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Summer 1987 ON BOROGROVES & CODE BOOKS William C. Stokoe Professor Pulleyblank's contribution here to the ongoing search for ways that language may have evolved and phenomena from which it evolved is most welcome. And as my comments in SLS 51 have left him in some doubt, I would like to comment further. The issue as he states it is clear: Do the "cheremes" of ASL -- or its "phonemes," if the structure and not the material of phonology is meant -- "form a closed system?" My brief description of one form of ASL word play in the earlier issue has not convinced him, instead left the impression that such ASL games more closely resemble the faking of a foreign language by (hardly) random sounds than they resemble "the nonsense verse of Edmund Lear or Lewis Carroll." I am not at all sure that the kind of signing I have in mind, signing I have seen ASL signers doing for fun, and the kind -- or kinds -- of spoken language play Pulleyblank has in mind can really be brought before a reader for comparison; each is part of the experiences of a different person. One reason, however, I am convinced that ASL has a closed system, either of "phonemes" or distinctive features or both, is that ASL signers immediately know if a newly met person signing with them is a "native signer" of ASL, and if so, whether from their own dialect area or another; if not, perhaps a learner or a foreigner with some knowledge of ASL signs; and if a hearing person, they may even be able to distinguish a professional (teacher or interpreter) from a child of deaf parents (Nash & Nash Copyright 1987 by Linstok Press, Inc. See note inside front cover. ISSN 0302-1475 SLS 55 Stokoe : 184 1978, SLS 20). Knowing all this is possible because the newly met signer's behavior either sticks to the closed system of (manual and nonmanual) ASL sign production features, or exhibits dialectal or other variation, violating the system with omissions and intrusions. Another point calls for comment because it is so often raised in discussions of spoken vs. signed languages. Pulleyblank writes of "the capacity of a spoken language to create nonsense words which conform to its phonological rules," and cites the nonsense verse of Lear and Carroll. In this context we need to remember that it is not spoken language that utters nonsense words, nor does spoken language compose masterpieces of nonsense verse. Because I have witnessed serious and humorous performances in ASL by such artists as Bernard Bragg and Ella May Lentz and Mary Beth Miller, I have no doubt that among the ASL linguistic community's signers there are creators of light and serious verse comparable to a Lear or a Landor, but it is worth emphasizing that such verbal art is created by unique individuals, whatever language they use as medium. No one who sees gifted ASL poets in performance imagines that the silent medium has impoverished the artist -- quite the reverse. Nonsense words, on the other hand may be unconscious creations of uninhibited speakers; e.g. my daughter before the age of three referred to a venerable black locust tree in her grandparents' front lawn as "the mercament tree" (spelling my own), and so it and other black locusts have often been designated ever since in our family. Pulleyblank and others will find in descriptions of young deaf children's signing, much of it reported in these pages, many instances of unconventional use by youngsters of the conventional elements of sign formation. Klima and Bellugi in SLS 8 (1975) and in The Signs of Language (1979) describe not summer 1987 SLS 55 Stokoe : 185 only verbal wit and humor but "slips of the tongue" in sign language that occur precisely because the wiring of the rules gets twisted. The creation of nonsense verse for publication, however, and the potential generation of meaningless "words" by the phonology and morphology of a language are quite different logical types. The former requires a speaker's or signer's deliberate use of the possibilities language and culture provide; the latter occurs when the operation is performed of combining and permuting the elements...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6263
Print ISSN
0302-1475
Pages
pp. 184-189
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-02
Open Access
No
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