Languages have diverse strategies for marking agentivity and number. These strategies are
negotiated to create combinatorial systems. We consider the emergence of these strategies by studying
features of movement in a young sign language in Nicaragua (NSL). We compare two age cohorts of
Nicaraguan signers (NSL1 and NSL2), adult homesigners in Nicaragua (deaf individuals creating a gestural
system without linguistic input), signers of American and Italian Sign Languages (ASL and LIS), and hearing
individuals asked to gesture silently. We find that all groups use movement axis and repetition to encode
agentivity and number, suggesting that these properties are grounded in action experiences common to
all participants. We find another feature – unpunctuated repetition – in the sign systems (ASL, LIS, NSL,
Homesign) but not in silent gesture. Homesigners and NSL1 signers use the unpunctuated form, but limit
its use to No-Agent contexts; NSL2 signers use the form across No-Agent and Agent contexts. A single
individual can thus construct a marker for number without benefit of a linguistic community (homesign),
but generalizing this form across agentive conditions requires an additional step. This step does not
appear to be achieved when a linguistic community is first formed (NSL1), but requires transmission across
generations of learners (NSL2).
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