signed languages, Sign Linguistics, referent tracking, Flemish Sign Language, South African Sign Language
There are a number of indications for a high degree of similarity between grammars of different sign languages studied so far. These observations are almost exclusively based on the analysis of American, Western European and Australian sign languages. However, more recent research into Asian sign languages (cf. Zeshan, 2000) and African (village) sign languages (cf. Nyst, 2004; Nyst & Perniss, 2004; Schmaling, 2000) seems to challenge this assumption. Therefore a larger project was set up looking at the linguistic structures of a Western European sign language, i.e. Flemish Sign Language (VGT), and an African sign language, i.e. South African Sign Language (SASL) (cf. Akach et al., 2006; Akach et al., in press). The research presented here is part of that project. Aims and objectives In order to compare both sign languages we decided to focus on reference tracking. It thus becomes possible to deal with some of the currently debated matters in sign language research, viz. the position of gesture in sign languages and sign linguistics (Liddell, 2003; Schembri, et al, 2005) and the role of iconicity (Cuxac, 2000; Demey, 2005). The reference tracking devices we studied are: • constructed action • shifted attribution of expressive elements • “classifier constructions” • the use of space with pointing signs and/or indicating verbs • aspects of word order • a combination of some of these. There have been some small-scale studies in this domain both in SASL (Aarons & Morgan, 2003) and in VGT (Van Herreweghe & Vermeerbergen, 2003). The present study aims at expanding our understanding of these mechanisms in the two studied languages and in sign languages in general. We have also examined how some of the above mechanisms relate to the paradigm as proposed by Cuxac (1996; 2000) and Sallandre (2003) with respect to the use of “des Structures de Grande Iconicité” and mainly “des Transferts Situationnels” and “des Transferts Personnels”. Research Design It was decided to set up a cross-linguistic study involving the analysis of two comparable corpora of semi-spontaneous narratives. The elicitation materials used were sets of drawings forming five different short stories. Four VGT (near-)native signers (two male, two female) were asked to look at these pictures and to narrate the stories in Flemish Sign Language. Each signer was asked to recount the story in VGT to a Deaf addressee and the stories were videotaped. The procedure was replicated with four SASL (near-)native signers (two male, two female, of whom two black, one Indian and one white). Subsequently, the stories were transcribed and analysed. Results and Discussion The results bear out that there are remarkable similarities between both sign languages with regard to a number of the studied reference tracking devices. We suggest that this is related to the “de l’eau pétillante” nature of the data. There is a continuum between two different manifestations of sign language use with on the one end a form which makes maximum use of the possibilities offered by the visual-gestural modality (e.g. iconicity, use of space, simultaneity), called de “l’eau pétillante”, and on the other end a form more resembling oral language non-iconic sequential organisation, called “de l’eau plate” (Vermeerbergen, 2006). Vermeerbergen et al. (submitted) focussed on de l’eau plate of isolated declarative sentences in SASL and VGT which yielded a number of striking differences. However, when studying the sparkling water of narratives as in the present study the similarities between the two sign languages involved are very salient.