- Form, Meaning, and Focus in American Sign Language by Miako N. P. Rankin
In this book, author Miako Rankin presents a published version of her doctoral dissertation, which investigated the use of varying degrees of focus in American Sign Language to express agent arguments. Her particular interest here is to ask the following question: If someone is signing in ASL and opts not to explicitly mention the agent argument of a verb, what kinds of constructions can be used to convey this meaning (e.g., receipt must give-y secretary in which the subject of give is unexpressed)? Rankin produces a well-written and extremely welcome account of nonagent focus in ASL, which is written with the framework of cognitive grammar. This assumes that the purpose of language—to make meaning—is the theoretical basis of grammatical description. As such, this approach seems particularly appropriate as the foundation of this study of form, meaning, and focus in ASL.
In chapter 1 Rankin presents a brief introduction to how grammar is used to express meaning in human language. She explores Langacker’s work, which shows that the same event might be construed in a number of ways, with varying choices of verb and different orderings of arguments. Rankin then argues, however, that this understanding of grammar has had limited impact on sign language teaching, where many classes focus instead on the teaching of vocabulary. The motivation for her study, it turns out, stems from personal experiences while working at Gallaudet University. For some time, Rankin reports, she struggled to find ASL equivalents of passive constructions in English in order to more effectively teach English to deaf students, and this led her directly to the research questions [End Page 281] that underpin this investigation. It is refreshing to read here of the direct links between applied, theoretical, and descriptive linguistics that motivate and inform this book.
In chapter 2 Rankin introduces the reader to key concepts and terminology from Ronald Langacker’s theoretical model of cognitive grammar. She also explores the notion of constructions from Goldberg’s work and outlines the functions of passive voice in English. She briefly distinguishes her own research on this topic from previous work on analogous constructions in sign languages (something she expands on in chapter 3) and discusses the many possible defocusing strategies that are used in English. Rankin also details her data-collection methodology. Data were collected from a translation task involving twenty passive sentences; four narrative texts in English, each including multiple passive constructions; and a video of an ASL description of the process of making pencils to elicit an ASL-to-English translation. Four deaf native signers completed all of the tasks. Because this is a relatively low number of participants, it leaves the reader wondering how representative the resulting dataset actually is, but we must also recognize that significant amounts of data have been collected from these participants.
In chapter 3 Rankin discusses certain features that are relevant to an understanding of agent focus in ASL, including the use of indicating verbs, conceptual blending, and surrogate blends. She discusses nonovert subjects and points out that Liddell (2003) has argued that discourse salience is relevant here, with nonovert subjects possible due to topicalization or prior mention. The discussion would have benefited here from more explicit details about the variationist studies of variable subject expression undertaken by Lucas and colleagues (Wulf et al. 2002) (referred to only in passing in chapter 4), which actually provide direct empirical support for some of Liddell’s claims (i.e., that coreference is a significant factor in conditioning variable subject expression in ASL).
Chapter 4 begins the detailed exploration of the data collected and focuses on the ASL translations of the twenty elicited English passive constructions. The main finding was that the majority of the ASL utterances expressed defocused agents through the lack of an overt subject. An example of a clause with the agent in focus would be tonight s-a-l-l-y make food in...