Linguistics: Syntax

Linguists study the fundamental principles underlying human language: both universals and modality-specific differences in packaging and conveying information. This overview considers several types of syntactic constructions, focusing on ways in which signed languages exploit means of expression unique to this modality. Attention here is limited primarily to American Sign Language (ASL), although a rapidly expanding literature investigates other signed languages. Cross-linguistic/cross-modal comparisons hold promise for revealing the deep commonalities and full range of variation across human languages.

Use of signed languages by the deaf was observed as far back as the ancient Greeks. However, recognition by linguists that these are full-fledged languages comparable in structure to spoken languages—although with important modality-specific properties—dates back only to the 1960s. Pioneering work by William Stokoe marked the beginning of ...

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