Motivated phonological templates in Sign Language

Gal Belsitzman, Wendy Sandler

Abstract


A basic design feature of language is duality of patterning, the existence of a meaningless level of elements that combine to create meaningful morphemes and words (Hockett 1960). Although the signs of sign languages have iconic origins, Stokoe (1960) showed that sign languages do have a meaningless level, akin to phonology, setting the stage for much subsequent linguistic research on sign languages at all levels (Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006). Here we show, following Lepic et al. (2016), that part of the phonological structure across sign languages is often motivated by meaning. Specifically, two-handedness is motivated, as are details of structure in two-handed signs previously believed to be strictly phonological and hence meaningless, such as symmetry, dominance, type of movement, and patterns of contact between the two hands. We further develop a templatic model of sign structure (Sandler 1986, 1989) to reveal which aspects of the phonological form in two-handed signs are often so motivated. Noting ways in which meaning penetrates phonology in spoken languages too, we conclude that the line between the dual levels of patterning in language is not as sharp as is commonly believed.

Keywords


sign language; two-handed signs; motivation in phonology; duality of patterning

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