- Sign language: An international handbook ed. by Roland Pfau, Markus Stein-bach, and Bencie Woll
Deaf people cannot hear, so they need a visual means of linguistic expression; sign languages provide that means of expression. Deaf people have been using some form of signing for millennia: Plato observed signing; so did Diderot. Psychologists and linguists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries dismissed signing as derivative or primitive; now sign languages are recognized as true languages with expressive capabilities and grammatical complexities equal to those of spoken languages. Modern linguists began studying the structures of sign languages about sixty years ago, first in only a few places, but more recently in many research institutions all over the world; increasing numbers of deaf and hearing linguists have contributed immeasurably to deeper insights into the structure and use of sign languages.
Pfau, Steinbach, and Woll’s edited handbook of Sign language (SL) constitutes a massive and largely successful effort to bring together a reference on state-of-the-art thinking from a broad range of perspectives on sign languages, and the book’s very existence demonstrates that the study of sign languages has come of age as a legitimate field of endeavor. The first four sections, comprising twenty-one chapters, address the traditional core linguistic categories of phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics/pragmatics. The remaining twenty-two chapters are divided into five sections: communication in the visual modality, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, variation and change, applied issues, and handling sign language data. The editors have assembled a group of authors who are among the best qualified to treat the subject matter they have been asked to address: here I would single out chapters by Onno Crasborn on phonetics, Gaurav Mathur and Christian Rathmann on verb agreement, Inge Zwitserlood on classifiers, Diane Lillo-Martin on utterance reports and constructed action, Sarah Taub on iconicity and metaphors, Ronnie Wilbur on information structure, Victoria Nyst on shared (village) sign languages, Susan Goldin-Meadow on home sign, Deborah Chen Pichler on acquisition, Bencie Woll on atypical signing, Dany Adone on language emergence and creolization, Susan McBurney on history, and Christopher Stone on interpreting. Also of particular interest is the integration in several chapters of data with up-to-date linguistic theory. Unfortunately, space does not permit detailed discussion of these interesting efforts.
The earliest and most extensive research has been on American Sign Language (ASL), various western European sign languages, and sign languages in places settled by Europeans, such as Australia and South America. The content in SL is naturally dominated largely by European and North American researchers. Recent work on Asian sign languages, however, has led us to rethink some of our assumptions about how sign languages work and the range of grammatical possibilities. [End Page 977] For example, in my early work on word order in ASL (Fischer 1974), I suggested that word order becomes more flexible if verb agreement is present. But Smith (1990) showed that there was another way to express grammatical relations in Taiwan Sign Language, namely a dummy auxiliary, analogous to do in English, that can carry agreement when the main verb does not. Later I found something similar in Japanese Sign Language, and it turned out that such auxiliaries also exist in Western sign languages such as those used in Denmark and the Netherlands, as discussed in Galini Sapountzaki’s chapter. Results from other non-Western sign languages have illuminated other areas, too, such as how the scope of operators is expressed. Crosslinguistic comparisons are capably and informatively discussed in a number of chapters, but only a couple of chapters have authors from other than English-speaking or European countries; one reason may be that some researchers from Asia and elsewhere do...