Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

From Gesture to Language

Like any language, the natural sign languages (henceforth: SLs) of deaf communities differ from each other in their grammars and lexicons. A growing number of studies indicates that SLs make use of the gestures of hearing speakers to build linguistic structure. This implies that variation and similarities in co-speech gesturing may lead to variation and similarities in the structure of (unrelated) SLs. 

Duration
2017  -   2022
Contact
Victoria Nyst
Funding
NWO Vidi NWO Vidi

Like any language, the natural sign languages (henceforth: SLs) of deaf communities differ from each other in their grammars and lexicons. A growing number of studies indicates that SLs make use of the gestures of hearing speakers to build linguistic structure. This implies that variation and similarities in co-speech gesturing may lead to variation and similarities in the structure of (unrelated) SLs. 


This project aims to test this implication by comparing 6 unrelated SLs in West Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal) and their gestural environments. The comparison will focus on the expression of size and shape, as in some of these West African SLs an unusual type of body-based size and shape constructions has been observed. We will compare size and shape constructions in an emerging and an established SL, to study the way in which gestural constructions conventionalize into linguistic elements.


In addition, we will compare size and shape constructions in two varieties of American SL: one that is used in the US and one that is used in Ghana. This comparison will shed light on the timing of the influence of gestures on SL structure; whether it happens only during the emergence of a SL, or throughout its life cycle.


The hypothesis that unrelated sign languages can be structurally similar due to having emerged in a similar gestural environment is difficult to test in most industrialized areas of the world, due to a shared origin or history of contact that is assumed to exist for many SLs. The West African SLs in this study provide a unique opportunity to test the impact of gestural substrate, because of the lack of a shared history between the SLs on the one hand, and important similarities in gesture use and SL structure on the other.

PhD Project I

How do S&S gestures turn into linguistic S&S constructions during SL emergence? A comparison of S&S constructions in an emerging and an old village SL and their gestural environments.

PhD I will study how S&S gestures change when they are transformed into SL elements. An important question is to what extent linguistic structuring can already be discerned in the gestural environment (both on co-speech and silent conditions) and how this compares to the linguistic structuring in SLs. To this end, the student will compare the form, meaning and function of S&S constructions in a newly emerging village SL (Bouakako SL) and an established village SL (Adamorobe SL), as well as in their gestural environments. As both SLs emerged in Akan communities, the main difference between the two SLs is their age: Whereas Adamorobe SL is an estimated 200 years old, Bouakako SL is less than 50 years old (Tano 2016).

 

The pilot study on S&S gestures (Nyst 2016) suggests that they may differ from S&S constructions in SLs in being more widespread over the body. Also, hearing speakers sometimes consider different options for gesturally expressing a particular  S&S, including pointing at objects other than body parts. In Adamorobe SL, all body-part S&S constructions observed where realized on (part of) the arm. This suggests that part of the conventionalization involves a concentration of information in the hands; a tendency also observed in diachronic change in lexical signs (Frishberg 1975). In the data on Adamorobe SL, no hesitations were observed, nor cases of pointing at objects to express size and/or shape. To study how the emerging Bouakako SL patterns in these respects, PhD I will collect data for Bouakako and Adamorobe SL and their gestural environments using the shared data-collection protocol, and compare these with discourse and lexical data in the corpora available for the two SLs (Nyst 2012; Tano 2014).

PhD Project II

When are SLs susceptible to influences of their gestural environment: only during the emerging stage or throughout their life spans? A comparison of S&S constructions in two related school SLs in different gestural environments.

PhD II studies the timing of the influence of the gestural substrate on SL structure: Does it take place only during the emerging stage of SLs, or are established SLs open to influences from their gestural environment as well? To shed light on the stability of S&S constructions vis-à-vis their gestural environment, this project will compare S&S constructions in two historically related SLs (American SL and Ghanaian SL), which are used in different gestural environments. Ghanaian SL is a school SL based on American SL, which was introduced together with deaf education in Ghana by the deaf American rev. Andrew Foster in 1959. Since then, the Ghanaian deaf community has been in contact with various forms and varieties of American SL. Ghanaian SL has evolved into a distinct language variety, differing in lexicon and articulation style from American SL. It is also very distinct from the Ghanaian village SL of Adamorobe with which there is little contact. To our knowledges, no body-part S&S constructions have been reported for American SL or for American co-speech gesture. Data collected for a pilot study on gestures of speakers of (UK) English revealed no use of body-part S&S gestures. As body-part S&S gestures have been observed with hearing Ghanaians of various linguistic backgrounds, this raises the question whether or not the Ghanaian variant of American SL has adapted to the surrounding gesture system.

The PhD student will evaluate to what extent the S&S constructions of Ghanaian SL pattern with American varieties of American SL and S&S gestures, or rather with its current gestural environment. To this end, a careful analysis in terms of the variations of American SL relevant to the history of Ghanaian SL is needed, as well as of possible variations in S&S gestures in the current gestural environment. Using the shared data-collection protocol, the PhD student will collect data for the two SLs and for American English gestures. For Akan gestures, the PhD candidate will rely on their analysis by PhD I.

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