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An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: van der Auwera, Johan

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The word in sign language: empirical evidence and theoretical controversies

*Correspondence address: Informatics Institute, Middle East Technical University, İnönü Bulvarı, 06531 Ankara, Turkey.

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 46, Issue 2, Pages 249–308, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/LING.2008.011, March 2008

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This article is concerned with the “word” in sign language, the “grammatical” and especially the “prosodic word”. Both notions of the “word” are central in sign language linguistics and psycholinguistic. Converging evidence for the size and complexity of the prosodic word is reviewed, stemming from morphological processes such as compounding, derivation, and classification as well as from phonological processes such as coalescence, epenthesis, and deletion. Additional evidence from slips of the hand and their repairs is presented showing that (i) in slips, grammatical as well as prosodic words are involved and that (ii) slip-repair sequences may keep within the limit of the prosodic word. The distinctive morphological typology and the canonical word shape pattern in sign language is explained by modality differences which act on the Phonetic Form (PF) interface. Sign languages are processed more on the vertical axis — simultaneously — whereas spoken languages are processed more on the horizontal axis — sequentially. As a corollary, the information packaging in both language modalities is different while processing is basically the same. Controversial theoretic topics around the notion of the “word” in sign language such as iconicity and notoriously recalcitrant constructions such as classifier predicates are discussed.

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