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LINGUIST List 24.1083

Sun Mar 03 2013

Review: Applied Linguistics; Cognitive Science: Pfau, Steinbach, Woll (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 12-Feb-2013
From: Kathryn Davidson <kathryn.davidsongmail.com>
Subject: Sign Language: An International Handbook
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3604.html

EDITOR: Roland Pfau
EDITOR: Markus Steinbach
EDITOR: Bencie Woll
TITLE: Sign Language
SUBTITLE: An International Handbook
SERIES TITLE: Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft / Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 37
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Kathryn Davidson, University of Connecticut


“Sign Language: An International Handbook”, edited by Roland Pfau, Markus
Steinbach, and Bencie Woll, is an extensive collection of handbook entries on
various aspects of sign language research, each written by researchers with
expertise in the topic. It belongs to the series of Handbooks of Linguistics
and Communication Science (“Handbücher zur Sprach- und
Kommunikationswissenschaft”, or “HSK”), and is written to appeal to
researchers and advanced students of linguistics, equally targeting those who
have and have not had background in sign linguistics but are interested in the
theory and/or methodology of sign language research.

This HSK Sign Language volume is comprised of forty-four chapters, beginning
with an introduction by the editors and continuing with the chapters divided
into nine main sections. The first four main sections are based on traditional
divisions of linguistic analysis: phonology/phonetics, morphology, syntax, and
semantics/pragmatics. These are followed by a section discussing issues
related to the visual/manual communication modality, and sections on
neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics, variation and change, applied issues,
and handling sign language data.

I. Phonetics, Phonology, Prosody

The first section of this volume introduces modality independent definitions
for areas of research traditionally associated with the acoustic properties of
speech: phonetics, phonology, and prosody. Chapter 2 on Phonetics (Crasborn)
proposes that in addition to patterns in sign language phonology, sign
language phonetics is real and handles variation that is not phonologically
specified. Chapter 3 on Phonology (Brentari) discusses a variety of sign
language phonology models from a historical perspective, focusing on abstract
structure as well as pressures from modality and iconicity. Chapter 4 on
Prosody (Sandler) advocates for a two-way dissociation of nonmanual marking
from prosody, discusses modality from the point of view of Israeli Sign
Language, and together with the chapter on Phonology lays out arguments for
syllable structure in sign languages.

II. Morphology

Despite many differences between individual sign languages, it is also the
case that sign languages that are not historically related show some
similarities having to do with the structure of words in the visual modality,
and this section investigates some of these similarities. Chapter 5, on Word
Classes and Word formation (Meir) notes how despite the difficulty in
determining word classes (parts of speech) in the world’s languages generally,
some techniques have been developed for studying these classes in sign
languages. Chapter 6 on Plurality (Steinbach) describes repetition and arcs
that can be used to denote plurality, conditioned by the phonology of
underlying lexical items or classifiers, with variation across sign languages.
Of particular note is the propensity for plurals to be either zero- or
hyper-marked in sign languages. Chapter 7 on Verb Agreement (Mathur and
Rathmann) discusses historical and synchronic approaches to verb agreement in
sign languages, keeping in mind the “listing problem” of modeling agreement
with potentially infinitely many referents located in space, and verb
selection. Chapter 8 on Classifiers (Zwitserlood) demonstrates that despite
recent suggestions that sign classifiers are unlike spoken language
classifiers, there are several understudied spoken languages whose classifiers
exhibit many of the properties of sign language classifiers.

Chapter 9 on Tense, Aspect, and Modality (Pfau, Steinbach, and Woll) shows
that sign languages pattern as a group in their use of bound vs. free
morphemes for tense, aspect, and modality, while fitting into paradigms found
in spoken languages. There is also a discussion of the historical origins and
development of many of the relevant signs across sign languages. Chapter 10,
Agreement Auxiliaries (Sapountzaki) provides an alphabetized list of
auxiliaries in sign languages, noting that while spoken language auxiliaries
do not always mark person, that is precisely what is typically marked in sign
languages, and hypothesizing that this may be related to the physical
properties of signing. Finally, Chapter 11 on Pronouns (Cormier) covers
personal pronouns, possessives, and other ‘pro-forms’ (interrogatives,
reciprocals, demonstratives), focusing on a comparison of British Sign
Language and American Sign Language.

