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Volume 44, Issue 3-4


Visible Meaning: Sign language and the foundations of semantics

Philippe Schlenker
  • Corresponding author
  • Département d’Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Institut Jean-Nicod (ENS - EHESS - CNRS), Paris, France
  • PSL Research University, Paris, France
  • New York University, New York, NY, USA
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2018-11-03 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tl-2018-0012


While it is now accepted that sign languages should inform and constrain theories of ‘Universal Grammar’, their role in ‘Universal Semantics’ has been under-studied. We argue that they have a crucial role to play in the foundations of semantics, for two reasons. First, in some cases sign languages provide overt evidence on crucial aspects of the Logical Form of sentences, ones that are only inferred indirectly in spoken language. For instance, sign language ‘loci’ are positions in signing space that can arguably realize logical variables, and the fact that they are overt makes it possible to revisit foundational debates about the syntactic reality of variables, about mechanisms of temporal and modal anaphora, and about the existence of dynamic binding. Another example pertains to mechanisms of ‘context shift’, which were postulated on the basis of indirect evidence in spoken language, but which are arguably overt in sign language. Second, along one dimension sign languages are strictly more expressive than spoken languages because iconic phenomena can be found at their logical core. This applies to loci themselves, which may simultaneously function as logical variables and as schematic pictures of what they denote (context shift comes with some iconic requirements as well). As a result, the semantic system of spoken languages can in some respects be seen as a simplified version of the richer semantics found in sign languages. Two conclusions could be drawn from this observation. One is that the full extent of Universal Semantics can only be studied in sign languages. An alternative possibility is that spoken languages have comparable expressive mechanisms, but only when co-speech gestures are taken into account (as recently argued by Goldin-Meadow and Brentari). Either way, sign languages have a crucial role to play in investigations of the foundations of semantics.

Keywords: sign language semantics; logical visibility; iconicity; Universal Semantics


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About the article

Published Online: 2018-11-03

Published in Print: 2018-11-27

Consultants: This research summarizes research that appeared in various articles, which owe a lot to the work of the following consultants: ASL: Jonathan LambertonLSF: Yann Cantin, Ludovic DucasseTheir contribution is gratefully acknowledged.

Pictures: Pictures that are not cited from published work are stills from videos cited in the text; they are used with the consultants’ explicit consent, which is gratefully acknowledged.

Grant acknowledgments: The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement N°324115–FRONTSEM (PI: Schlenker). Research was conducted at Institut d’Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure - PSL Research University. Institut d’Etudes Cognitives is supported by grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC et ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*.

Prior work: This paper explicitly borrows from earlier publications on sign language semantics (references are added at the beginning of the relevant sections). While the data and formalisms are mostly not new, the general perspective is.

Citation Information: Theoretical Linguistics, Volume 44, Issue 3-4, Pages 123–208, ISSN (Online) 1613-4060, ISSN (Print) 0301-4428, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tl-2018-0012.

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