C3: "The Meaning of Space in Sign Language: Conveying Reference in a Different Language Modality" (Gemma Barberà)

Mon 16.15-17.45, Wed 9.15-10.45, Thu 11.15-12.45, Fri 14.15-15.45
Room: 1.01


This course explores how meaning is conveyed in a language that uses the visual-spatial modality, as in the case of sign language. The main question that this course aims to answer is how the special properties of signed languages and their inherent visual-spatial modality properties bear on semantic and pragmatic theory. The focus will be specially centered on the nominal domain and on how representations of signing space can be incorporated into a formal system.

After a basic introduction of how sign language grammar works and how signing space is incorporated into the grammar, we begin by presenting the two uses of signing space (i.e. syntactic and topographic) and their interaction, drawing on typological case studies of sign languages. The analysis of the abstract use of space will provide the basis for the study of free and bound uses of personal pronouns. It will be shown that signing space is crucial for pronoun interpretation; moreover, the differences between spoken and signed languages due to modality effects will be contrasted. This will lead us to focus on how reference is conveyed in sign language. On the one hand, we will analyze definiteness and specificity according to the structured and abstract use of space they impose. The types of definiteness and specificity instantiated in sign languages and their corresponding morphological patterns will be scrutinized. On the other hand, we will compare the study of the syntactic and semantic properties of human impersonal pronouns in sign language to other well-studied spoken languages (such as English and German) considering both empirical and theoretical accounts. Furthermore, the analysis of genericity will provide more evidence that signing space is a key aspect when analysing kind reference and generalizing contexts in the visual-spatial modality used in sign languages. Finally, the inquiry into anaphoric strategies will broaden up the perspective to the discourse domain. Here, the role that two language-specific categories, such as handshape classifiers and nonmanuals, play in reference-tracking will be discussed. Addressing these aspects in detail will lead to a better characterization of the relevant categories in the nominal domain and, more generally, to a better understanding of how reference is encoded in the grammar of space of sign language.

Important note: no prior knowledge of a sign language is required.

Lecturer: Gemma Barberà, Universitat Pompeu Fabra