Title: Considering cross-linguistic analysis of constituent ordering in sign languages: A presentation in three parts
Authors: Vermeerbergen, Myriam
Leeson, Lorraine
Schembri, Adam
Johnston, Trevor
Issue Date: 2004
Conference: Workshop “Sign languages: a cross-linguistic perspective” at the 26th Annual Meeting of the German Linguistic Society (DGfS) edition:26 location:Mainz, Germany date:25-27 February 2004
Abstract: This presentation explores some of the salient issues relating to the cross-linguistic analyses of constituent ordering in sign languages. There are three main themes which we address: Part 1 considers the exisiting literature on constituent order in sign languages; Part 2 focuses on problems encountered in compiling the results of this body of data for cross-linguistic comparison, and Part 3 outlines the process of developing a small comparative analysis of declarative utterances in three sign languages using a widely applied elicitation task and a shared set of guidelines regarding interpretation of the data. We expand on our proposal for each theme in greater detail below:

Part 1: Part 1 deals with consideration of the literature regarding constituent order in sign languages, focusing specifically on data collated using the Volterra et al. (1984) picture elicitation task, which discusses three types of declarative sentences (locative, reversible, and non-reversible) . We focus on the Volterra data given that this material has been applied to a wide range of unrelated sign langauges for example, Italian Sign Language (LIS), German-Swiss Sign Language, Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN), British Sign Language (BSL), Irish Sign Language (ISL), and Flemish Sign Language (VGT), which leads one to expect that a broad range of data could be relatively easily compared cross-linguistically. However, there are a range of difficulties involved in comparing and contrasting the data, which we address in part 2 of this paper.

Part 2: Here we problematise the issue of cross-linguistic comparisons which arise for a range of reasons.These include for example, the fact that the linguistic framework for analyses may differ significantly from study to study (e.g. Neidle et al. (2000) use Chomsky’s Minimalist Program while Coerts (1994) use Dik’s Functional Linguistics); the fact that the definition of basic notions, such as subject and object are either not defined at all or are interpreted in different ways; certain structures are dealt with diffently in different analyses – or treated as special cases or marginal cases and excluded from any core discussion of results (e.g. polymorphemic verbs, simultaneous constructions); the assignment of semantic roles/ macro-roles is applied inconsistently across the literature, and more basic issues such as defining the scope of the sentence/ clause often remain undiscussed. All these issues conspire to make valid comparison of the available body of data on constituent order difficult. Given these issues, we designed a small three-way cross-linguistic “test-case” where the criteria for data collection, and most specifically, for the analysis and interpretation of the data were clearly defined at the outset. This is discussed in more detail in Part 3.

Part 3: In this section we outline the results of our collaborative “test-case” which focused on three sign languages, namely Flemish Sign Language (VGT), Irish Sign Language (ISL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan). The research was driven by the Volterra et al. picture elicitation task data. Four informants contributed to the data in each of the three sign languages (i.e. a total of 12 informants). To minimise sociolinguistic complexities associated with generational variation, we controlled for age range, including signers in the age group 20-30 years only. We also considered gender as a potential influencing factor and thus, this test-case includes only male signers. Native competence was also controlled. The presenters suggest that this analysis is unique insofar as it represents a collaborative attempt to apply the same notions to constituents and to the interpretation of data, allowing for a valid cross-linguistic comparison.

Summary of Intended Outcomes:
This paper will provide the following:
• an overview of issues that are problematic when considering cnstituent order in sign languages – even where similar elicitation materials are used. This will be useful for other researchers considering exploring this issue.
• discussion of the possibility of carrying out cross-linguistic work on constituent order in sign languages through collaboration, with focus placed on the practical issues for consideration at each step in the process from reserach design to data collection and shared analysis protocol.
• the results of a test-case comparison of declarative utterances in three sign languages as an indicator of how more large-scale projects might unfold.

We take this opportunity to note that we do not in any way wish to suggest that constituent order in sign langauges can be fully accounted for on the basis of our results regarding simple declarative utterances. We are aware that the idea of identifying ‘basic word order’ is a complex issue and that in-depth analysis thereof requires the use of naturally occurring data and consideration of the range of pragmatic factors that affects word order. Nevertheless, our view is that the analysis of a range of declarative sentences in a controlled manner is a small step on the path to fuller understanding. Such a small-scale and controlled case-study can pinpoint issues and problems that demand further consideration and analysis.

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Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Non-KU Leuven Association publications

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