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Review of  Sign Language

Reviewer: Kathryn Davidson
Book Title: Sign Language
Book Author: Roland Pfau Markus Steinbach Bencie Woll
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.1083

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“Sign Language: An International Handbook”, edited by Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach, and Bencie Woll, is an extensive collection of handbook entries on various aspects of sign language research, each written by researchers with expertise in the topic. It belongs to the series of Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science (“Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft”, or “HSK”), and is written to appeal to researchers and advanced students of linguistics, equally targeting those who have and have not had background in sign linguistics but are interested in the theory and/or methodology of sign language research.

This HSK Sign Language volume is comprised of forty-four chapters, beginning with an introduction by the editors and continuing with the chapters divided into nine main sections. The first four main sections are based on traditional divisions of linguistic analysis: phonology/phonetics, morphology, syntax, and semantics/pragmatics. These are followed by a section discussing issues related to the visual/manual communication modality, and sections on neurolinguistics 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 definitions for areas of research traditionally associated with the acoustic properties of speech: phonetics, phonology, and prosody. Chapter 2 on Phonetics (Crasborn) proposes that in addition to patterns in sign language phonology, sign language phonetics is real and handles variation that is not phonologically specified. Chapter 3 on Phonology (Brentari) discusses a variety of sign language phonology models from a historical perspective, focusing on abstract structure as well as pressures from modality and iconicity. Chapter 4 on Prosody (Sandler) advocates for a two-way dissociation of nonmanual marking from prosody, discusses modality from the point of view of Israeli Sign Language, and together with the chapter on Phonology lays out arguments for syllable structure in sign languages.

II. Morphology

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

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

III. Syntax

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

Chapter 15 on Negation (Quer) discusses the syntactic placement of manual and nonmanual types of negation in sign languages, as well as semantic categories of negation such as metalinguistic negation. In Chapter 16, Coordination and Subordination (Tang and Lau), various tests for coordination (involving wh-movement and gapping) are detailed, as are tests for subordination (including cross-linguistic differences) as well as relative clauses and relative clause markers. Finally, Chapter 17, Utterance Reports and Constructed Action (Lillo-Martin) presents various accounts of the description of 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 of signs that look like what they mean distinguishing transparency from iconicity, gestures vs. signs, ways that meaning can be mapped to forms, and the ways that iconicity does and does not influence the language. Chapter 19, Use of Sign Space (Perniss) investigates the choice of placing items in space based on real world or discourse factors, leading to a comparison of character space and observer space and their alignment with handling vs. entity classifiers. Chapter 20, Lexical Semantics (Grose), includes a discussion of Hong Kong Sign Language and American Sign Language color terms and kinship terms, as well as sign language verbal structure, such as visible aspect and argument structure. Chapter 21 on Information Structure (Wilbur) separates notions of topic, focus, contrast, and emphasis, and describes various encodings of topic and focus in sign languages. Chapter 22 on Communicative Interaction (Baker and Bogaerde) discusses maxims of communication, turn taking, politeness, and humor, focusing on differences between spoken and sign languages and cultures.

V. Communication in the Visual Modality

Not all communication that is produced with movements of the hands and body and is perceived by the visual system should be classified together with “urban sign languages” nurtured by deaf educational institutions. Chapter 23 on Manual Communication Systems: Evolution and Variation (Pfau) is a two part study on how sign and gesture systems may have been involved in general language evolution, following by a discussion of secondary sign languages by industrial workers, religious orders, and indigenous peoples in Australia and America. Chapter 24, Shared Sign Languages (Nyst), describes many areas of the world with high rates of deafness and a sign language used regularly by both hearing and deaf community members, arguing that they are different but no less developed than traditional Deaf sign languages. Chapter 25 on Language and Modality (Meier) notes important differences in manual/visual and oral/auditory modalities, both in articulation and perception, and consequences this has for language structure and language acquisition. Chapter 26, Homesign (Goldin-Meadow), delves into the issue of what happens in the absence of linguistic input, and what deaf children’s gestures look like in such a situation, comparing their gestures with typical adults’ co-speech gestures, and arguing that important differences between the two stem from the their 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 of linguistic properties and conventionalization, noting also the existence of gestures in sign languages.

