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  • Sign Language in Papua New Guinea. A Primary Sign Language from the Upper Lagaip Valley, Enga Province by Adam Kendon
  • Josefina Safar (bio)
Kendon, Adam. 2020. Sign Language in Papua New Guinea. A Primary Sign Language from the Upper Lagaip Valley, Enga Province. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (202 pp., $143.00, hardcover, ISBN 978-902-7-20453-0, Ebook ISBN 978-902-7-26182-3)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to a vast number of languages (Palmer 2017), and linguists documenting spoken languages have long discovered it as being a "wellspring of linguistic diversity" ( Yet, surprisingly little is known about its sign languages (SLs). Although we have reason to assume that they are also numerous and diverse, first detailed accounts about sign languages from that part of the world are recent (e.g., Reed 2019).

But, forty years ago, there was one man who really wanted to know: At a time when comprehensive descriptions of signed languages were scarce and research on noninstitutionalized sign languages virtually nonexistent, Adam Kendon published an in-depth account of a sign language in PNG used by one deaf woman and her hearing interlocutors. The level of detail at which Kendon covers various linguistic domains is remarkable, describing the language itself and comparing his findings with studies on other sign languages. These early typo-logical aspirations demonstrate that sign languages around the world follow some common organizational principles.

Originally, Kendon's study was published in three parts in 1980. When research on "village" or "shared" sign languages gained momentum in the past decade (see, e.g., Zeshan and de Vos 2012), Kendon's work remained somehow overlooked. Now, Kendon has engaged in the challenging task of revisiting a publication after many new paradigms have emerged in the discipline. In the adjusted version, Kendon [End Page 378] changed his title from "A Deaf-Mute Sign Language from the Enga Province" to "A Primary Sign Language from the Upper Lagaip Valley, Enga Province" and has added comments that reflect new developments in the field or the author's "own revised thinking" (p. xii).

The volume is organized in three parts: In part 1, Kendon presents his 1980 papers in revised form. In part 2, Lauren Reed and Alan Rumsey tie in with Kendon's study and introduce the current "state of the art" about sign languages in PNG and the Solomon Islands. In part 3, Sherman Wilcox reflects about the implications of Kendon's work for contemporary sign language and gesture studies.

Part 1 starts with an introduction of Kendon's field location, his participants, and the materials he collected. Kendon's analysis is based on a relatively small corpus, consisting mostly of narratives and conversations, as well as some elicitated data. These were all gathered from one deaf woman, Imanoli, her hearing sister, as well as a hearing research assistant.

In the chapters that follow, Kendon discusses the general properties of Enga signs (chapter 1), processes of sign formation (chapter 2), iconicity (chapter 3), pointing (chapter 4), nonmanual features (chapter 5), and discourse construction (chapter 6) and thereafter provides the conclusions in chapter 7.

Overall, Kendon has found that Enga Sign Language shares many characteristics with other sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) but, at the same time, exhibits cross-linguistic differences. For instance, Enga signers seem to exploit a larger signing space than ASL signers and make use of a restricted set of primarily unmarked handshapes. Both observations are consistent with later studies on village sign languages (see, e.g., Nyst 2007). Kendon concludes that there are universal mechanisms in sign formation, which are constrained by the sociolinguistic setting of a language and its communicational requirements.

With his careful, systematic treatment of various types of iconic signs (chapter 3), Kendon was ahead of his time. He touched upon various issues that later became of great interest to sign linguists, for instance, that iconicity does not affect the way proficient signers process their lexicon (e.g., Ortega and Morgan 2015) or that different types of referents favor different iconic realization devices in [End Page 379] sign and gesture (see, e...


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pp. 378-383
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