In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sign Language Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Dictionaries
  • The Linguistic Analysis of Individual Sign Languages
  • Journals
  • Phonology and Prosody
  • Phonetics
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
  • Sociolinguistics, Language Contact, and Language Change
  • Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics
  • Language Acquisition
  • Applied Linguistics
  • Corpus Linguistics
  • Language Emergence
  • Tactile Sign Language
  • Sign Language and Gesture
  • Corpora

Linguistics Sign Language Linguistics
Carl Börstell, Wendy Sandler, Mark Aronoff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0038


Sign language linguistics is one of the younger areas of linguistic research, having been a field in its own right only since the 1960s, when the first research investigating sign languages from a linguistic perspective was published. Since sign language was historically considered not to be language at all, but merely a gesture-based aid for basic communication, early research was focused on demonstrating the linguistic status of sign languages—that they are indeed languages in their own right, equivalent to spoken languages. The earliest research used traditional linguistic tools to investigate the phonological structure of sign language (specifically American Sign Language [ASL]), and to demonstrate that sign languages had duality of patterning, but the field soon expanded in all directions. Within the following decades, more in-depth analyses of the phonological and grammatical structure of sign languages were published, as well as investigations on the acquisition and use of sign language. With time, existing theoretical models for spoken language were applied to sign languages as well, and a number of new models for representing the syntax and phonology of sign languages were introduced. Cross-linguistic research on different sign languages, as well as on different social environments (e.g., urban versus village sign languages), has become more and more popular, as have cross-modal comparisons with spoken languages. In applied fields of linguistics, education and interpreting have become two of the main areas of investigation, as has the study of sign language in artistic use (e.g., poetry), often in close connection to the field of deaf studies. The interface between sign language and gesture has become a hot topic, especially within the domains of language emergence and foundations of human cognition. Finally, neurolinguistics has also expanded to include sign language within the scope of research.

Reference Works

An early reference work with broad scope is Klima and Bellugi 1979, which covers a variety of topics in sign language research, from iconicity and phonology to grammatical processes and poetry. Fischer and Siple 1990 grew out of the first conference on the linguistics of sign language, which has now become a regular biennial/triennial international series. Meier, et al. 2002 was the first book to address directly the effects of the different modalities, visual and auditory, on the structure of signed and spoken languages. Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006 is a massive work on the linguistic structure of sign language, concentrating primarily on phonology, syntax, and morphology. Several areas are covered with a more formal approach, most notably the syntax chapters that formalize sign language structure according to a generative framework. Brentari 2010 is divided into three parts: the first and third parts deal with the history and variation of different sign languages, whereas the second part deals mostly with the structure of sign languages. The first part is especially useful as a resource on the history of sign language in different regions, and the third part is excellent for understanding how social factors affect sign language, with specific cases discussed. Most recently, Pfau, et al. 2012 brings together top researchers in an impressive handbook covering the field of sign language linguistics from all angles in forty-four chapters, distributed over nine sections. The handbook serves as an overview of the field and an introduction and reference work for its various subfields today.

  • Brentari, Diane, ed. 2010. Sign languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511712203

    The first and third parts of this book are especially useful, since they focus on areas largely neglected by the other volumes mentioned here. An excellent introduction to the history and social variation of sign languages, as well as to the main questions about the linguistic structure of sign languages.

  • Fischer, Susan, and Patricia Siple, eds. 1990. Theoretical issues in sign language research. Vol. 1, Linguistics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This volume contains chapters covering various areas of sign language linguistics, with phonology and syntax being the most prominently represented areas. The phonology chapters present various models of representing the phonological structure of signs, whereas the syntax chapters mainly cover pronouns/deixis and motion verbs.

  • Klima, Edward S., and Ursula Bellugi, eds. 1979. The signs of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This well-cited volume serves as an excellent reference work for most areas of sign language research. With papers categorized into four sections, this book presents case studies and results from experimental research on iconicity, word formation, and grammar, and language use, many of which continue to be cited and useful today.

  • Meier, Richard, Kearsy Cormier, and David Quinto-Pozos, eds. 2002. Modality and structure in signed and spoken languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486777

    This edited volume addresses an issue that had largely been ignored in the early years of sign language research: the effect of the different modality of transmission on the nature and structure of sign language. The seventeen chapters are divided into the following topics: phonology, gesture and iconicity, syntax, and use of space in particular grammatical constructions.

  • Pfau, Roland, Markus Steinbach, and Bencie Woll, eds. 2012. Sign language: An international handbook. Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110261325

    This handbook of sign language linguistics, possibly the most comprehensive to date, contains an extensive array of chapters covering all the main areas of research in the field. It is an up-to-date reference work for anyone looking for an overview of any area of research within the field.

  • Sandler, Wendy, and Diane Lillo-Martin. 2006. Sign language and linguistic universals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139163910

    An exhaustive work covering all areas related to linguistic structure of sign language. Though useful as a general reference work, some parts adopt a formal approach to linguistic study (for example, the syntax section uses the tools of generative linguistics).

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