This Thursday (February 4th) at 12:30 in SAC 1011, Dr. Donna Jo Napoli will be talking with us about her research, which asks how linguistic patterns emerge from physical facts about the world. Abstract for her talk titled “Reactive Effort as a Factor that Shapes Sign Language Lexicons” is below.
Much has been written about the drive toward ease of articulation in spoken languages, but few studies consider sign languages. In fact, though, the drive is more obvious in sign languages because the articulators are heavier and the source of articulation (the particular joints used in a given token) is uncontroversial. In a study of ASL, the most frequent means of reducing effort was freezing joints (so fewer joints move), and the second most frequent was reducing the mass that is moved. In sum, biomechanics are at play in language variation. However, biomechanics play a larger role. We did a study of Italian Sign Language (LIS), Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, and Sri Lankan Sign Language. An examination of two-handed signs that are reflexively symmetrical across the midsagittal plane reveals that some of them induce torque (instability) while others don’t. It turns out that the stable types are much more frequent across the lexicon than those that induce instability. Thus biomechanics also influences the shape of the lexicon.