LINGUIST List 24.1083

Sun Mar 03 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 12-Feb-2013
From: Kathryn Davidson <>
Subject: Sign Language: An International Handbook
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Roland PfauEDITOR: Markus SteinbachEDITOR: Bencie WollTITLE: Sign LanguageSUBTITLE: An International HandbookSERIES TITLE: Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft / Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 37PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Kathryn Davidson, University of Connecticut


“Sign Language: An International Handbook”, edited by Roland Pfau, MarkusSteinbach, and Bencie Woll, is an extensive collection of handbook entries onvarious aspects of sign language research, each written by researchers withexpertise in the topic. It belongs to the series of Handbooks of Linguisticsand Communication Science (“Handbücher zur Sprach- undKommunikationswissenschaft”, or “HSK”), and is written to appeal toresearchers and advanced students of linguistics, equally targeting those whohave and have not had background in sign linguistics but are interested in thetheory and/or methodology of sign language research.

This HSK Sign Language volume is comprised of forty-four chapters, beginningwith an introduction by the editors and continuing with the chapters dividedinto nine main sections. The first four main sections are based on traditionaldivisions of linguistic analysis: phonology/phonetics, morphology, syntax, andsemantics/pragmatics. These are followed by a section discussing issuesrelated to the visual/manual communication modality, and sections onneurolinguistics 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 definitionsfor areas of research traditionally associated with the acoustic properties ofspeech: phonetics, phonology, and prosody. Chapter 2 on Phonetics (Crasborn)proposes that in addition to patterns in sign language phonology, signlanguage phonetics is real and handles variation that is not phonologicallyspecified. Chapter 3 on Phonology (Brentari) discusses a variety of signlanguage phonology models from a historical perspective, focusing on abstractstructure as well as pressures from modality and iconicity. Chapter 4 onProsody (Sandler) advocates for a two-way dissociation of nonmanual markingfrom prosody, discusses modality from the point of view of Israeli SignLanguage, and together with the chapter on Phonology lays out arguments forsyllable structure in sign languages.

II. Morphology

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

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

III. Syntax

Along with phonological and morphological analysis, syntactic research on signlanguages has been a force for recognition of sign languages as full naturallanguages. Chapter 12, Word Order (Leeson and Saeed) provides an overview ofsome of this research, discussing different time periods in the history ofsign linguistics research regarding word order and different theoreticalframeworks 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 discussedelsewhere in the volume (pronouns, plurals) to a discussion of syntax, alsoincluding determiners and NP internal word order. Chapter 14 on Sentence Types(Cecchetto) notes the lack of research on imperative and exclamative sentencetypes in sign languages and consequently focuses on a single sentence type,(wh-) questions, providing background about debates on this topic andhypotheses surrounding the syntactic status of nonmanual marking.

Chapter 15 on Negation (Quer) discusses the syntactic placement of manual andnonmanual types of negation in sign languages, as well as semantic categoriesof negation such as metalinguistic negation. In Chapter 16, Coordination andSubordination (Tang and Lau), various tests for coordination (involvingwh-movement and gapping) are detailed, as are tests for subordination(including cross-linguistic differences) as well as relative clauses andrelative clause markers. Finally, Chapter 17, Utterance Reports andConstructed Action (Lillo-Martin) presents various accounts of the descriptionof 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 ofsigns that look like what they mean distinguishing transparency fromiconicity, gestures vs. signs, ways that meaning can be mapped to forms, andthe ways that iconicity does and does not influence the language. Chapter 19,Use of Sign Space (Perniss) investigates the choice of placing items in spacebased on real world or discourse factors, leading to a comparison of characterspace and observer space and their alignment with handling vs. entityclassifiers. Chapter 20, Lexical Semantics (Grose), includes a discussion ofHong Kong Sign Language and American Sign Language color terms and kinshipterms, as well as sign language verbal structure, such as visible aspect andargument structure. Chapter 21 on Information Structure (Wilbur) separatesnotions of topic, focus, contrast, and emphasis, and describes variousencodings of topic and focus in sign languages. Chapter 22 on CommunicativeInteraction (Baker and Bogaerde) discusses maxims of communication, turntaking, politeness, and humor, focusing on differences between spoken and signlanguages and cultures.

