Sign Language Studies

Sign Language Studies 2.1, Fall 2001

Letter From the Editor


Special Section on Phonology and Poetry
Edited by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Harry van der Hulst

    Blondel, Marion.
    Miller, Christopher.
  • Movement and Rhythm in Nursery Rhymes in LSF
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    Subject Headings:
    • French Sign Language.
    • Nursery rhymes, French.
    • Deaf, Writings of the.
      As heightened artistic expressions of language, poetry and its close relative song are probably a human cultural universal. It should not come as a surprise, then, that analogous forms of artistic expression occur in sign languages. As is true in general for our understanding of the linguistic structure of sign languages, recognition of the existence of sign language poetry is relatively recent. Thus, for example, no records are known to exist of the form of sign language poetry from the nineteenth century, and the only records of deaf poetry from that time take the form of writings produced by deaf authors in French,1 English, and other oral languages. Videotaped records of artistic expression in signs date from only the second half of the twentieth century.,2 In the seventies, the burgeoning of cultural expression within Deaf communities, especially in France and the United States, brought to light artistic expression in the form of poems and theatrical performances.

      Much of the literature on deaf poetry deals with common themes such as deaf identity, perceptions of the world, and feelings of loneliness,3 but few studies have been devoted to the formal description of poetry in sign languages. Delving into the question of the relation between phonology and poetry provides us with an opportunity to review earlier studies on the structure of signed poetry (most of them on American Sign Language) and to reformulate the kinds of questions usually posed in phonology from the perspective of poetic structure. In this article we do not attempt to deal with all of the “key characteristics that differentiate poetic from conversational usage” surveyed by Ormsby (1995, 220). We focus instead on those aspects that more directly concern rhythmic structure because it seems to us that rhythm plays a crucial role in poetic structure and especially so in poetry addressed to children. As a result, our discussion inevitably comes up against the issue of the phonological status of movement and its connection with rhythmic structure, questions that are currently the subject of much interest.

    Sutton-Spence, Rachel.
  • Phonological "Deviance" in British Sign Language Poetry
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    Subject Headings:
    • Miles, Dorothy -- Criticism and interpretation.
    • British Sign Language.
    • Deaf, Writings of the.
      American Sign Language poetry has been described in some detail over the years (e.g., Klima and Bellugi 1979 and Ormsby 1995) and has been shown to contain features of parallelism that may be considered akin to rhyme, alliteration, and assonance in spoken language. The regular repetitions of handshape, movement path, and choice of location in signs are used in conjunction with rhythm and creativity of signs to produce a poem in which the language enhances—and may even take precedence over—the poem’s message. British Sign Language poetry, however, has not received the same detailed analysis.

      Leech (1991), considering English poetry, treats poems as linguistically deviant forms of language, in which the form and content are “foregrounded” against a background of nondeviant language. The deviant language may be noticeably irregular or noticeably regular. In this article I describe ways in which the form of the language is deviant. I consider some of the deviant phonological features of BSL poetry. I have applied these ideas to BSL poems by the late poet Dorothy Miles. The poems analyzed are “Trio,” “The Staircase: An Allegory,” and “The BDA is . . . ” Analysis of these poems shows the same features in BSL poetry as Leech found in English poetry. The deviant use of BSL phonology may be “irregular” when applied to the breaking (or “bending”) of BSL phonological rules in the construction of poetic neologisms. Handshapes, uses of space and movement, and nonmanual features including eye-gaze and spoken components are all “irregularly deviant” phonologically. “Regular deviance” may be seen in unusually high-frequency uses of certain phonological features. Repeated handshapes, movements or specific locations, and repeated use of nonmanual features create a foregrounded language that may be identified as poetry.

    Russo, Tommaso.
    Giuranna, Rosaria.
    Pizzuto, Elena.
  • Italian Sign Language (LIS) Poetry: Iconic Properties and Structural Regularities
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    Subject Headings:
    • Italian Sign Language.
    • Deaf, Writings of the.
      This article explores and clarifies, from a crosslinguistic perspective, some of the properties that characterize poetry in Italian Sign Language (LIS) and distinguishes poetic from nonpoetic texts. We propose that a clearer understanding of the patterns of signed poetry must take into account not only formal features but also the role that iconic features may play in poetic compared to nonpoetic texts. We observe that previous studies on poetry in signed languages have not included appropriate, cross-text comparisons between poetic and nonpoetic texts. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether the features that have been considered unique to signed poetry are also found in nonpoetic texts. The data and observations we present, based on comparative analyses of LIS poetic and nonpoetic texts, support and extend earlier observations on signed poetry in other sign languages. Our data indicate that iconic and formal features are tightly interrelated in poetic texts to an extent and according to patterns that are not found in nonpoetic texts. These data also suggest that poetic texts exploit in a unique manner specific forms of dynamic, discourse-related iconicity.

Book Reviews



1. See Bernard (1994), who presents Poésies d’un sourd-muet, published in 1844 by the deaf French poet, Pierre Pelissier.

2. See Padden and Humphries (1988, 73), who mention “old home movies” dating from 1940 to 1964 and records of social activities, including “performance, songs, skits, and lectures.”

3. See, for instance, Ormsby (1995), “Poetic cohesion in ASL: Valli’s ‘Snowflake’ and Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ ” SLS 88:227–44.

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