Most Characteristic Elements of Sign Language Texts Are Intricate Mixtures of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Parts, Aren’t They?

  • Franz Dotter


There is a considerable number of sign language linguists who accept as proven that essential parts of sequential-simultaneous constructions in sign languages (henceforth: SL) are “gestural” and therefore do not have language status, i.e. are “non-linguistic”. This judgement applies to all elements of SL where spatial parameters are used to code indexical and iconic meanings or spatial relations. The respective argumentations contain many methodologically questionable steps and are particularly led by a strong bias towards a spoken language (henceforth: SpL) perspective. This bias includes an uncritical adoption of the results of research on gestures to SL (“uncritical” means that the inconsistencies in gesture research itself were not considered); despite the fact that gesture research was performed exclusively on SpL. Therefore, a discussion of the assumptions and analysis processes concerning SL is urgent. In order to overcome the SpL bias in SL linguistics we need a typological model which takes both SpL and SL as instances of “language” in different modalities. By abstracting from both types of language, a new extended model of “language” can be developed.


I will perform my analysis from the perspective of a typological language model which comprises both SL and SpL in equal measure. A comprehensive typology assumes that every language shows those categories which its users select as the best suited for the chosen modality or modalities. It cannot devaluate visually appropriate ones against acoustically appropriate ones. By this I want to prove that the assumption of an enormous number of gestural components in SL texts, intricately combined with language elements – concerning essential areas of SL grammar – is untenable.


The methodological shortcomings of the “Gesture School” to be indicated are: The authors neither apply a modality-independent model of language, nor transfer “gradience” and “conventionalisation” to SL conformly to typology and semiotics. Additionally, we find no consideration of:


* the coding conditions and possibilities of SL, especially related to indexical and iconic (in contrast to symbolic) morphemes

* the relation between gradient production and categorical cognitive processing in all languages

* the contrast between listability and the application of rules (by inadequate application of the listability criterion against SL morphemes like classifiers, ignoring the existing grammatical rules for them).

Language and Linguistics: Results