III. Syntax

Along with phonological and morphological analysis, syntactic research on sign
languages has been a force for recognition of sign languages as full natural
languages. Chapter 12, Word Order (Leeson and Saeed) provides an overview of
some of this research, discussing different time periods in the history of
sign linguistics research regarding word order and different theoretical
frameworks that have been applied (cognitive, generative, functional, etc.),
in addition to a typology of sign languages with respect to word order.
Chapter 13, The Noun Phrase (Neidle and Nash) brings in many topics discussed
elsewhere in the volume (pronouns, plurals) to a discussion of syntax, also
including determiners and NP internal word order. Chapter 14 on Sentence Types
(Cecchetto) notes the lack of research on imperative and exclamative sentence
types in sign languages and consequently focuses on a single sentence type,
(wh-) questions, providing background about debates on this topic and
hypotheses surrounding the syntactic status of nonmanual marking.

Chapter 15 on Negation (Quer) discusses the syntactic placement of manual and
nonmanual types of negation in sign languages, as well as semantic categories
of negation such as metalinguistic negation. In Chapter 16, Coordination and
Subordination (Tang and Lau), various tests for coordination (involving
wh-movement and gapping) are detailed, as are tests for subordination
(including cross-linguistic differences) as well as relative clauses and
relative clause markers. Finally, Chapter 17, Utterance Reports and
Constructed Action (Lillo-Martin) presents various accounts of the description
of others’ actions and speech in sign languages, including first theories,
mental spaces/blending accounts, and finally a formal implementation.

IV. Semantics and Pragmatics

Chapter 18 on Iconicity and Metaphor (Taub) tackles the important issue of
signs that look like what they mean distinguishing transparency from
iconicity, gestures vs. signs, ways that meaning can be mapped to forms, and
the ways that iconicity does and does not influence the language. Chapter 19,
Use of Sign Space (Perniss) investigates the choice of placing items in space
based on real world or discourse factors, leading to a comparison of character
space and observer space and their alignment with handling vs. entity
classifiers. Chapter 20, Lexical Semantics (Grose), includes a discussion of
Hong Kong Sign Language and American Sign Language color terms and kinship
terms, as well as sign language verbal structure, such as visible aspect and
argument structure. Chapter 21 on Information Structure (Wilbur) separates
notions of topic, focus, contrast, and emphasis, and describes various
encodings of topic and focus in sign languages. Chapter 22 on Communicative
Interaction (Baker and Bogaerde) discusses maxims of communication, turn
taking, politeness, and humor, focusing on differences between spoken and sign
languages and cultures.

V. Communication in the Visual Modality

Not all communication that is produced with movements of the hands and body
and is perceived by the visual system should be classified together with
“urban sign languages” nurtured by deaf educational institutions. Chapter 23
on Manual Communication Systems: Evolution and Variation (Pfau) is a two part
study on how sign and gesture systems may have been involved in general
language evolution, following by a discussion of secondary sign languages by
industrial workers, religious orders, and indigenous peoples in Australia and
America. Chapter 24, Shared Sign Languages (Nyst), describes many areas of the
world with high rates of deafness and a sign language used regularly by both
hearing and deaf community members, arguing that they are different but no
less developed than traditional Deaf sign languages. Chapter 25 on Language
and Modality (Meier) notes important differences in manual/visual and
oral/auditory modalities, both in articulation and perception, and
consequences this has for language structure and language acquisition. Chapter
26, Homesign (Goldin-Meadow), delves into the issue of what happens in the
absence of linguistic input, and what deaf children’s gestures look like in
such a situation, comparing their gestures with typical adults’ co-speech
gestures, and arguing that important differences between the two stem from the
their relationship with speech and one’s interlocutors. Finally, Chapter 27,
Gesture (Özyürek), outlines various types of gestures (gesticulation,
pantomime, emblems) that can be placed with sign languages on a continuum of
linguistic properties and conventionalization, noting also the existence of
gestures in sign languages.

