LINGUIST List 9.800

Fri May 29 1998

Disc: ASL Pronouns (was Educating Eve)

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>


  1. Emily Bender, Re: Review: Sampson: Educating Eve

Message 1: Re: Review: Sampson: Educating Eve

Date: Fri, 22 May 1998 16:10:04 -0700 (PDT)
From: Emily Bender <>
Subject: Re: Review: Sampson: Educating Eve

In his review of Geoffrey Sampson's book _Educating Eve_, Feargal
Murphy refutes one of Sampson's arguments based on a mistaken
characterization of the pronoun system of American Sign Language
(ASL). While I do not have anything to add to the debate on nativism,
I want to set the record straight as to the facts of the ASL pronoun
system. (The quote at the beginning of this excerpt is from Sampson's

> "Jackendoff has shortly beforehand pointed out that one aspect of American 
> sign language grammar is not paralleled in any spoken language. The 
> sign-language equivalent of the third person pronouns (she, they, his) 
> consists of gesturing (with hand shapes and movements that depend on whether 
> the reference is singular, plural or possessive) to locations in the signing 
> space which have been assigned to successive topics of conversations. 'The 
> effect is that there are as many different third-person pronouns available 
> as there are discernible locations in the signing space'. No spoken language 
> has a pronoun system remotely like this, so how can it be part of our innate 
> knowledge." (p.78)
> The author is missing the point here. Sign language expresses person, 
> number, gender and possession as spoken language does and not some 
> other features not found in spoken language. So the system the same as 
> spoken language. The use of pronouns in sign language is exactly the same 
> as the use of pronouns in spoken language and is based on universal grammar, 
> what is different is the modality. The availability of the signing space 
> means that a signer can introduce a greater number of pronouns into 
> the discourse as each pronoun can be allocated a 
> location in the signing space without leading to any confusion. This is the 
> same as the fact that I could use as many second person singular pronouns as 
> I wanted as long as I looked at the individual that I was addressing 
> with that pronoun. Looking at the person that I was referring to 
> with the pronoun is really the same as the signer using the sign space to 
> tag pronouns. This is not just true of second person pronouns.
> I could be talking about, say, the members of a football team and refer to 
> each individual using a third person pronoun. I could be quite 
> clear in my own head who is being picked out each time, it would 
> just be confusing to the person I was talking to. This is because 
> there would be no way for them to distinguish the 
> referents of each of the pronouns. In sign language I can exploit the 
> possibility of the signing space by tagging each meaning of a 
> pronoun with a location in space so that the whole thing does not get 
> confusing. The potential in both oral and sign language is the same, 
> but sign can exploit the signing space in a way that 
> oral language cannot. The point is that the limitations are not imposed by 
> language but by the modality. What Jackendoff is saying is that the same 
> Universal Grammar underlies language no matter what the modality.

What is missing in this characterization is that the location of a
sign is part of its phonological form. The analogous thing for a
spoken language would be to have around 12 (assuming that's the upper
limit of "discernible locations" -- it may well be more)
phonologically distinct 3rd person singular pronouns: pro-a, pro-b,
pro-c, pro-d, etc, as well as 12 phonologically distinct 3rd person
singular verbal affixes.

On the face of it, these pronouns do not differ from each other in any
features like gender. (ASL does not in fact mark gender in its
pronoun system.) However, if we consider what the function of gender
distinctions in pronoun systems is, we find out that it really isn't
all that different: a pronoun system with a two-way gender distinction
can support pronominal reference to more referents at the same time
than can a pronoun system with no gender distinction.

In fact, the ASL system is more efficient in many ways -- not just in
the larger range of distinct pronouns. Unlike an English-like gender
system, you don't have to happen to have referents with the right
grammatical or "natural" gender in order to take advantage of the
distinctions in the pronoun system. On the other hand, ASL does
require that you explicitly associate each referent with its location
for future use.

I leave discussion of the consequences for the debate on nativism
to others.

Emily Bender
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