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Review of  The Syntax of American Sign Language

Reviewer: Pius Ten Hacken
Book Title: The Syntax of American Sign Language
Book Author: Benjamin Bahan Dawn MacLaughlin Carol Neidle Judy A Kegl
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): American Sign Language
Issue Number: 11.2318

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Neidle, Carol; Kegl, Judy; MacLaughlin, Dawn; Bahan, Benjamin & Lee, Robert
G. (2000), The Syntax of American Sign Language: Functional Categories and
Hierarchical Structure, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, Hardcover $35.

Reviewed by Pius ten Hacken, Universit�t Basel (Switzerland)

American Sign Language (ASL) is the language used by the Deaf community in
the USA. [Note that "Deaf" with a capital refers to the cultural adherence,
"deaf" to the physiological property.] While even as recently as less than
half a century ago, ASL was not recognized as a real language, it is now
generally accepted in linguistics that signed languages are natural
languages as much as spoken languages are. In the book under review, ASL
data are analysed in terms of Chomsky's (1995) Minimalist Program. The main
focus of the research are functional categories, their projections and
their hierarchical organization in the tree structure. The research was
carried out as one of the projects within the American Sign Language
Linguistic Research Project (ASLLRP) at Boston University


After a brief introduction sketching the context of the research, chapter 2
addresses the specific problems of collecting data for a sign language such
as ASL. These problems are caused by the status as a minority language, by
the special language acquisition context, and by the fact that it is much
less clear than in spoken languages which aspects of the visual performance
of the signer are part of the language system. Since only a small minority
of deaf children have Deaf parents, sign language acquisition is often
complicated by the lack of native input in the critical phase, often
leading to less than complete mastery of the language. As a consequence,
signers are in general very tolerant to interlocutors using signs in a way
they would never use them themselves. In addition, interference from
English in such features as word order tends to occur because in many
contexts signers have to use the majority language. The problem of getting
genuine ASL data is addressed by concentrating on signers who share their
primary language with their parents and creating an elicitation context in
which signing is performed as naturally as possible. Thus, native signers
act as elicitors wherever possible. The problem of not losing information
about the data collected by storing them only in a partial representation
is solved by working with videotapes and making these videotapes generally
available at the project's website. In this way, if features of utterances
remain unnoticed at first, other researchers may still discover them.

In chapter 3, the use of the hands (handshapes, orientation, movement), the
signing space, and nonmanual markings (facial expression, head movement,
etc.) in ASL are presented. Phi-features (e.g. person, number) are
represented spatially. Other heads of functional projections, e.g. Neg, are
expressed by a nonmanual marking which may spread over the entire c-command

Starting from chapter 4, aspects of the syntactic structure of ASL are
analysed. First, chapter 4 addresses the delimitation of CP. It is argued
that two topic positions are available to the left of the CP and one
position each for dislocation of pronouns and tags to the right of the CP.
If these external positions are disregarded, the remaining CP in ASL shows
a clear SVO word order. Chapter 5 is concerned with agreement and tense. It
is shown that the CP in ASL has a structure closely following Pollock's
(1989) proposal for French and English. The hierarchical order of
functional projections between CP and VP is TP, NegP, AspP (aspect), AgrSP,
AgrOP. Chapter 6 discusses noun phrases. Assuming Abney's (1987) DP
analysis, it is shown how agreement between determiner and NP and of the
possessive with possessor and possessee is expressed. The nonmanual
markings involved exhibit a striking similarity to the ones used for
agreement in the clause.

On the basis of the structure and the methodology established in the
preceding chapters, chapter 7 proposes an account of wh-movement in ASL.
The central point of this account is that the wh-phrase in ASL moves
rightward to [Spec, CP]. This point is supported by an analysis of a wide
variety of data. It goes counter to Kayne's (1994) general theory of
antisymmetry, which allows only leftward movement in any language, and more
specifically to Petronio & Lillo-Martin's (1997) account of wh-movement in
ASL in terms of leftward movement. The disagreement with Petronio &
Lillo-Martin (1997) in terms of data and their analysis is treated in

Finally, chapter 8 gives an overview of the conclusions, divided into
findings contradicting earlier claims about ASL, findings consistent with
theoretical assumptions in the Minimalist Program, and findings which
provide evidence for one of two sides in current theoretical debates. In
the first category, it is listed that ASL has grammatical tense, definite
and indefinite determiners, a uniform licensing mechanism for null
arguments (syntactic agreement with an overt expression), extraction out of
embedded clauses, and basic SVO word order in TP. In the second category,
ASL was shown to provide evidence for functional projections, abstract
syntactic features, feature checking rather than aggregation, and the
parallelism of clauses and noun phrases. Finally, as contributions to
current debates, ASL data are argued to provide arguments in support of the
existence of Agr-projections and of a structure in which they are dominated
by TP. They cast doubt on the universality of leftward movement as proposed
by Kayne (1994).


