LINGUIST List 28.524

Thu Jan 26 2017

Review: Ling & Lit; Pragmatics: Sutton-Spence, Kaneko (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 30-Aug-2016
From: Melissa Wright <>
Subject: Introducing Sign Language Literature
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Rachel Sutton-Spence
AUTHOR: Michiko Kaneko
TITLE: Introducing Sign Language Literature
SUBTITLE: Folklore and Creativity
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Melissa Wright, Northern Illinois University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Introducing Sign Language Literature” (Sutton-Spence & Kaneko, 2016) presents the topic of sign language as it applies to the deaf community’s literature. The authors allow the reader to bring in previous knowledge of sign language, or come in as a brand new learner. Providing basic terminology and signs, Sutton-Spence and Kaneko provide an illustration of literature that utilizes sign language operated by a performer in relation to the audience. By providing the setting in which literature is created or adapted, readers are able to picture the stage which holds the performer (the signer) and what the audience may be experiencing during a literary performance. The text provides the basic building blocks for understanding sign language literature, and forges a path for multidisciplinary research. The reader is left with a better understanding of a community that does not often get much attention, and an appreciation for the signed live performances.

In addition to supplying the fundamental components of sign language, Sutton-Spence and Kaneko’s (2016) research creates an open dialogue between those who are fluent in sign language, linguists, and novice sign language learners. The authors break down the topic into the fundamental concepts that weave together to create the overall culture of the literature being discussed. The beginning chapters break down the topic into basic ideas, even discussing the overlaps and differences between sign language literature, mime, and oral literature/performance pieces; these chapters also introduce the different types of stories that are part of the literature within the signing community. The reader is able to piece together these seemingly elementary building blocks to form a concrete idea of what differentiates sign language literature. As these basic components are illustrated, the chapters begin to introduce broader components such as neologism, handshapes, and style. This ensures that the reader is able to follow along, even as a novice. For those who are not new to sign language, the information may serve as a reminder, or as a review using a literary lens.


The book offers perspective on the deaf community and their way of creating and passing along literary tales. Sutton-Spence and Kaneko (2016) break down the topic into conceptual chapters that exemplify the elementary concepts which make up sign language literature, and proceed to the broader components that contribute to the overall community of the deaf culture. What makes this book interesting is the underlying message that sign language should be considered an independent language which is able to express complex and new ideas. The authors explain that the general thought used to be that those who are deaf are disabled and use signing to express a limited number of ideas; however, the covert theme throughout the book is that sign language literature allows signers to express themselves in a creative, culturally rich manner, and this is evidence that sign language should be considered a true autonomous language.

Another interesting facet of the book is that it allows for a plethora of applications within potential classroom settings. For example, the book is able to illustrate the culture behind the deaf community using basic aspects of human expression such as sense of humor, metaphor, and tragedy. Because the reader is then able to picture the interaction within the signing community, this book has many anthropological implications – it is able to provide a glimpse of the group’s ideas and cognition. Because there is an implication that the deaf community has its own schemas, this means that it is a culture in its own right, which has its own literary genre, just as any other population does.

Sutton-Spence and Kaneko’s (2016) text also allows for many linguistic functions. The field of linguistics often focuses on the mechanisms and underlying processes that comprise a language; this book treats aspects of these mechanisms and processes within sign language. For instance, the book asserts that when a literary signing performance has ended, “the final sign often has a noticeably larger or sharper movement, and holding it longer than any other sign makes it appear ‘louder’ or more sonorous” (p. 88). Obviously, this may interest many phonologists who understand the word “sonorous” to mean “singable,” (O’Grady, Archibald, Aronoff, Rees-Miller, 2010); however, phonology in sign language is not a brand new topic. “Hand shape is considered a phonological feature, because the meanings of different signs can be differentiated on the basis of hand shape” (Traxler, 2012, p. 449). The previously mentioned application of the word “sonorous” would lend itself well to future research regarding sign language as a language that allows for degrees of sonorance and different pronunciations which rely on the use of one’s hands.

