Lecture on Monday, 17 March 2014, 12:00 noon
Vrije Universiteit/VU main building, room 10A-12
Areal features in gestural depiction and their impact on sign language structure
Victoria Nyst & Tano Angoua Jean-Jacques
Leiden University
Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana) differs in its use of iconic depiction as compared to the better studied sign languages, predominantly of European origin. One of the differences pertains to the depiction of size and shape. Whereas outlining a size and shape in space is a common and productive strategy in Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT), it is marginal in Adamorobe Sign Language (AdaSL).

A study was done to compare the frequency of size depictions in space  in six sign languages, three of West African origin and three of Western European origin. The results show that the West African sign languages pattern like AdaSL and the Western European sign languages like NGT. Contrary to the sign languages of European origin, it is highly unlikely that the West African sign languages have been in contact. A more straightforward explanation for the similarities found is that they stem from similarities in the gestural substrate from which they emerged.

A second study was done to test whether a similar dispreference for size depictions in space is found in the gestures of hearing people from the same cultural areas. Thus, data are being collected for  speakers of Dutch, Anyi (Cote d’Ivoire), Dida (Côte d’Ivoire),  Akan (Ghana) and Bambara (Mali). Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that size depiction in space is marginal in the West African languages in terms of frequency and diversity of forms, as compared to Dutch. Also, so far, all West African gesturers are found to use size and shape depictions on the body, a strategy not found in the Dutch data.

The extensive use of embodied size depictions in the West African gesture data, supports an explanation for the similarity in patterning in unrelated West African sign languages in terms of a gestural substrate.