V. Communication in the Visual Modality

Not all communication that is produced with movements of the hands and bodyand is perceived by the visual system should be classified together with“urban sign languages” nurtured by deaf educational institutions. Chapter 23on Manual Communication Systems: Evolution and Variation (Pfau) is a two partstudy on how sign and gesture systems may have been involved in generallanguage evolution, following by a discussion of secondary sign languages byindustrial workers, religious orders, and indigenous peoples in Australia andAmerica. Chapter 24, Shared Sign Languages (Nyst), describes many areas of theworld with high rates of deafness and a sign language used regularly by bothhearing and deaf community members, arguing that they are different but noless developed than traditional Deaf sign languages. Chapter 25 on Languageand Modality (Meier) notes important differences in manual/visual andoral/auditory modalities, both in articulation and perception, andconsequences this has for language structure and language acquisition. Chapter26, Homesign (Goldin-Meadow), delves into the issue of what happens in theabsence of linguistic input, and what deaf children’s gestures look like insuch a situation, comparing their gestures with typical adults’ co-speechgestures, and arguing that important differences between the two stem from thetheir 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 oflinguistic properties and conventionalization, noting also the existence ofgestures in sign languages.

VI. Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics

Throughout the history of sign language research, carefully controlledexperimental studies have played a crucial role in proving that sign languagesare not only equal to spoken languages in structural complexity, but also inlearning and processing. Chapter 28 on Acquisition (Chen Pichler) discussesthe acquisition of phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse of sign languagesby native signing children, including the (small) role of iconicity. Chapter29 on Processing (Dye) describes experimental paradigms such as lexicaldecision, gating studies, priming studies, lexical access, and memory span,noting what each tells us about the way that sign languages are encoded in themind. Chapter 30, Production (Hohenberger and Leuninger), outlines models ofspoken language production and how they can be adapted for sign languageproduction, including a difference in monitoring, and how “slips of the hand”in sign languages inform models of language production more generally. Chapter31 on Neurolinguistics (Corina and Spotswood) describes language localizationin sign vs. speech based on aphasia studies and neuroimaging data, withspecial attention paid to nonmanual components like face recognition and mouthmovements in speech and sign, as well as in hearing and deaf native signers.Finally, Chapter 32 on Atypical Signing (Woll) compares spoken languageatypicalities with potential analogs in sign, including: Aphasias, Apraxias,Parkinson's, SLI, Williams, Down Syndrome, and Tourette's, where in some butnot all cases signers exhibit analogous behavior to speakers.

VII. Variation and Change

By virtue of their young age and their existence alongside spoken languages innearly all locations, issues of variation and change go hand-in-hand with anyresearch in sign linguistics. Chapter 33 on Sociolinguistic Aspects ofVariation and Change (Schembri and Johnston) discusses phonological, lexical,and even potentially grammatical variation due to a number of factors likegeography, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Also noted is the effect oftechnological innovation on variation. Chapter 34, Lexicalization andGrammaticalization (Janzen), outlines the process by which words are formed(e.g. from gestures or from other words in compounds), and the processes bywhich some aspects of language (either words, or straight from gestures) takeon specific grammatical roles. Chapter 35, Language Contact and Borrowing(Adam), includes descriptions of spoken/sign language contact in the case ofbimodal bilinguals, fingerspelling, calques, and sign/sign language contact,esp. International Sign, and results of language contact. Chapter 36, LanguageEmergence and Creolisation (Adone), makes the argument that sign languages canbe compared to creoles both in aspects of structure and in language learning,when children nativize gestures or pidgins. Finally, chapter 37 on LanguagePlanning (Schermer) describes Deaf politics and sign language policies,including legal recognition for sign languages, controversies surroundingstandardization procedures in, e.g. dictionaries, and important roles foreducation 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 deafcommunities and to the development of sign languages, which this section helpsto address. Chapter 38, a history of sign languages and sign languagelinguistics (McBurney), serves as an important introduction to modern deafhistory, including the establishment of Gallaudet University and deafeducational institutions, as well as a detailed sketch of sign languageresearch beginning with Stokoe et al. (1965) and Klima & Bellugi (1979).Chapter 39 on Deaf Education and Bilingualism (Plaza Pust) highlights therelationships of majority spoken languages with minority sign languages, bothin schools and outside in the “real world”, focusing on deaf children and howviews of bilingualism and the role of speaking and signing in deaf educationhave changed over time. Chapter 40, on Interpreting (Stone), provides ahistory of Deaf interpreters (from the Ottoman court to International Sign) aswell as interpreters between sign and spoken languages, and includesdiscussion of research about the psychology of interpreting. Finally, Chapter41, Poetry (Sutton-Spence), mentions many important poets in Western signlanguages (esp. BSL and ASL), themes (e.g. Deaf affirming) and techniques(e.g. metaphor, repetition, symmetry, etc.), while also emphasizing variouspurposes served by sign language poetry (e.g. entertainment, showing a Deafworld view).

