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Sign language classifier predicates and the relationship between language, gesture, demonstration, and quotation

Dr. Kathryn Davidson (Talk co-sponsored by the Rutgers Byrne Seminars)

Thursday, October 16, 2014, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Yale University, Linguistics and Cognitive Science

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A traditional method of distinguishing language from gesture relies on mode of communication: language is produced from the mouth or written on a page, while gesture occurs on the hands. However, decades of research have conclusively shown that sign languages, while produced in the same mode as traditional gestures, have all of the complexity and structure of other natural languages. This raises new questions such as how one draws the line between language and gesture when signing, and even if there is such a line. Sign language classifier predicates walk this line most precariously, combining aspects of language and gesture to convey analog spatial information.  In this talk I discuss a semantic analysis of classifiers that likens them to quotative predicates  (“say”, “be like”, “mutter”, etc.) in both introducing iconic event modification by way of demonstration. Under this view, the focus is on iconic aspects of spoken language quotation while requiring no separate iconic machinery for signed languages: both make use of the same system, and written quotation is just one highly restricted case. By viewing quotation and other demonstrational language through the lens of sign languages, the relationship between language and gesture gains nuance beyond merely the mode of communication.

Dr. Kathryn Davidson (Talk co-sponsored by the Rutgers Byrne Seminars)