A cross-linguistic comparison of reference across five signed languages
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Do signers of different signed languages establish and maintain reference the same way? Here we compare how signers of five Western deaf signed languages coordinate fully conventionalized forms with more richly improvised semiotics to identify and talk about referents of varying agency. The five languages (based on a convenience sample) are Auslan, Irish Sign Language, Finnish Sign Language, Norwegian Sign Language, and Swedish Sign Language. Using ten retellings of Frog, Where Are You? from each language, we analyze tokens of referring expressions with respect to: (a) activation status (new vs. maintained vs. re-introduced); (b) semiotic strategy (e.g., pointing sign, fingerspelling, enactment); and (c) animacy (human vs. animal vs. inanimate object). Statistical analysis reveals many similarities and some differences across the languages. For example, signers of each language typically used conventionalized forms to identify new referents, and less conventional strategies to maintain and reintroduce referents. Differences were mainly observed in relation to the patterning across animacy and activation categories and in the use of fingerspelled words from ambient spoken/written languages. We suggest that doing reference in these signed languages involves both signed language-specific and ecology-specific strategies. The latter may be attributed to the different social and historical trajectories of each language.