Forging a morphological system out of two dimensions: Agentivity and number

L. Horton 1 , S. Goldin-Meadow 1 , M. Coppola 2 , A. Senghas 3 ,  and D. Brentari 1
  • 1 University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 60637, USA
  • 2 University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, 06269, USA
  • 3 Barnard College, New York, NY, 10027, USA


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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