Meaning in space: singulars, plurals, and functions in American Sign Language

Jeremy Kuhn, New York University


Sign languages, by virtue of their visuospatial modality, can communicate meaning through the use of literally another dimension, and one, moreover, which has a very intuitive connection to the way that we perceive objects and events around us. What this means for the linguistic system is that there are places where semantic objects that have been postulated on indirect evidence in spoken language can be seen in a phonologically overt way in sign language. In this talk, I will focus on two case studies in American Sign Language.

First, I look at the case of singular pronouns, where ASL famously disambiguates antecedents with the use of space: NPs are placed at locations ('loci') in the signing space, and pronouns retrieve these NPs by pointing at the same locus. Many analyses of ASL pronouns assume that these spatial loci are the overt realization of formal variables (Lillo-Martin and Klima 1990, a.o.). I argue that loci should not be analyzed as variables, but rather in a manner akin to morphosyntactic features. First, I show that the variable-based analysis under-generates: it is possible for two loci-sharing pronouns to appear free in the same expression but nevertheless receive different interpretations. Second, I show that loci share certain important properties with morphosyntactic features, including their behavior under focus-sensitive operators. These results directly bear on the theory of Variable-Free Semantics (Jacobson 1999), which posits that the logic underlying natural language does not make use of formal variables.

Second, I turn to plural reference and functional reference ("Three boys each saw a girl. They each waved to her."). As singulars are indexed at points in space, plurals are indexed over areas of space, realized in one of two ways: either by a sweeping "arc" movement over the area or with a reduplicated motion across the area. Plural morphology appears cross-categorially, including on pronouns, numerals, and adjectives. I show that functional dependence is systematically realized by the spatial association of two plurals: one plural provides the domain of the function and the other the range. This spatial representation of functions allows dependencies to be overtly realized. I discuss dependent numerals and the adjectives SAME and DIFFERENT.