Until recently, the literature on sign languages could be divided into two
types of work. The first is concerned with proving that sign languages are
natural languages and exploring the consequences of this insight for the
general nature of human language. The second is concerned with describing
aspects of the phonology and morphosyntax of individual sign languages. The
book under review represents a third type of research, which only emerged
in the last couple of years. It takes data from a sign language as evidence
for deciding on theoretical issues in a general framework also used for
spoken languages. As such, it continues and extends a tradition within
Chomskyan linguistics represented by such works as Kayne (1975) and Rizzi
(1982), consisting of considering further languages in order to strengthen
the basis of the existing theory and provide evidence for choosing between
alternative analyses.

As a consequence, the shortened form of the title, which is the most common
form to refer to a book (including on the spine of the book itself and in
the announcement,, is
slightly misleading. The book is not a general, descriptive overview of ASL
syntax but treats chosen aspects in a highly specific theoretical framework.

There are two ways to read this book. The first way is as an example of the
issues arising when sign languages, in particular ASL, are treated in the
Minimalist Program. The second way is as an extended argument against
Petronio & Lillo-Martin's (1997) analysis of wh-movement. The same chapters
get a rather different load depending on whether they are read from one
angle or from the other. While the present reviewer has approached the book
with the first perspective in mind, it is hardly possible to ignore the
scattered remarks attacking the work of Lillo-Martin and collaborators in
the chapters on methodology and structure, and the last 22 pages (15% of
total text) are devoted entirely to refuting their analysis of leftward

The primary readership seems to consist of linguists with a certain
background in Chomsky's Minimalist Program and little or no previous
knowledge of ASL. For this readership, the book is an excellent
introduction to the field of sign language linguistics. Assuming only the
level of knowledge of the Minimalist Program which can be expected to be
taught in an undergraduate course, the text is clearly structured and
provides many references. The consistent use of clear summaries makes the
book accessible also to graduate students. The abundance of references to
many of the controversial issues mentioned makes it an excellent starting
point for a more profound study of the existing literature on a chosen

A practical disadvantage of this book is the large number of endnotes,
taking up 35 pages in a smaller font for 152 pages of text. These endnotes
are used for different purposes, giving further references, making
background assumptions explicit, noting unsolved problems, refuting
analyses not treated in the main text, etc. Since it is often difficult to
foresee the type of information provided in a particular endnote, most
readers will find themselves paging back and forth much of the time.

A further practical point to note concerns the representation of example
signs and utterances. They are given as annotated English glosses or
photographs. The former only specifies chosen aspects of the form. The
conventions used are described explicitly in an appendix. What is necessary
in terms of syntactic analysis, e.g. indexes and nonmanual markings, is
clearly indicated, but it is impossible to get an impression of the actual
signed form. The photographs are frozen states of videotapes. In cases
where movement is to be illustrated, two photographs representing initial
and final states are given. Still, they are less informative than the usual
drawings with arrows, a representation which is never mentioned in the
book. Of course, the ASLLRP website gives access to downloadable video
files, but if the purpose is only to get a quick impression of the signed
form, downloading is inefficient. Moreover, for the non-specialist the
videos are difficult to interpret. The analogy which comes to mind is that,
in a discussion of an unknown spoken language, data are given only as
English glosses and downloadable audiotapes.


I can recommend this book to anyone with a basic background in the
Minimalist Program. It is well-written, clearly structured, and makes
interesting points both on theoretical issues in the Minimalist Program and
on the analysis of ASL. In addition the book has a strong methodological
foundation, raising issues on data collection which are also of a more
general relevance in the study of minority languages.


Chomsky, Noam (1995), The Minimalist Program, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Kayne, Richard S. (1975), French Syntax: The Transformational Cycle,
Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

Kayne, Richard S. (1994), The Antisymmetry of Syntax, Cambridge (Mass.):
MIT Press.

Petronio, Karen & Lillo-Martin, Diane (1997), 'WH-movement and the position
of spec-CP: Perspectives from American Sign Language', Language 73:18-57.

Pollock, Jean-Yves (1989), 'Verb Movement, Universal Grammar, and the
Structure of IP', Linguistic Inquiry 20:365-424.

Rizzi, Luigi (1982), Issues in Italian Syntax, Dordrecht: Foris.

About the reviewer
Dr. Pius ten Hacken completed his Ph.D. in English linguistics and his
Habilitationsschrift in general linguistics at the Universit�t Basel
(Switzerland). His research covers philosophy and history of 20th century
linguistics, morphology, translation, and computational linguistics.


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