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Postgrads investigate South African Sign Language, Chinese and isiXhosa

Date Released: Thu, 11 September 2014 12:17 +0200

Two Rhodes Linguistics postgraduate students, Mikhaela Köhlo and Xiujie Ma, presented their research proposals to the department on Friday 5 September.  Their two studies highlight the diversity and multilingual richness of the department’s research: Mikhaela is doing her Master’s on the phonology of South African Sign Language (SASL), and Xiujie is working towards a PhD comparing the syntax of Chinese and isiXhosa. 


A Perfect End: A study of syllable codas in SASL

Sign languages, like spoken languages, contain syllables, using locations and movements in place of consonants and vowels. While there are known constraints on what combination of consonants and vowels are acceptable in spoken syllables, there has been very little research done on their signed counterparts. Mikhaela’s thesis aims to determine if there are limits to what is permissible at the end of a signed syllable in terms of the hand's shape and location in SASL, a rich and severely understudied sign language. Her data will come from various sources: a video dictionary, a recorded conversation and informants from the Deaf community. From these data, she aims to compile an inventory of what handshapes and locations occur at both the beginning and the end of the syllable, which provides ample contrast. She will then use the framework of Brentari's Prosodic Model (1998) to provide linguistic explanations for any patterns that are noticeable and acknowledged by my informants as well-formed/ill-formed signs. It is her hope that her research will contribute to the formal understanding of SASL and aid in the creation of devices for the Deaf. 

Mikhaela’s studies form part of the department’s South African Sign Language Machine Translation project. Visit this page for more information on the project.  To find out more about her research, contact her supervisors, Ian Siebörger and Will Bennett.


A Comparative Study of VP-ellipsis in Chinese and IsiXhosa

VP-ellipsis refers to a type of construction where a verb phrase (VP) is deleted. It typically occurs in sentences involving conjunctions like ‘and’, where the verb phrase in the clause after the conjunction is deleted. In English, the main verb is elided, whereas the verb cannot be elided in Chinese and isiXhosa.  For example, in English, one can say “John likes apples, and Mary does too.”  In Chinese, you would say “John  x?hu?n  pín??u?, Mary y?x?hu?n.” (John likes apples, Mary also likes.), and in isiXhosa, “UJohn  uthanda ama-apile, uMary naye uyawathanda.” (John likes apples, Mary also likes them.)

Superficially, VP-ellipsis in Chinese and isiXhosa differs extensively from English, and the interesting questions are what mechanisms result in the variation among these languages and whether there is universality behind these superficial differences. So Xiujie’s study will highlight the universality and variation of VP-ellipsis in languages and further explore the mechanisms which result in this universality and variation.  She will also try to find a theory which is most appropriate to explain these similarities and differences. 

To find out more about Xiujie's research, contact her supervisors, Ron Simango and Mark de Vos.

Source:Mikhaela Köhlo and Xiujie Ma