VI. Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics

Throughout the history of sign language research, carefully controlled
experimental studies have played a crucial role in proving that sign languages
are not only equal to spoken languages in structural complexity, but also in
learning and processing. Chapter 28 on Acquisition (Chen Pichler) discusses
the acquisition of phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse of sign languages
by native signing children, including the (small) role of iconicity. Chapter
29 on Processing (Dye) describes experimental paradigms such as lexical
decision, gating studies, priming studies, lexical access, and memory span,
noting what each tells us about the way that sign languages are encoded in the
mind. Chapter 30, Production (Hohenberger and Leuninger), outlines models of
spoken language production and how they can be adapted for sign language
production, including a difference in monitoring, and how “slips of the hand”
in sign languages inform models of language production more generally. Chapter
31 on Neurolinguistics (Corina and Spotswood) describes language localization
in sign vs. speech based on aphasia studies and neuroimaging data, with
special attention paid to nonmanual components like face recognition and mouth
movements in speech and sign, as well as in hearing and deaf native signers.
Finally, Chapter 32 on Atypical Signing (Woll) compares spoken language
atypicalities with potential analogs in sign, including: Aphasias, Apraxias,
Parkinson's, SLI, Williams, Down Syndrome, and Tourette's, where in some but
not all cases signers exhibit analogous behavior to speakers.

VII. Variation and Change

By virtue of their young age and their existence alongside spoken languages in
nearly all locations, issues of variation and change go hand-in-hand with any
research in sign linguistics. Chapter 33 on Sociolinguistic Aspects of
Variation and Change (Schembri and Johnston) discusses phonological, lexical,
and even potentially grammatical variation due to a number of factors like
geography, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Also noted is the effect of
technological innovation on variation. Chapter 34, Lexicalization and
Grammaticalization (Janzen), outlines the process by which words are formed
(e.g. from gestures or from other words in compounds), and the processes by
which some aspects of language (either words, or straight from gestures) take
on specific grammatical roles. Chapter 35, Language Contact and Borrowing
(Adam), includes descriptions of spoken/sign language contact in the case of
bimodal bilinguals, fingerspelling, calques, and sign/sign language contact,
esp. International Sign, and results of language contact. Chapter 36, Language
Emergence and Creolisation (Adone), makes the argument that sign languages can
be compared to creoles both in aspects of structure and in language learning,
when children nativize gestures or pidgins. Finally, chapter 37 on Language
Planning (Schermer) describes Deaf politics and sign language policies,
including legal recognition for sign languages, controversies surrounding
standardization procedures in, e.g. dictionaries, and important roles for
education and acquisition in the continued use of sign languages.

VIII. Applied Issues

Formal linguists may not be aware of some issues that are important to deaf
communities and to the development of sign languages, which this section helps
to address. Chapter 38, a history of sign languages and sign language
linguistics (McBurney), serves as an important introduction to modern deaf
history, including the establishment of Gallaudet University and deaf
educational institutions, as well as a detailed sketch of sign language
research beginning with Stokoe et al. (1965) and Klima & Bellugi (1979).
Chapter 39 on Deaf Education and Bilingualism (Plaza Pust) highlights the
relationships of majority spoken languages with minority sign languages, both
in schools and outside in the “real world”, focusing on deaf children and how
views of bilingualism and the role of speaking and signing in deaf education
have changed over time. Chapter 40, on Interpreting (Stone), provides a
history of Deaf interpreters (from the Ottoman court to International Sign) as
well as interpreters between sign and spoken languages, and includes
discussion of research about the psychology of interpreting. Finally, Chapter
41, Poetry (Sutton-Spence), mentions many important poets in Western sign
languages (esp. BSL and ASL), themes (e.g. Deaf affirming) and techniques
(e.g. metaphor, repetition, symmetry, etc.), while also emphasizing various
purposes served by sign language poetry (e.g. entertainment, showing a Deaf
world view).

