Linguistics Colloquium: Rose Stamp

23/05/2017 - 14:00

Rose Stamp, Haifa University

Title: The Emergence of Reference Shift Devices in Three Young Sign Languages

Abstract: One important aspect of language, signed and spoken, is the marking of discourse referents throughout a narrative. The phenomenon of referential shift in sign languages is defined as a shift between narrator and character roles, and between multiple character roles.  In addition to pointing signs that convey pronominal reference, established sign languages track referents with a complex system of conventionalized changes in body and head position, eye gaze, and facial expressions (e.g., Engberg-Pedersen, 1993). Our comparative study on three young sign languages reveals how the intricate system of bodily reference tracking emerges.  
The only study to date that has investigated the emergence of referential shift devices in a sign language was conducted on Nicaraguan Sign Language (Kocab et al, 2015).  They categorized referential shift devices into two types: lexical (‘lexical label’, ‘point-to-chest’) and spatial, (‘body shift’, ‘point-to-space’, ‘spatially-modulated lexical label’). They found that later stages of the language (i.e., the language of younger signers) used more spatial devices in their narratives compared to earlier stages (i.e., older signers), suggesting that the use of spatial devices is becoming increasingly conventionalized in NSL.

Our study investigates the development of referential shift by comparing signers of different ages in three young sign languages: Israeli Sign Language (ISL), Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), and Kfar Qasem Sign Language (KQSL) – each under 100 years old.  Using a task designed to specifically elicit examples of referential shift (Kocab et al., 2015), participants were asked to retell the actions in six short vignettes to their interlocutor. Several referential shift devices were identified, including those categorized by Kocab et al. (2015), as well as additional devices - for example, signers partition their bodies so that each half represents the movements of one referent, termed here as ‘body segmentation’ (Ergin et al., 2017). In our study, we reanalyze Kocab et al.’s categorization of referential shift devices and consider the contribution of the body in the development of reference shift devices. 

Multivariate analyses of 940 tokens taken from 31 deaf signers revealed two main predictors of referential shift devices: age (range: 18-73, as a continuous variable) and language. Younger signers and signers of ISL (a more established sign language compared to KQSL and ABSL) used significantly higher numbers of body segmentation. In contrast, older signers and signers of KQSL used significantly higher numbers of point-to-chest, which is used by signers to take on the role of the character.  Our results fall in line with previous studies on the use of the body and consolidate a recent finding that shows that younger signers segment their bodies to enable the production of multiple simultaneous movements, while the language of older signers is characterized by more holistic use of the body (Stamp & Sandler, 2016). Our findings suggest that referential shift devices become increasingly complex as a sign language develops and that the body is integral in the development of complexity.


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