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Sign languages ed. by Diane Brentari (review)
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There are two types of natural human languages: spoken and signed. Following the seminal works by Tervoort (1953) and Stokoe (1960), linguistic explorations over the past five decades or so have shown that sign languages possess several unique properties due to their visual-gestural basis. Signs are composed of minimal units such as manuals (shapes, locations, and movements of the hands), non-manuals (facial expressions, head, and body postures), and the space in front of the signer, all of which contribute to sign language phonology, morphology, syntax, and discourse. We are now in a good position to move beyond description of the grammar and begin to conduct studies on sign languages from, for example, sociolinguistic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic perspectives. At present, we know that there are more than a hundred distinct sign languages and we have historical evidence for some of their origins. Therefore, sign language studies can offer striking new insights into the inner workings of human language.

There is now an abundance of studies on sign languages, which, in recent years, have resulted in handbook-like publications such as Sandler and Lillo-Martin (2006) and Pfau, Steinbach, and Woll (2012). The present volume is one such publication, which provides an excellent overview of global, historical, educational, and linguistic issues in sign language research, underlining both commonalities and variations across sign languages. The book consists of an introduction and twenty-five chapters which are grouped together under three sections: History and Transmission, Shared Crosslinguistic Characteristics, and Variation and Change. In the “Introduction”, Brentari underlines the importance of studying sign languages; in addition to the unique characteristics of sign languages themselves, sign language research can also speak to broader issues and provide new insights into how natural languages are transmitted across generations, to what extent languages are similar to each other, and how languages change over time. She also provides an overview of the various chapters of the book.

Part 1, “History and Transmission”, contains six articles focusing on the historical, social, political, and educational issues of sign languages in the world. Boyes Braem and Rathmann address the history of sign languages in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Ramsey and Quinto-Pozos cover the development of sign languages in Mexico and in Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Brazil. Bergman and Engberg-Pedersen present the history and the current status of sign languages in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Quer et al. focus on sign languages in Greece, Italy, and Spain. Lule and Wallin address issues regarding deaf communities in Africa, mainly in Uganda. Wojda presents the history of the deaf community in Poland. Together, these articles successfully show that sign languages are typically transmitted at schools for deaf children since less than 10 percent of deaf children are born to deaf and signing families. Some, but not all, deaf children attend these schools. This often helps to create a unique cultural identity.

Part 2, “Shared Crosslinguistic Characteristics”, has ten articles, each discussing common properties in sign languages. Van der Hulst and Channon focus on writing systems including those for spoken languages and those for sign languages such as SignWriting, and transcription systems including HamNoSys and ELAN. They also propose SignTyp, a new coding system and a database that consists of phonological features (e.g., location of the signs within hierarchies) of 12,000 signs. Mathur and Rathmann discuss variation in verb agreement across sign languages, noting that in some languages some verbs agree with one argument and in others verbs agree with two. They illustrate that a set of verbs shows person agreement, while some others show number agreement. And still other sign languages do not mark agreement on the verb morphologically. Zucchi et al. focus on the use of a sign meaning ‘finished’ or ‘done’ lexically as an aspectual/tense marker in American Sign Language and in Italian Sign Language. Müller de Quadros and Lillo-Martin discuss word order in Brazilian Sign Language and American Sign Language showing that both have an SVO order. Engberg-Pedersen analyzes forms and functions of classifiers, i.e., predicates of location, motion, and action, by mainly examining descriptions of a picture book (the Frog Story, which is commonly used in...



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