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Studying syllables in South African Sign Language

Date Released: Tue, 17 May 2016 22:56 +0200

On 10 May 2016, Rhodes Linguistics kicked off a series of academic seminars in honour of Disability Week with a look at syllables in the phonology of South African Sign Language (SASL), presented by Master’s student Mikhaela Köhlo.  If you’re wondering how sign languages can have phonology, the answer is that sign language phonology refers to the rules that govern how different handshapes, locations on the body, movements, hand orientations and facial expressions are combined in signs.  Each sign is made up of movements between different locations or holds, and each of these movements and the holds on either side of it forms a syllable.  Ms Köhlo’s research identifies constraints that govern what handshapes and locations can occur at the ends, or codas, of these syllables.

Coda constraints are common in spoken languages: German, for example, only allows certain sounds to occur in coda position in syllables. However, Ms Köhlo’s study is the first to describe coda constraints in SASL. Most formal sign language research has come from the sign languages of Western countries, such as American Sign Language. SASL, by contrast, has only been described or studied by a few formal linguists.  By examining syllables in a sign language, Ms Köhlo’s research contributes to knowledge about syllables in general.  She has also set up the study in such a way that in future, it can be replicated to look at other sign languages and compare them with SASL, strengthening our understanding of sign languages in general.

It is well-known that syllables in spoken languages need to have a vowel at their centre, or nucleus. The sign language linguists Sandler and Lillo-Martin show that in the same way, sign language syllables need to include a movement: even seemingly stationary signs such as the sign for WHO in SASL, which occurs at the chin, will have finger wiggling as some form of movement. Just as movements in sign languages are similar to vowels in spoken languages, so holds or locations are similar to consonants. However, because signs are visual, they are unlike sounds in spoken language in that while sounds are strung together in a sequence to make words, in sign languages handshapes and locations occur simultaneously. This means that handshapes and locations are two types of feature to which coda constraints can apply.

Ms Köhlo analysed signs from a video dictionary including 175 basic SASL words.  From this dictionary, she created a database showing what locations and codas occurred at the beginnings (onsets) and ends (codas) of syllables. She did this using a model for describing signs called the Prosodic Model, developed by a sign language linguist named Brentari. She used her database to identify patterns in the onsets and codas of syllables, and then examined these patterns to find out what possible rules might exist to dictate what features could appear at the syllable codas. Since she, as a hearing researcher, is not a first-language signer, she asked two first-language signers of SASL to check her conclusions.

The findings of Ms Köhlo’s research suggest that certain combinations of features at syllable onsets and codas may be prohibited.  There seems to be a preference for signs to have the same location and handshape features in the onset and coda of the same syllable.  Where the handshape at the coda is different to the onset, the handshape at the coda will be a member of a small class of what are known as unmarked handshapes.  These are the same set of simple handshapes that are used by the non-dominant hand in two-handed signs. Where the hand’s location in the syllable coda differs from the location in the onset, there is a preference for the coda to be closer to the centre of the signer's body. This could happen because the centre of the body is less marked, or because it is easier to see locations that are closer to the centre of the signer’s body. The existence of these rules shows that that SASL has a rich phonological structure which needs to be researched in much more detail.

Source:Ian Siebörger