Title: Some remarks on the use of the notions 'subject', 'object' and 'topic' in sign language research
Authors: Vermeerbergen, Myriam # ×
Issue Date: 1997
Publisher: Nijhoff
Series Title: Leuvense Bijdragen: Tijdschrift voor Germaanse Filologie vol:86 issue:4 pages:505-512
Abstract: One of the oldest references to people using their hands, heads and other parts of the body to signify meaning can be found in 'Kratylos', Plato's treatise on language. Yet the first linguistic study of a sign language was not published until 1960. For a long time, sign languages were, at best, considered more primitive than spoken languages, as languages with no or very little (grammatical) structuring. More often still signers were thought of as using pantomime, mimicry, 'natural gestures',... everything but 'real' language.
Since the publication of Stokoe's book 'Sign Language Structure' in 1960, a myriad of books and research papers about sign language usage and structure have appeared. The large and rapidly growing number of researchers working in this area may partly be explained by the growing social importance attributed to sign languages. From the early 1960s onward, after having been suppressed for decades, the use of sign languages has gained appreciation as a means of social integration for the deaf. The increasing use of sign language -especially the introduction of sign language as an instrument in teaching deaf children- obviously necessitates a thorough knowledge of different aspects of sign language structure and usage.
Sign language studies however, not only have social relevance. Until very recently all knownledge about human language was based on the study of spoken languages. The study of gestural languages can offer radically new perspectives on the investigation of human capacity for language and on the form that human languages can take.
The research project reported on in this contribution represents the first comprehensive linguistic study of Flemish Sign Language based on the analysis of spontaneous language data produced by adult signers. The study focuses on the expression of the relationship between the verb and its arguments and includes the analysis of word order issues and several grammatical mechanisms Flemish signers use to express this relationship (Vermeerbergen, 1996).
When reviewing the relatively small body of international literature on word -or sign- order issues in sign languages, it became clear that -even amongst researchers studying the same sign language- there is no consensus as to whether word order plays a role in sign languages and if so, in what terms this order should be described. The discussion is then mainly centred on a topic/comment analysis versus a description in terms of S, V, O.
Given the central question of my study and the discussion in the international literature I deemed it necessary to clearly distinguish between the notions of subject, object and topic and to try to formulate 'working definitions'.
In the literature on sign languages the notions used to discuss word order very often remain somewhat 'murky'. It is not always clear to the reader what is meant by the author when he uses the terms 'subject', 'object' and 'topic' but it is very clear that not all sign linguists use these notions in the same way. This lack of uniformity and transparency certainly is not unique to sign language research; also within the domain of spoken languages many questions regarding the categories 'subject', 'object' and 'topic' remain to be answered. However, even if these notions were clearly defined within the domain of general linguistics, it would be unwise to simply adopt them for the analysis of a sign language.
Sign languages are gestural languages and this opens up possibilities that do not -or to a lesser degree- exist for spoken languages. These possibilities, such as the use of space and the use of the body with its global, manual and non-manual components, provide sign languages with their own specific grammatical mechanisms and structures which do not necessarily correspond with what is know from research into spoken languages. In taking for granted that theoretical frameworks adapted for spoken languages will, as it were, 'fit' sign languages, linguists may miss crucially important insights into the nature of human sign language.
This does not mean that sign linguists should develop, for instance, a completely new terminology or new definitions for every term. In my opinion, this would be a practical impossibility and, moreover, it would be undesirable. However, when applying terms, categories, findings, etc. stemming from the study of spoken languages into the field of sign linguistics some caution is warranted.
Defining the notions 'subject', 'object' and 'topic' in a way that takes the achievements of spoken language research into account and at the same time avoids too much examining a sign language through the filter of spoken languages, has turned out to be a very difficult task which, in my opinion, has not been completed yet. The presentation of the various steps I undertook in my attempts to apply the labels 'subject', 'object' and 'topic' to Flemish Sign Language and the proposed definitions are therefore to be considered as preliminary rather than as definitive answers.
ISSN: 0024-1482
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IT
Appears in Collections:Non-KU Leuven Association publications
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