Towards a Classification of Weak Hand Holds

Vadim Kimmelman 1 , Anna Sáfár 2 ,  and Onno Crasborn 3
  • 1 CLC, University of Amsterdam, Spuistraat 134, 1012VB Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • 2 Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University, PO Box 9103, NL-6500 HD Nijmegen, the Netherlands
  • 3 Dept. of Linguistics, Radboud University, PO Box 9103, NL-6500 HD Nijmegen, the Netherlands


The two symmetrical manual articulators (the hands) in signed languages are a striking modalityspecific phonetic property. The weak hand can maintain the end position of an articulation while the other articulator continues to produce additional signs. This weak hand spreading (hold) has been analysed from various perspectives, highlighting its prosodic, syntactic, or discourse properties. The present study investigates corpus data from Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) and Russian Sign Language (RSL), two unrelated sign languages, in order to question the necessity of a sign-language specific notion of ‘buoy’ introduced in the discourse analysis of American Sign Language by Liddell (2003). Buoys are defined as weak hand holds that serve as a visible landmark throughout a stretch of discourse, and several types are distinguished based on their function and form. In the analysis of nearly two and a half hours of narratives and conversations from NGT and RSL, we found over 600 weak hand holds. We show that these holds can be analysed in terms of regular phonetic, syntactic, semantic, or discourse notions (or a combination thereof) familiar from the linguistic study of spoken languages, without the need for a sign language-specific notion of ‘buoy’.

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