Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The role of hearing signers in the development of channel specific structures in sign languages of deaf communities

In this project, the hypothesis that language contact crucially impacts the development of spatial grammar and phonology is investigated.

Duration
2012  -   2016
Contact
Victoria Nyst
Funding
NWO VENI NWO VENI

Sign languages of deaf communities share formal characteristics specific to signing (Aronoff et al. 2004). Recent studies on emerging sign languages shed light on how these features emerge (Kegl et al. 1999). These studies claim that the language capacity of children was crucial for the development of language-like features. Sharing structural features with the early stages of emerging sign languages, the sign language of Adamorobe, a village with a long history of hereditary deafness, shows that the multi-generational acquisition by children is no guarantee for the development of the typical sign language structures (Nyst, 2007). In Nyst (2007), We propose it is rather the sociolinguistic setting of Adamorobe Sign Language that accounts for its structural features.

In this project, the hypothesis that language contact crucially impacts the development of spatial grammar and phonology is investigated. To this end, three sign languages will be studied, each used in a different sociolinguistic setting, with varying patterns of language contact as a result. Like AdaSL, the three sign languages have arisen in West Africa outside the context of deaf education, and as such form a group of severely understudied sign languages.

Data for these languages are available in online corpora (Nyst et al. forthcoming a, b). For each language, those grammatical and phonological features will be analyzed that set AdaSL and emerging sign languages apart from sign languages of large deaf communities. Subsequently, we will investigate to what extent:

  • there is a correlation between the grammatical and phonological aspects analyzed.
  • Structural patterns in the languages can be interpreted in the light of their sociolinguistic settings, in particular the language contact situation.

This project will shed light on the interplay of two major factors impacting sign language structure; channel-inherent tendencies and sociolinguistic features allowing or impeding their emergence.

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