IX. Handling Sign Language Data

The final section of the volume concerns the sensitive issue of what data
should be used in sign language research, and how future technologies may
improve and change sign language data. Chapter 42 on Data Collection (van
Herreweghe and Vermeerbergen) outlines possible methods for creating data to
be analyzed, including stories to be used in narrative elicitation tasks,
techniques for creating and videotaping naturalistic signing situations, and
discussion about which signers should be considered models for sign language
analysis. Chapter 43, Transcription (Frishberg, Hoiting, and Slobin), concerns
a crucial issue in sign language research, namely, capturing the
multidimensionality of sign languages on paper or on a computer screen. Many
options are compared and linked to in this chapter (Sign Writing, HamNoSyn,
Sign Stream, ELAN, with an in-depth look at the Berkeley notation system),
which also includes forward-looking descriptions of what the field should aim
for more generally. Finally, Chapter 44, Computer Modeling (Sáfár and
Glauert), describes sign language dictionaries, corpus, and translation
programs, both those for human use and those used for computational modeling,
with particular attention given to what we could expect automatic translation
programs to do and to not do.


The introduction to this volume, written by its editors, states that two of
its goals are to make sign language research accessible to non-specialists,
and to showcase variation across sign languages, and by these two metrics the
volume is extremely successful. For the most part, the author of each chapter
assumes some familiarity with basic linguistic concepts, but no familiarity
with a sign language. For example, Brentari’s chapter on Phonology (Ch. 3)
assumes knowledge of essential concepts in spoken language phonology (feature
hierarchies, minimal pairs), and uses this as a starting point to describe
work on sign languages. Similarly, Corina and Spotswood’s chapter on
Neurolinguistics (Ch. 31) covers a wide range of topics including aphasias and
neuroimaging of various brain areas when processing different types of data,
assuming a basic working knowledge of cognitive neuroscience. There are a few
exceptions: for example Woll’s Ch. 32 (Atypical Signing) would be more
understandable to a reader with some sign language familiarity because of the
examples required to illustrate atypical signing. However, most of the
chapters in Sections (I)-(IV) and in Section (VI) answer the question “how
does existing analysis in a field extend to sign languages?” for nearly any
subfield of study within theoretical and experimental linguistics. This makes
the volume an excellent point of reference for any working linguist who wants
to know what has been said about his/her research topic in the sign language
modality, and an important reference for any linguistics department or
academic library.

Additionally, with over 150 sign languages listed in the index that are used
in discussions throughout the text, this volume clearly showcases the
variation found across the world’s sign languages. This outstanding variety is
one of the strongest aspects of this collection, and sheds light on the
important work that is being done across the world both on urban (/national)
sign languages, and village (/shared) sign languages. Of course, many in-depth
studies in the book are based on the most well-studied sign languages such as
American Sign Language, British Sign Language, and Sign Language of the
Netherlands, but even so, each chapter draws in at least some data involving
cross-linguistic variation, history, or research. One nice example is Stone’s
chapter on Interpreting (Ch. 40), which includes a comparison of interpreting
regulations in the UK, Japan, and Finland. This same spirit is captured in
each chapter of this volume, which makes it an excellent reference for sign
language researchers who tend to conduct their research in the sign language
with which they are the most familiar.

