An analysis of productive handshapes in sign and gesture

Ashley Faith Jung, Purdue University


The focus of this work is on two types of handshapes: those that represent the object ("object" handshapes, referred to as 'entity' classifier handshapes in the sign language literature) and those that represent the manipulation of the object ("handling" handshapes). These handshapes are studied in native Deaf signing and hearing gesturing groups at three ages-younger child, older child, and adult. An experiment was designed in which short 'vignettes' involving intransitive and transitive events were shown to participants in the study groups. They responded manually. Signers signed the event descriptions; gesturers gestured their event descriptions without voice. ^ Two grammatical features guide the distribution of the productive use of classifier handshapes at the syntactic and phonological levels of analysis: (1) the intransitive/transitive opposition of object and handle classifier handshapes; and (2) the selected finger complexity assigned to entity, as opposed to handle, classifier handshapes (Benedicto & Brentari, 2004; Eccarius & Brentari, 2007). This project documents how signers and gesturers show different distributional patterns of handshape with respect to these two linguistic features. Results conclude that the presence of an adequate language model is required for the emergence of sign language linguistic properties to appear. ^ Findings contribute to the limited research of American Sign Language (ASL) acquisition. The association of object and handle handshapes to intransitive and transitive events develops with time. Errors from the descriptions of intransitive and transitive events demonstrate strikingly different patterns; young gesturing children produce handling handshapes more often in expected contexts (transitive events) than young signing children, indicating that native signers are not using a gestural strategy when faced with linguistic complexity of expressing transitive events with classifiers. The association of handshapes with high selected finger complexity to entity classifiers is realized at a young age (before age four). In addition, the inventory of classifier handshapes used to represent objects in intransitive event descriptions increases and expands in selected finger complexity with time.^




Diane K. Brentari, Purdue University, David Snow, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Health Sciences, Speech Pathology

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