ASL Loci: Variables or Features?
Jeremy Kuhn, NYU


American Sign Language famously disambiguates pronoun antecedents with the use of space. In ASL, both referential and quantificational DPs (e.g. Bill or every boy) can be signed at different locations ('loci') in the signing space. Pronouns can later retrieve these DPs 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.). This assumption arises from the observation that there are arbitrarily many loci and that pronoun ambiguity can be resolved under multiple levels of embedding, mirroring the use of indices in formal systems. On the other hand, the necessity of formal variables has been contested in semantic theory; in particular, Jacobson (1999) argues for a Variable Free Semantics, grounded on the observation that variables are not logically necessary for expressive purposes.

I present two arguments that suggest that loci should not be analyzed as variables, but rather as morphosyntactic features (as in, e.g., Neidle et al. 2000). First, I observe two cases in which ASL appears insensitive to accidental variable capture. I suggest that this favors a system in which features can prevent things from being coreferential, but where syntactically independent choices can’t force two pronouns to co-refer. Second, I show that loci may remain uninterpreted in certain environments (specifically, in ellipsis and under focus sensitive operators), akin to person and gender features in spoken language. Finally, I will discuss data from a few areas that will dictate further development of the proposal, including "default" loci and cross-sentential uses of pronouns.