Linguistics Research Center | College of Liberal Arts
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Sign Change

Sign language change and historical relationships

The Sign Change research group, at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the history and development of sign languages.

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All human languages change, whether they use a spoken or visual (signed) modality. However, nearly two centuries of extensive investigation of language change and historical linguistics have almost completely neglected signed languages. The Sign Change research group explores different methods and theoretical models for understanding how to study language change in the visual modality, how sign languages change, and how sign language change compares to spoken language change. Do generalizations made about change in spoken languages extend to sign languages, or do certain processes of change only pertain to the spoken modality? By contrast, do certain types of change described for sign languages also appear in the histories of spoken languages? What types of change uniquely characterize the visual modality?

In developing notions about how signed languages change, we may seek to identify and understand the historical relationships among sign languages. Parallel to the classification of spoken languages, sign languages too fall into families, but based on quite different evidence. The classification of spoken languages into families rests largely on regular recurring sound correspondences –- such as the famous Grimm’s Law –- identified through the Comparative Method. In addition, the claim that several languages belong to the same family in traditional historical linguistics asserts that they all developed organically from a common ancestral language. The nature of sign language communities and the substantial role in language transmission of formal institutions, such as schools for the deaf, in many instances raises the question of whether sign language families represent the same kind of historical relationships of descent from a common ancestor. Our group interrogates these notions both through traditional methods, such as the Comparative Method, as well as through modern statistical methods for inferring language relationships and modeling the processes of change and transmission of languages over time.

The Sign Change group consists of the researchers David Quinto-PozosDanny Law, and Justin Power.

Academic Talks

  • Methods and models in historical comparative research on signed language, Justin M. Power, Danny Law, David Quinto-Pozos. February 24, 2021. (Abstract and Video)