Linguistics Department

Dissertation Defense - Kate Mesh "The point of comparison: What indicating gestures tell us about the origins of signs in San Juan Quiahije Chatino Sign Language.”

Thu, July 27, 2017 | CLA 2.606 - Normandy Room

9:00 AM - 11:30 AM

To get to the Normandy Room, take the elevators or stairs to the 2nd floor. Turn right and walk down the hallway until you reach a pair of double doors. The Normandy Room is through the doors, immediately on your right.  There is a sign on the wall saying, "Frank Denius Normandy Scholars Room."

New languages emerge under the rare conditions in which they are necessary: deaf children who cannot access the vocal-auditory language(s) used around them invent visual-manual communication systems of their own. Such homesign or family sign systems have simple structures but nevertheless show the hallmarks of language, including a stable lexicon of signs composed of meaningful, recombinable elements. Prior research on homesign has found that these elements are largely invented by signers, though some may be adapted from the gestural input received from hearing interlocutors.  The current project reconsiders this claim, examining the influence of gestures on the structure of two emerging family signs used in a rural, indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico.  It focuses on foundational, visually accessible `indicating gestures’ such as pointing that direct the addressee’s attention to a region in physical space.

Three linked studies investigated whether indicating gestures have internal structure that is accessible to deaf signers, and whether such structure is incorporated into their emerging languages.  In the first, hearing community members’ spontaneous, speech-linked indicating gestures were examined for internal structure.  They were found to comprise three recombinable elements that, through systematic modulations in form, convey information about the direction and distance of targets.  A second study looked for a relationship between the form of indicating gestures and the features of the speech that accompanies them.  No such relationship was found, suggesting that the meaningful modulation of the gesture features occurs independently from speech. The final study compared the forms and meanings of two deaf signers’ indicating gestures with those of the hearing participants.  Signers were found to use the meaningful direction and elbow height features, but not the handshape features, from the conventional indicating system. 

These findings reveal that indicating gestures, previously classed as holistic, non-composite signals, exhibit an internal structure that can be incorporated directly into an emerging signed language.  Interestingly, they also reveal that not all features of gestures—even ones that exhibit clear patterning —will be adopted by signers, perhaps because gesture features must be not only systematically patterned but also visually iconic in order for signers to interpret them as meaningful. 

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