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Nat Lang Linguist Theory. 2012 Feb 1;30(1):1-31.

When does a system become phonological? Handshape production in gesturers, signers, and homesigners.

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  • 1Department of Linguistics, University of Chicago, 1010 East 59th Street, Chicago, IL 60637-1512, USA.


Sign languages display remarkable crosslinguistic consistencies in the use of handshapes. In particular, handshapes used in classifier predicates display a consistent pattern in finger complexity: classifier handshapes representing objects display more finger complexity than those representing how objects are handled. Here we explore the conditions under which this morphophonological phenomenon arises. In Study 1, we ask whether hearing individuals in Italy and the United States, asked to communicate using only their hands, show the same pattern of finger complexity found in the classifier handshapes of two sign languages: Italian Sign Language (LIS) and American Sign Language (ASL). We find that they do not: gesturers display more finger complexity in handling handshapes than in object handshapes. The morphophonological pattern found in conventional sign languages is therefore not a codified version of the pattern invented by hearing individuals on the spot. In Study 2, we ask whether continued use of gesture as a primary communication system results in a pattern that is more similar to the morphophonological pattern found in conventional sign languages or to the pattern found in gesturers. Homesigners have not acquired a signed or spoken language and instead use a self-generated gesture system to communicate with their hearing family members and friends. We find that homesigners pattern more like signers than like gesturers: their finger complexity in object handshapes is higher than that of gesturers (indeed as high as signers); and their finger complexity in handling handshapes is lower than that of gesturers (but not quite as low as signers). Generally, our findings indicate two markers of the phonologization of handshape in sign languages: increasing finger complexity in object handshapes, and decreasing finger complexity in handling handshapes. These first indicators of phonology appear to be present in individuals developing a gesture system without benefit of a linguistic community. Finally, we propose that iconicity, morphology and phonology each play an important role in the system of sign language classifiers to create the earliest markers of phonology at the morphophonological interface.


Sign language; classifier predicates; gesture; handshape; historical change; homesign; language evolution; morphology; phonology

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