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Title: The quest for basic word order in Flemish Sign Language
Authors: Vermeerbergen, Myriam
Issue Date: 2004
Publisher: Conseil de Laboratoire de l'U.M.R. 8528 du C.N.R.S (SILEX)
Host Document: Silexicales: linguistique de la LSF: recherches actuelles: actes du colloque de Villeneuve d'Ascq (23-24 septembre 2003). vol:4 pages:257-267
Series Title: Silexicales, 4
Conference: La linguistique de la LSF : recherches actuelles. Villeneuve d’Ascq, France location:Villeneuve d’Ascq, France date:23-24 September 2003
Abstract: The Quest for Basic Word Order in Flemish Sign Language

This paper reports on the current “state of affairs” regarding the research on word order issues in Flemish Sign Language (Vlaamse Gebarentaal or VGT), the sign language used in the northern part of Belgium. The quest for a basic word order –or rather: a description of the basic word order structure- began some ten years ago within the framework of the first larger-scale research project on the grammar of VGT. In order to see whether a basic word order -defined as: the word order of simple declarative, active clauses, with no complex noun phrases- exists for sentences in Flemish Sign Language and, if so, how this word order should be characterized, at first elicited simple declarative sentences with nominal arguments were analysed. This preliminary research was inspired by the study of word order in Italian Sign Language by Volterra ea. (1984). It was repeated for at least three other sign languages, i.e. French Swiss Sign Language (Boyes-Braem ea., 1990), Sign Language of the Netherlands (Coerts, 1994) and Irish Sign Language (Leeson, 2001). The main results of this study in which fourteen Flemish adult signers participated, can be summarized as follows:
• The word order in elicited declarative sentences with two (reversible or non-reversible) arguments is systematic in VGT.
• The most frequent order in non-locative sentences is SVO. This order is avoided, however, by older informants.
• Another frequent order in non-locative sentences is SOV. The final position in the sentence is then mostly taken by a polymorphemic verb or a verb accompanied by shifted attribution of expressive elements.

Following this preliminary research there was an analysis of spontaneous language data to find out whether both orders -SOV and SVO- also occurred systematically and whether in these data as well SVO is used more frequently than SOV. We worked with a corpus of six hours of spontaneous material - four hours of dialogues and two hours of monologues - produced by ten adult informants, at the time of the research between the ages of 30 and 83. A first remarkable result is that only a few clauses consist of a verb and several explicitly mentioned arguments. Especially when two interacting animate referents need to be expressed, Flemish signers seem to avoid combining one single verb and more than one of the 'interacting arguments'.
Based on the analysis of both the elicited simple declarative sentences and the spontaneous sign language data we proposed a (tentative) description of basic word order for VGT. This order can be characterized as a combination of two clauses, each representing a subject/predicate structure. The predicate may consist of a verb and an object, the order of these constituents appears to be free. The first part of the sentence constitutes the framework for the second part of the sentence, which allows the combination to be seen as a topic/comment structure. at least when the notion topic is defined as follows:
“(...) the topic sets a spatial, temporal, or individual framework within which the main predication holds.” (Chafe, 1976, p.50).

The subject in this characterization must be understood as 'psychological subject', namely:
the particular about whom/which knowledge is added will be called the subject

and for the notion 'object' the following definition is proposed:

the object is the constituent naming the referent affected by what is expressed by the verb (the action, condition),...

bearing in mind that 'affected' is used in the broad sense, i.e. not only affected objects are included, but also effected objects, the object of an observation, etcetera.

Typical examples of sentences showing this order are:

CAT RUN / DOG CHASE
"The dog is chasing the cat."

MOTHER TAKE BISCUIT/CHILD polymorphemic verb:"eat-biscuit"
"The child eats the biscuit that its mother took (for him)."

Though all informants describe such sentences as “real sign language”, this “complete structure” mainly occured in the language usage of somewhat older informants and remarkably less in that of younger informants. Younger signers (age category 30-45) turned out to experience notably less difficulty with the expression of two or more arguments combined with a single verb. Especially this finding has made us decide that the search for basic sign order patterning in Flemish Sign Language was/is far from being over and that (many) follow-up studies would be necessary.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IC
Appears in Collections:Non-KU Leuven Association publications

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