interpreted as ‘I ask Bill’.
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Signer pointing to a location without a present referent. The IX sign would be interpreted as ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘he’, ‘him’, or ‘it’, depending on the context.
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Signer pointing to a present referent. The sign, glossed IX, can be interpreted as ‘she’ or ‘her’ in this context.
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Loci in ASL complement set anaphora.
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ASL sign LEARN.
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