The book also, as mentioned before, introduces the idea of the signer performing for an audience – if the speaker is not getting the desired reaction from his or her audience, the story may be adjusted to fit the audience, even if it is a story that was written by someone else (i.e. a fairy tale such as “Sleeping Beauty”). Sutton-Spence and Kaneko (2016) make a point to mention the fact that while cameras may be present at signing performances and the piece may be recorded, certain aspects of the show may be lost. “When the story is performed live, the presence of the audience can be very influential but even in recordings of sign language stories, the literary event is only complete when the audience has seen it and responded to it” (Sutton-Spence & Kaneko, 2016, p. 15). Thus, these performances have an innate component of improvisation within them. Also within these performances is the idea of the performer “becoming” the object of the story. For example, the authors provide the instance of a performer, Richard Carter, who has a talking reindeer in his story. The performer allows himself to have antlers by placing his hands on top of his head and allowing the antlers to do the signing when the reindeer needs to speak (Sutton-Spence & Kaneko, 2016). These elements of the performance could be very helpful in a theater or performance class, where students or novice performers may want information on how to portray a character or how to read to an audience. This section also provides a possible path for potential future research: discourse analysis between performer and audience. Since the two parties are so involved in the story telling and have ways of conveying messages with each other throughout the event, this particular aspect of sign language literature may deserve a closer look using a discourse-oriented lens.

Obviously, as stated in the title, the book also introduces the literature of the deaf community. It is helpful to study the literature of a given community to help understand that group’s values and way of life. Therefore, the book would also be helpful in literary courses addressing non-traditional literature. And, because the text breaks down the information into elementary levels, it has the potential to also be of service within an introductory sign language course. The authors, in the “Conventions” section at the beginning of the book, give the reader a list of commonly used handshapes, as well as general terminology that proves useful as the reader progresses through the text and encounters more complex sign language literature themes.

Writing courses may also benefit from this text; Chapter 19 in the text addresses signers who have different styles when they perform. Illustrating these styles allows the reader to gain a clearer understanding not only of sign language literature, but also of the performer. The performer tells a clear story while injecting parts of his or her personality into the signing style – something novice writers may be able to relate to when trying to find their own voice within their written works.

An interesting note that Sutton-Spence and Kaneko (2016) make in Chapter 9, “Plots, Protagonists, Subjects and Themes,” is that within signed literature, whether or not the protagonist in the story is deaf is an important matter. When a protagonist is able to share the audience’s and the storyteller’s experience being deaf, it allows the audience to more intensely relate to that person. And while a common theme in signed literature is having a non-human as the subject, often this subject also demonstrates signing abilities. In addition, a common theme when using non-human subjects is that a deaf person within the story is often seen as privileged.

''In sign language literature, some characters cannot see the non-humans’ language … in sign language literature non-humans decide when to sign, and who the privileged humans are to whom they sign. Deaf people, and especially deaf children, are likely to be the privileged humans'' (p. 78).

This, as the authors explain, is in contrast to how hearing people are often portrayed in stories – they are sometimes referred to as “them,” and they can be the antagonists or provide comical relief. “[Hearing people] may be characterized as ignorant, patronizing, bullies who oppress deaf people, or as fools. ‘Hyper-hearing’ people who react nervously to sound (especially sounds made by a deaf person) are frequent butts of deaf narratives and deaf jokes” (p. 47). While some of these scenarios may seem humorous, Sutton-Spence and Kaneko make a noteworthy observation that the deaf community’s definition of comedy and tragedy may be different from the hearing community’s. Within the signing population, a comedy doesn’t necessarily have to provoke laughter, but rather, it frequently serves to provide understanding at the end of a story. In regard to tragedies, sign language literature supplies many examples of stories with tragic endings; however, the events leading up to the tragedy may be humorous. This contrast in the two communities’ definitions of tragedy and comedy is a reason why this text would do well within a cultural studies context.

Sutton-Spence and Kaneko’s (2016) book provides a plethora of information in easily accessible chapters which analyze the components of sign language literature. The authors provide a space that not only allows for an open dialogue about sign language literature, but also the broader applications that the components address (i.e. improvisation, phonetics, cultural studies, etc.). The text does well in addressing the overlap between oral literature, performance pieces, and sign language literature, while maintaining the distinct characteristics of sign language literature. The subtle argument of sign language deserving to be characterized as an autonomous language in its own right provides a starting point for future linguistic research. Overall, the authors delve into a subject which seems to be under-studied, but one that can prove useful in many contexts and in a myriad of future research endeavors.


O’Grady, W., Archibald, J., Aronoff, M., & Rees-Miller, J. (2010). Contemporary linguistics: An introduction (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Sutton-Spence, R., & Kaneko, M. (2016). Introducing sign language literature: Folklore & creativity. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Traxler, M. J. (2012). Introduction to psycholinguistics: Understanding language science. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.


I am Melissa Wright, a graduate student at Northern Illinois University studying linguistics. My anticipated completion date is May of 2017. Currently, I am in the process of writing my master's thesis, which emphasizes natural language processing (NLP) and syntax. My other research interests include theoretical syntax, culinary linguistics, cognitive linguistics, sign language and how it applies to humans' innate linguistic abilities, and pragmatics.

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