Italian Sign Language (LIS) Poetry: Iconic Properties and Structural Regularities
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Sign Language Studies 2.1 (2001) 84-112

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Italian Sign Language (LIS) Poetry:
Iconic Properties and Structural Regularities

Tommaso Russo
Rosaria Giuranna
Elena Pizzuto


It has been known for many years that Italian deaf signers possess a rich, albeit underground, “literary” tradition with poems, narrative and dramatized texts, and theatre performances expressed in Italian Sign Language (LIS) (Pizzuto 1986). However, chiefly because of the minority linguistic status of LIS and its lower sociolinguistic status compared to both standard Italian and the numerous spoken dialects used in Italy, this cultural tradition has remained largely unknown and unexplored until very recently (Pizzuto and Russo 2000). Research on the lexical, morphological, and morphosyntactic structure of LIS has focused primarily on individual signs occurring in their citation forms out of context, or on signed utterances and texts produced in ordinary prose (see, among others, Angelini, Borgioli, Folchi, and Mastromatteo 1991; Caselli, Maragna, Pagliari Rampelli, and Volterra 1994; Pizzuto and Corazza 1996; Pizzuto and Volterra [End Page 84] 2000; Radutzky 1992; Romeo 1991; Volterra 1987). The circulation of LIS literary texts has been severely limited due to the fact that LIS, like all other signed languages of the world investigated to date, does not possess a written form. Only recently has there been very limited use of video and/or multimedia devices for preserving and circulating signed language texts. In the last few years, the existence of an autonomous cultural tradition in LIS has begun to be more widely recognized both within and outside the Italian Deaf community. LIS poems, dramatized texts, and theatre performances have been presented at national congresses and cultural festivals of LIS, documented in exhibits (Volterra 1998) and in video- periodicals published in sign language such as Fabula, published since 1995. LIS poets have begun to record, describe, and discuss their work and the stylistic resources they use (Giuranna and Giuranna 1998a, 1998b, 2000a). A collection of LIS poems has recently been edited for a CD-ROM publication (Giuranna and Giuranna 2000b). The first exploration of the features that characterize poetry in LIS, as compared to other types of texts, has also been undertaken for the first time within a broader study of iconic and metaphoric constructions in signed and spoken languages (Russo 1999).

Drawing on data and observations reported in Russo’s (1999) study, this article explores and describes, from a crosslinguistic perspective, some of the major structural regularities that characterize poetry in LIS and distinguish poetic from nonpoetic texts. First, we briefly review the major findings of previous studies of signed language poetry. Second, we point out some issues that, in our view, need to be clarified in order to provide a more accurate description of the structural properties of signed poetry. We then discuss Russo’s (1999) recent study on these issues and illustrate his analytic proposals with examples taken from poetic and nonpoetic LIS texts. Our concluding remarks examine the crosslinguistic generalizability of the proposed analysis of LIS poetry.

Previous Studies of Signed Poetry

In their pioneering analysis of American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, Klima and Bellugi (1976, 1979) set up a framework for crosslinguistic and cross-modal comparisons between signed and spoken language [End Page 85] poetry. They showed how the spatial features of signs can be exploited in poetry to create symmetrical patterns and to build up poetic structures in which sign forms and sign meanings are deeply related. Some of the most relevant linguistic features that Klima and Bellugi described as distinctive of ASL poetry are the following:

  • the recurrence of the same parameters (e.g., specific handshapes, movements, and orientations recurring in symmetrical patterns across different signs);
  • the regular rhythmic patterning of a poem;
  • the frequent use of coarticulation devices (e.g., simultaneous syntax but also anticipating or maintaining in time and space a sign or some of its parameters such as the handshape, during the articulation of another sign);
  • the alternation and balance between the right and the left hand in sign production;
  • the reduction or distortion of movement transitions;
  • the correspondence of the final...