The meaning of space: New advances in sign language semantics

Course at ESSLLI 2015:


Course Description:
Extending a formal theory of natural language semantics to sign languages has provided insights into a variety of phenomena at the intersection of natural language and logic. In the 5 years since the last course on sign language semantics was taught at ESSLLI, there has been rapid progress in the study of sign language semantics, especially in how representations of space can be incorporated into a formal system. This class will cover significant recent advances focusing on the relationship between discourse referents and spatial loci as well as the expression of quantificational domains, plurality, role shift, and classifier constructions. The goal of this course is to provide students and more senior researchers with a strong background for following future research contributions coming from sign language research in order to incorporate the unique insights that sign languages show into their own research problems. No prior knowledge of a sign language is required.
Dates: August 3 - 7, 2015 (First week)
Time: 11:00 - 12:30 (Slot 2)

Interpreting: Italian Sign Language interpreting will be provided.

Tentative Course Schedule 
(Click on reference names for links to the papers)

Day 1: General introduction to language (and esp. semantics) in the visual modality, focusing on visibility and iconicity
We'll discuss the unique contributions that sign languages can make to the understanding of natural language meaning, both the hypothesis that sign languages make aspects of logic more "visible", and whether the underlying logic must incorporate an iconic component.
(Class leader: Kate)

Day 2: The nominal domain 1: Pronouns
Pronouns (binding etc., but also iconicity effects): we'll discuss iconic variables, features, and whether ASL "loci" should be analyzed as variables or features or some combination.
(Class leader: Jeremy)

Day 3: The nominal domain 2: Definiteness, specificity, and quantification 
How 3-dimensional space can be used to mark important semantic/pragmatic notions such as specificity marking in the vertical plane in Catalan sign language and pragmatic widening of set sizes for quantifier domain restriction in American sign language.
Relevant readings: Barberà (2015), Davidson and Gagne (2015)
(Class leader: Kate)


Day 4: The verbal domain 1: Pluractionality in the verbal domain, and interaction with nominal plurality via agreement
Cross-categorial plurality (nouns, pronouns, adjectives, numerals) can be marked by movement or reduplication over an area of space; spatial co-location serves as a way to indicate functional dependency. 
Relevant readings: Wilbur (2009)Kuhn and Aristodemo (2015)
(Class leader: Jeremy)

Day 5: The verbal domain 2: Classifier predicates, quotations, and back to iconicity
Quotation, direct speech, attitude, and action reports and their marking with role shift across sign languages. Analyses of role shift that utilize a context shifting operator or event modification. New directions to extending semantics to classifier constructions. 
Relevant readings: Schlenker (2014 (i and ii)), Davidson (2015)
(Class leader: Kate)


Interested further? Here are some general introductory references on sign language linguistics research (none have a strong focus on formal semantics and/or logic due to the relative youth of the subfield)

 Wendy Sandler and Diane Lillo-Martin, Sign Language and Linguistic Universals (2006)
(Covers basic linguistic topics from a formal generative perspective, focusing like we have been in this class on the ways that sign languages exhibit linguistic universals versus modality specific effects)

 Roland Pfau, Markus Steinbach, Bencie Woll, (Editors)
Sign Language (Handbook of Linguistics and Communication Science: Handbucher Zur Sprach-Und Kommunikationswissenschaft (2012)
(This is very expensive to purchase, but check for it at your local library; very recent handbook introduction to sign linguistics from various theoretical perspectives on a wide variety of topics)

Ed Klima and Ursula Bellugi, The Signs of Language (1979)
(This is a classic text that is accessible to non-linguists, and although it is not comprehensive of all linguistic subfields and some material has been superceded by more recent research, you can't beat the price of free online. Kate has used this as a textbook for undergraduates in a "Sign Language and the Mind" course; the full text can be found here:

For computational folks: Sign language corpora

British Sign Language Corpus Project:
Auslan (Australian sign language) Signbank: