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Review of  The Use of Signing Space in a Shared Sign Language of Australia

Reviewer: Rachael Tatman
Book Title: The Use of Signing Space in a Shared Sign Language of Australia
Book Author: Anastasia Bauer
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Australian Aborigines Sign Language
Issue Number: 26.3020

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book—the fifth in an on-going series on sign language typology—focuses mainly on the use of space in Yolngu (also Yolŋu) Sign Language (YSL), a language used mainly in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. A secondary purpose is to add to the body of knowledge of YSL, which is understudied when compared to, for example, Auslan (Australian Sign Language). As a result, there is some discussion of YSL syntax and phonology, but the main focus is on morphological use of space. The greatest theoretical contribution of this volume is to suggest a new typological group—shared sign languages—and argue for a set of grammatical and sociocultural features shared between these languages.

Part I is a detailed discussion of the types of signed languages, building predominantly on work by Zeshen (2008) and Padden (2011). In addition to the well-studied categories of Deaf community sign languages (DSCL), emerging sign languages, and village sign languages, Bauer discusses the less researched categories of alternate sign languages and proposes a new category of shared sign languages. Alternate sign languages are used between hearing signers when speech is not feasible for a variety of reasons. The newly-proposed category of Shared signed languages, to which YSL belongs, encompass both village sign languages and those alternate sign languages that are also used as the primary means of communication for deaf community members. That is, they are shared between deaf and hearing members of a community.

Part II familiarizes the reader with the sociocultural role of YSL and its relation to other languages. Bauer argues that it is not related to other shared sign languages of Australia or the spoken languages of the area. After some further discussion of its use and the linguistic community, the data collection techniques and elicitation materials are reviewed. Part II ends with a discussion of annotation strategies employed during construction of the video database used for the analyses in Parts III and IV.

Part III briefly touches on various other aspects of YSL grammar. It is not intended to be a grammar, and as a result readers hoping for a detailed account of phonological processes or syntactic structures will be disappointed. Both agreement and word order are discussed in Part IV rather than under the heading of syntax, which may be confusing to linguists mainly working in spoken language syntax.

The phonology section includes a discussion of handshapes found in YSL, their frequencies, evidence of preference for one-handed signs and an analysis of non-manuals. One non-manual of especial interest is head movement: the verbs SLEEP and TO-EXIST differ only in degree of head tilt. To the reviewer's knowledge, degree of head tilt has not been observed to make lexical distinctions in any other sign language, though it may be specified for some signs and does serve grammatical roles (Pfau and Quer 2010, Parisot et al. 2013).

The discussion of syntax includes a description of both negation and interrogatives. Both structures are well-studied cross-linguistically in sign languages (see Zeshen 2006 in the same series). Bauer finds a cross-linguistically rare pattern in YSL whereby negation requires a negation sign and cannot be signaled by non-manuals alone. Both polar and content questions are marked by a general sign for questions.

Part IV contains the analysis of the use of space, the main focus of this volume. It covers the pronoun system, verbal agreement, descriptions of motion and classifiers. Early work on Deaf community sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) and Auslan led some researchers to theorize that these features were used similarly across signed languages (Lillo-Martin 2002, Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). Bauer argues that YSL patterns with other shared sign languages in these uses of space.

The YSL pronominal system marks for first and non-first person, number (singular, plural and dual) and clusivity. Bauer found no evidence of case, gender or politeness marking. With the exception of lacking possessive forms, it mirrors other DCSLs such as ASL. YSL diverges, however, when the referent is not present. It does not make use of proposed structures such as r-loci. Instead, absent individuals are referred to by reference to real-world locations associated with them, such as their house. This follows patterns observed in other signed languages.

The verbal system in YSL is drastically different from that in found in DCSLs. Though YSL does have plain (uninflected) verbs, Bauer argues that it lacks a clear distinction between directional (subject to object) and spatial (usually source to goal) verbs. Instead a distinction is made only between plain and non-plain verbs. Non-plain verbs may optionally take object or location marking. A little under a fifth of the non-plain verbs in Bauer's dataset actually showed modification, supporting the claim that spatial agreement is not obligatory in YSL.