Based on the realization of these stated goals, two ideal audiences for this
text are the spoken language researcher interested in incorporating insights
from sign languages into his/her research, and the sign language researcher
interested in a summary of current developments in areas of sign linguistics
that are not their own. For the non-sign language specialist, this volume will
present the state of sign linguistics within their linguistic subfield, as
well as a brief overview of important applied topics that a beginning sign
language researcher should know, such as Deaf history and education, data
collection, transcription, and psycholinguistic studies on sign language
research. For the sign language researcher, the crosslinguistic variation
showcased in the volume provides a useful reference, as will the current state
of research in a wide variety of sign language research subfields.

The current volume serves an altogether different function from classic works
of original research like Stokoe et al.’s “Dictionary of American Sign
Language based on Linguistic Principles” (1965), Klima and Bellugi’s “The
Signs of Language” (1979), and more recent volumes such as Sandler &
Lillo-Martin’s “Sign Language and Linguistic Universals” (2006) and Brentari’s
recent “Sign Languages” (2010). Instead of focusing on original research,
every chapter in this volume provides a broad overview of the current state of
research in that subfield by incorporating data from a wide range of sign
languages. They also all include discussions of possible new research
directions based on this established research. Thus, for both a general
linguist who wants to understand the state of sign linguistics in a particular
subfield, as well as for established sign language researchers, this volume is
a valuable resource that does not appear to have an equivalent elsewhere.

Pedagogically, this volume would not be well used as a first introduction to
linguistics for those who are already familiar with sign languages, as some
familiarity with linguistic research is expected in each chapter (unlike, e.g.
Valli et al. 2011). However, chapters from the book would form excellent
reading material to supplement both graduate and advanced undergraduate
seminars to examine how the course topic is treated in sign languages, such as
in a basic graduate phonology, morphology, syntax, or psycholinguistics
course. Deaf educators familiar with some sign language research will also
find the state-of-the-art summaries of current sign language research to be
useful as a survey of the progress of the field of sign linguistics.

For the most part, the volume has the right amount of overlap between the
chapters. In some areas, there is a significant amount of repetition (e.g. the
basics of handshape, location, movement parameters in the phonology related
chapters, and discussions of “Classifier” constructions throughout), but this
has the fortunate effect of making each chapter readable on its own. In
particular, a single chapter could be assigned in a course, or referenced,
without having to make reference to neighboring chapters.

In any volume that attempts to tackle such a broad subject, there will be
topics that one finds lacking. Two that stood out to me are (i) the new but
growing area of formal semantic research and (ii) more reference to historical
relationships between sign languages (e.g. which sign languages are
descendants of French sign language, or to British sign language, or Japanese
sign language, etc.). There are also two typographical issues: authors’ names
appear in a non-prominent position at the very end of each chapter, making
identification of the source of the chapter strangely inconvenient, and some
helpful conventions, such as using Tang’s handshape font instead of reference
to fingerspelling letters, are not strictly enforced throughout.

In sum, this volume is a must-have for any professional linguist looking to
expand their research to include sign language data, and an excellent desk
reference for an established sign language researcher. Additionally, the
suggestions for future research and extensive literature collections in each
chapter can provide students with background to begin to investigate their own
research topics. Finally, there are many chapters that would be of interest to
researchers outside of the target linguistics audience, such as the historical
developments of sign languages and interpreting, sign systems used by
religious orders and industrial works, home sign and gesture, and
computational modeling.


Brentari, Diane. 2010. Sign Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Klima, Edward & Ursula Bellugi. 1979. The Signs of Language. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.

Sandler, Wendy & Diane Lillo-Martin. 2006. Sign Language and Linguistic
Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stokoe, William C., Casterline, Dorothy C. & Carl G. Cronenberg. 1965. A
Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. Washington,
D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Valli, Clayton, Lucas, Ceil, Mulrooney, Kristin, & Miako Villanueva. 2011.
Linguistics of American Sign Language: an introduction, 5th Edition.
Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


Kathryn Davidson is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of
Linguistics at the University of Connecticut, having received her PhD in
Linguistics from the University of California, San Diego in 2011. Her primary
research areas are formal semantics, experimental pragmatics, sign languages,
and language acquisition.
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