Locative expressions in signed languages: a view from Turkish Sign Language (TİD)

Asli Özyürek 1 , Inge Zwitserlood 2 , and Pamela Perniss 3
  • 1 Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
  • 2 Radboud University Nijmegen
  • 3 University College London


Locative expressions encode the spatial relationship between two (or more) entities. In this paper, we focus on locative expressions in signed language, which use the visual-spatial modality for linguistic expression, specifically in Turkish Sign Language (Türk İşaret Dili, henceforth TİD). We show that TİD uses various strategies in discourse to encode the relation between a Ground entity (i.e., a bigger and/or backgrounded entity) and a Figure entity (i.e., a smaller entity, which is in the focus of attention). Some of these strategies exploit affordances of the visual modality for analogue representation and support evidence for modality-specific effects on locative expressions in sign languages. However, other modality-specific strategies, e.g., the simultaneous expression of Figure and Ground, which have been reported for many other sign languages, occurs only sparsely in TİD. Furthermore, TİD uses categorical as well as analogical structures in locative expressions. On the basis of these findings, we discuss differences and similarities between signed and spoken languages to broaden our understanding of the range of structures used in natural language (i.e., in both the visual-spatial or oral-aural modalities) to encode locative relations. A general linguistic theory of spatial relations, and specifically of locative expressions, must take all structures that might arise in both modalities into account before it can generalize over the human language faculty.

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