Motion in YSL is not expressed simultaneously with verbal production but rather by a directional sign that follows the verb. This is in stark contrast to DCSLs but does pattern with other shared sign languages such as Adamorobe Sign Language and Kata Kolok.

The classifier system in YSL is smaller than that found in DCSLs. It does not make use of entity classifiers, and though handling classifiers do occur they are rare. However, YSL does make use of size and shape specifiers. They are even used productively in forming compounds such as a size and shape specifier for a rectangle and then the sign SLEEP to mean “pillow”.

Part V, the discussion and conclusion, mainly focuses on situating YSL within the typology of signed languages discussed in Part I. As mentioned above, Bauer argues for a category of shared sign languages. YSL can be classified as a shared sign language due to its sociocultural qualities. However, it also shares grammatical features with other shared sign languages such as a pronominal system that includes pointing to real-world referents, limited verbal inflection and a limited classifier system. Finally Baur proposes several explanations for these similarities, including: the youth of these languages, their use in a limited geographical area, the small size of the communities and a high proportion of hearing signers.


The main theoretical contribution of this volume is to suggest a new sociocultural class of signed languages—shared sign languages—and provide evidence that YSL patterns with other languages that Bauer includes in this group. The crux of this argument rests on the fact that these languages use space differently than DCSL. They do not use metaphorical pointing, lack simultaneous path encoding in verbs and have very limited classifier systems. As a result, the book focuses on these features of YSL and will be of interest to researchers working on spatial agreement, indexicality and deixis in signed languages. It engages with the literature in those domains and does make a convincing argument for the newly proposed classification, although further cross-linguistic work will be necessary to validate it.

While this work also provides an expansion on previous descriptive work on YSL, it does not serve as a grammar of the language. There is, for example, no description of phonological processes in the language. Nor is there discussion of the intriguing use of the non-dominant hand in production of some family signs (e.g. Figures 52 and 53), which has also been found in the unrelated Walpiri Sign Language (Kendon 1988). It is explicitly stated in the text, however, that only select grammatical structures are described. In addition, a full grammar would have replicated recent work by Adone and Maypilama (2014).

The main flaw of this work lies in numerous small copy-editing errors. Different punctuation for decimals is used in different chapters and there are noticeable uncorrected errors. On page 144, for example, it is stated that INCL is used to gloss the inclusive and the exclusive, which is clearly an error. While the review did not find any errors in the data transcriptions themselves, it would be hard to detect such errors without access to the data.

There was also one slightly confusing organizational choice; the use of directionals is discussed at length in section but directionals themselves are not introduced and situated in the literature until section 10.3.1. The reviewer would recommend reading the latter section first for clarity.

This book will primarily be of interest to sign researchers investigating typology as it suggests a classification that future work may show can be gainfully applied to other signed languages. It also significantly adds to the existing work on YSL, which is both understudied and endangered.


Adone, D. and Maypilama, E. (2014) A Grammar Sketch of Yolngu Sign Language. Munich: Lincom Europe.

Kendon, A. (1988). Sign languages of Aboriginal Australia: Cultural, semiotic and communicative perspectives. Cambridge University Press.

Lillo-Martin, D. (2002). Where are all the modality effects?. Modality and structure in signed and spoken languages, 241.

Padden, C. (2010). Sign language geography. Gaurav y Napoli (Eds.), 19-37.

Parisot, A.; Saundres, D and Szymoniak, K. (July 2013) Body and head movements in three sign languages: ASL, LSF and LSQ. Paper presented at Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research (TISLR) Conference 11, London, UK.

Pfau, R., and Quer, J. (2010). Nonmanuals: their grammatical and prosodic roles. In D. Brentari (Ed.), Sign Languages. A Cambridge Survey. (pp. 381-402). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandler, W., and Lillo-Martin, D. (2006). Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge University Press.

Zeshan, U. (2006). Interrogative and negative constructions in sign languages. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.

Zeshan, U. (2008). Roots, leaves and branches–The typology of sign languages. Sign Language: Spinning and unraveling the past, present and future, 672-696.
Rachael Tatman is a PhD candidate and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington. Her research interests include sign language typology and acoustics correlates of attention in speech. She created and maintains the SLAY (Sign Language AnalYses) Database, which is a meta-analytic database of sign language structures.