VI. Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics

Throughout the history of sign language research, carefully controlled experimental studies have played a crucial role in proving that sign languages are not only equal to spoken languages in structural complexity, but also in learning and processing. Chapter 28 on Acquisition (Chen Pichler) discusses the acquisition of phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse of sign languages by native signing children, including the (small) role of iconicity. Chapter 29 on Processing (Dye) describes experimental paradigms such as lexical decision, gating studies, priming studies, lexical access, and memory span, noting what each tells us about the way that sign languages are encoded in the mind. Chapter 30, Production (Hohenberger and Leuninger), outlines models of spoken language production and how they can be adapted for sign language production, including a difference in monitoring, and how “slips of the hand” in sign languages inform models of language production more generally. Chapter 31 on Neurolinguistics (Corina and Spotswood) describes language localization in sign vs. speech based on aphasia studies and neuroimaging data, with special attention paid to nonmanual components like face recognition and mouth movements in speech and sign, as well as in hearing and deaf native signers. Finally, Chapter 32 on Atypical Signing (Woll) compares spoken language atypicalities with potential analogs in sign, including: Aphasias, Apraxias, Parkinson's, SLI, Williams, Down Syndrome, and Tourette's, where in some but not all cases signers exhibit analogous behavior to speakers.

VII. Variation and Change

By virtue of their young age and their existence alongside spoken languages in nearly all locations, issues of variation and change go hand-in-hand with any research in sign linguistics. Chapter 33 on Sociolinguistic Aspects of Variation and Change (Schembri and Johnston) discusses phonological, lexical, and even potentially grammatical variation due to a number of factors like geography, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Also noted is the effect of technological innovation on variation. Chapter 34, Lexicalization and Grammaticalization (Janzen), outlines the process by which words are formed (e.g. from gestures or from other words in compounds), and the processes by which some aspects of language (either words, or straight from gestures) take on specific grammatical roles. Chapter 35, Language Contact and Borrowing (Adam), includes descriptions of spoken/sign language contact in the case of bimodal bilinguals, fingerspelling, calques, and sign/sign language contact, esp. International Sign, and results of language contact. Chapter 36, Language Emergence and Creolisation (Adone), makes the argument that sign languages can be compared to creoles both in aspects of structure and in language learning, when children nativize gestures or pidgins. Finally, chapter 37 on Language Planning (Schermer) describes Deaf politics and sign language policies, including legal recognition for sign languages, controversies surrounding standardization procedures in, e.g. dictionaries, and important roles for education 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 deaf communities and to the development of sign languages, which this section helps to address. Chapter 38, a history of sign languages and sign language linguistics (McBurney), serves as an important introduction to modern deaf history, including the establishment of Gallaudet University and deaf educational institutions, as well as a detailed sketch of sign language research beginning with Stokoe et al. (1965) and Klima & Bellugi (1979). Chapter 39 on Deaf Education and Bilingualism (Plaza Pust) highlights the relationships of majority spoken languages with minority sign languages, both in schools and outside in the “real world”, focusing on deaf children and how views of bilingualism and the role of speaking and signing in deaf education have changed over time. Chapter 40, on Interpreting (Stone), provides a history of Deaf interpreters (from the Ottoman court to International Sign) as well as interpreters between sign and spoken languages, and includes discussion of research about the psychology of interpreting. Finally, Chapter 41, Poetry (Sutton-Spence), mentions many important poets in Western sign languages (esp. BSL and ASL), themes (e.g. Deaf affirming) and techniques (e.g. metaphor, repetition, symmetry, etc.), while also emphasizing various purposes served by sign language poetry (e.g. entertainment, showing a Deaf world view).

