Research Project
Sign Language Grammar – Synchronic and Diachronic Aspects

Sign languages are known to employ grammatical structures which are – as far as complexity and expressivity are concerned –fully on a par with those of spoken languages. This holds for all levels of grammatical description: phonology, morphology, and syntax. Moreover, it has been shown that theoretical models that have been developed on the basis of spoken language data can also account for sign language structures. In other words: these models are independent of the language modality.
However, when it comes to syntactic structures, there is one aspect which is clearly influenced by the visual-spatial modality of sign languages, namely the use of the signing space (i.e. the space in front of the signer’s body) for grammatical purposes, such as e.g. the realization of verbal agreement and locative constructions. In the context of my research project, I will investigate whether these phenomena – despite their apparent modality-specific and iconic character – can be accounted for within models that were originally developed on the basis of (typologically diverse) spoken languages.
Consider, for instance, verbal agreement. In many sign languages, the movement of some verb signs can be modified such that it is evident who the subject and the object of the action expressed by the verb are (e.g. “I help you” versus “you help me”); that is, these verbs agree with their subject and object. Obviously, subject and object agreement is also attested in many spoken languages; the question, however, is whether we are in fact dealing with the same phenomenon.
Furthermore, I am interested in how such spatial constructions develop over time. Consider again the above example: historical linguistic studies have shown that diachronically, agreement morphology in spoken languages often develops from pronouns. It is thus interesting to note that sign language pronouns make use of the same spatial locations that are also crucial for agreement. Moreover, pronouns resemble pointing signs, which are also commonly used as co-speech gestures. We may thus hypothesize that in sign languages, elements of gestural origin may develop diachronically into grammatical elements. Locative constructions (e.g. “the book lies on the table”) are also relevant in this context because these constructions, too, make use of locations in signing space in order to express spatial relations. In contrast, prepositions (such as “on, next to, in”) are hardly ever used in sign languages.
In the context of my research project, a workshop has taken place at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg on October 13th – 14th, 2011, which was organized in cooperation with Prof. Dr. Markus Steinbach and Dr. Annika Herrmann (“Complex sentences and beyond in sign and spoken languages”) and in which international sign language linguists participated.

Selected Publications

Pfau, R. 2008. The grammar of headshake: A typological perspective on German Sign Language negation. Linguistics in Amsterdam 1, pp. 37-74.

Pfau, R. 2011. «A point well taken: On the typology and diachrony of pointing» in D. J. Napoli & G. Mathur (eds.): Deaf around the world. The impact of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 144-163.

Pfau, R. / Steinbach, M. 2006. Pluralization in sign and in speech: A cross-modal typological study. Linguistic Typology 10, pp. 135-182.

Pfau, R. / Steinbach, M. 2006. Modality-independent and modality-specific aspects of grammaticalization in sign languages. Linguistics in Potsdam 24, pp. 3-98.

Steinbach, M. / Pfau, R. 2007. «Grammaticalization of auxiliaries in sign languages» in P. Perniss, R. Pfau & M. Steinbach (eds.): Visible variation: Comparative studies on sign language structure. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 303-339.