IX. Handling Sign Language Data

The final section of the volume concerns the sensitive issue of what datashould be used in sign language research, and how future technologies mayimprove and change sign language data. Chapter 42 on Data Collection (vanHerreweghe and Vermeerbergen) outlines possible methods for creating data tobe analyzed, including stories to be used in narrative elicitation tasks,techniques for creating and videotaping naturalistic signing situations, anddiscussion about which signers should be considered models for sign languageanalysis. Chapter 43, Transcription (Frishberg, Hoiting, and Slobin), concernsa crucial issue in sign language research, namely, capturing themultidimensionality of sign languages on paper or on a computer screen. Manyoptions 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 aimfor more generally. Finally, Chapter 44, Computer Modeling (Sáfár andGlauert), describes sign language dictionaries, corpus, and translationprograms, both those for human use and those used for computational modeling,with particular attention given to what we could expect automatic translationprograms to do and to not do.


The introduction to this volume, written by its editors, states that two ofits goals are to make sign language research accessible to non-specialists,and to showcase variation across sign languages, and by these two metrics thevolume is extremely successful. For the most part, the author of each chapterassumes some familiarity with basic linguistic concepts, but no familiaritywith a sign language. For example, Brentari’s chapter on Phonology (Ch. 3)assumes knowledge of essential concepts in spoken language phonology (featurehierarchies, minimal pairs), and uses this as a starting point to describework on sign languages. Similarly, Corina and Spotswood’s chapter onNeurolinguistics (Ch. 31) covers a wide range of topics including aphasias andneuroimaging of various brain areas when processing different types of data,assuming a basic working knowledge of cognitive neuroscience. There are a fewexceptions: for example Woll’s Ch. 32 (Atypical Signing) would be moreunderstandable to a reader with some sign language familiarity because of theexamples required to illustrate atypical signing. However, most of thechapters in Sections (I)-(IV) and in Section (VI) answer the question “howdoes existing analysis in a field extend to sign languages?” for nearly anysubfield of study within theoretical and experimental linguistics. This makesthe volume an excellent point of reference for any working linguist who wantsto know what has been said about his/her research topic in the sign languagemodality, and an important reference for any linguistics department oracademic library.

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

Based on the realization of these stated goals, two ideal audiences for thistext are the spoken language researcher interested in incorporating insightsfrom sign languages into his/her research, and the sign language researcherinterested in a summary of current developments in areas of sign linguisticsthat are not their own. For the non-sign language specialist, this volume willpresent the state of sign linguistics within their linguistic subfield, aswell as a brief overview of important applied topics that a beginning signlanguage researcher should know, such as Deaf history and education, datacollection, transcription, and psycholinguistic studies on sign languageresearch. For the sign language researcher, the crosslinguistic variationshowcased in the volume provides a useful reference, as will the current stateof research in a wide variety of sign language research subfields.

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

Pedagogically, this volume would not be well used as a first introduction tolinguistics for those who are already familiar with sign languages, as somefamiliarity with linguistic research is expected in each chapter (unlike, e.g.Valli et al. 2011). However, chapters from the book would form excellentreading material to supplement both graduate and advanced undergraduateseminars to examine how the course topic is treated in sign languages, such asin a basic graduate phonology, morphology, syntax, or psycholinguisticscourse. Deaf educators familiar with some sign language research will alsofind the state-of-the-art summaries of current sign language research to beuseful 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 thechapters. In some areas, there is a significant amount of repetition (e.g. thebasics of handshape, location, movement parameters in the phonology relatedchapters, and discussions of “Classifier” constructions throughout), but thishas the fortunate effect of making each chapter readable on its own. Inparticular, 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 betopics that one finds lacking. Two that stood out to me are (i) the new butgrowing area of formal semantic research and (ii) more reference to historicalrelationships between sign languages (e.g. which sign languages aredescendants of French sign language, or to British sign language, or Japanesesign language, etc.). There are also two typographical issues: authors’ namesappear in a non-prominent position at the very end of each chapter, makingidentification of the source of the chapter strangely inconvenient, and somehelpful conventions, such as using Tang’s handshape font instead of referenceto fingerspelling letters, are not strictly enforced throughout.

In sum, this volume is a must-have for any professional linguist looking toexpand their research to include sign language data, and an excellent deskreference for an established sign language researcher. Additionally, thesuggestions for future research and extensive literature collections in eachchapter can provide students with background to begin to investigate their ownresearch topics. Finally, there are many chapters that would be of interest toresearchers outside of the target linguistics audience, such as the historicaldevelopments of sign languages and interpreting, sign systems used byreligious orders and industrial works, home sign and gesture, andcomputational 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 LinguisticUniversals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stokoe, William C., Casterline, Dorothy C. & Carl G. Cronenberg. 1965. ADictionary 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 ofLinguistics at the University of Connecticut, having received her PhD inLinguistics from the University of California, San Diego in 2011. Her primaryresearch areas are formal semantics, experimental pragmatics, sign languages,and language acquisition.

Page Updated: 03-Mar-2013