IX. Handling Sign Language Data

The final section of the volume concerns the sensitive issue of what data should be used in sign language research, and how future technologies may improve and change sign language data. Chapter 42 on Data Collection (van Herreweghe and Vermeerbergen) outlines possible methods for creating data to be analyzed, including stories to be used in narrative elicitation tasks, techniques for creating and videotaping naturalistic signing situations, and discussion about which signers should be considered models for sign language analysis. Chapter 43, Transcription (Frishberg, Hoiting, and Slobin), concerns a crucial issue in sign language research, namely, capturing the multidimensionality of sign languages on paper or on a computer screen. Many options 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 aim for more generally. Finally, Chapter 44, Computer Modeling (Sáfár and Glauert), describes sign language dictionaries, corpus, and translation programs, both those for human use and those used for computational modeling, with particular attention given to what we could expect automatic translation programs to do and to not do.


The introduction to this volume, written by its editors, states that two of its goals are to make sign language research accessible to non-specialists, and to showcase variation across sign languages, and by these two metrics the volume is extremely successful. For the most part, the author of each chapter assumes some familiarity with basic linguistic concepts, but no familiarity with a sign language. For example, Brentari’s chapter on Phonology (Ch. 3) assumes knowledge of essential concepts in spoken language phonology (feature hierarchies, minimal pairs), and uses this as a starting point to describe work on sign languages. Similarly, Corina and Spotswood’s chapter on Neurolinguistics (Ch. 31) covers a wide range of topics including aphasias and neuroimaging of various brain areas when processing different types of data, assuming a basic working knowledge of cognitive neuroscience. There are a few exceptions: for example Woll’s Ch. 32 (Atypical Signing) would be more understandable to a reader with some sign language familiarity because of the examples required to illustrate atypical signing. However, most of the chapters in Sections (I)-(IV) and in Section (VI) answer the question “how does existing analysis in a field extend to sign languages?” for nearly any subfield of study within theoretical and experimental linguistics. This makes the volume an excellent point of reference for any working linguist who wants to know what has been said about his/her research topic in the sign language modality, and an important reference for any linguistics department or academic library.

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

Based on the realization of these stated goals, two ideal audiences for this text are the spoken language researcher interested in incorporating insights from sign languages into his/her research, and the sign language researcher interested in a summary of current developments in areas of sign linguistics that are not their own. For the non-sign language specialist, this volume will present the state of sign linguistics within their linguistic subfield, as well as a brief overview of important applied topics that a beginning sign language researcher should know, such as Deaf history and education, data collection, transcription, and psycholinguistic studies on sign language research. For the sign language researcher, the crosslinguistic variation showcased in the volume provides a useful reference, as will the current state of research in a wide variety of sign language research subfields.

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

Pedagogically, this volume would not be well used as a first introduction to linguistics for those who are already familiar with sign languages, as some familiarity with linguistic research is expected in each chapter (unlike, e.g. Valli et al. 2011). However, chapters from the book would form excellent reading material to supplement both graduate and advanced undergraduate seminars to examine how the course topic is treated in sign languages, such as in a basic graduate phonology, morphology, syntax, or psycholinguistics course. Deaf educators familiar with some sign language research will also find the state-of-the-art summaries of current sign language research to be useful 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 the chapters. In some areas, there is a significant amount of repetition (e.g. the basics of handshape, location, movement parameters in the phonology related chapters, and discussions of “Classifier” constructions throughout), but this has the fortunate effect of making each chapter readable on its own. In particular, 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 be topics that one finds lacking. Two that stood out to me are (i) the new but growing area of formal semantic research and (ii) more reference to historical relationships between sign languages (e.g. which sign languages are descendants of French sign language, or to British sign language, or Japanese sign language, etc.). There are also two typographical issues: authors’ names appear in a non-prominent position at the very end of each chapter, making identification of the source of the chapter strangely inconvenient, and some helpful conventions, such as using Tang’s handshape font instead of reference to fingerspelling letters, are not strictly enforced throughout.

In sum, this volume is a must-have for any professional linguist looking to expand their research to include sign language data, and an excellent desk reference for an established sign language researcher. Additionally, the suggestions for future research and extensive literature collections in each chapter can provide students with background to begin to investigate their own research topics. Finally, there are many chapters that would be of interest to researchers outside of the target linguistics audience, such as the historical developments of sign languages and interpreting, sign systems used by religious orders and industrial works, home sign and gesture, and computational 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 Linguistic Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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