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The syntax of sign language agreement: Common ingredients, but unusual recipe

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      Abstract

      The sign language phenomenon that some scholars refer to as “agreement” has triggered controversial discussions among sign language linguists. Crucially, it has been argued to display properties that are at odds with the notion of agreement in spoken languages. A thorough theoretical investigation of the phenomenon may thus add to our understanding of the nature and limits of agreement in natural language. Previous analyses of the phenomenon can be divided into three groups: (i) gesture-based non-syntactic analyses, (ii) hybrid solutions combining syntactic and semantic agreement, and (iii) syntactic accounts under which agreement markers are reanalyzed as clitics. As opposed to these accounts, we argue in this paper that sign language agreement does represent an instance of agreement proper, as familiar from spoken language, that is fully governed by syntactic principles. We propose an explicit formal analysis couched within the Minimalist Program that is modality-independent and only involves mechanisms that have been independently proposed for the analysis of agreement in spoken language. Our proposal is able to capture the (apparent) peculiarities of sign language agreement such as the distinction of verb types (only some verbs show agreement), the behavior of backwards verbs (verbs displaying agreement reversal), and the distribution of the agreement auxiliary. However, we suggest that the combination of mechanisms is modality-specific, that is, agreement in sign language, and in German Sign Language in particular, involves modality-independent ingredients, but uses a modality-specific recipe which calls for a (somewhat) unusual combination of independently motivated mechanisms.

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        Movement Operations after Syntax

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          THE PARADOX OF SIGN LANGUAGE MORPHOLOGY.

          Sign languages have two strikingly different kinds of morphological structure: sequential and simultaneous. The simultaneous morphology of two unrelated sign languages, American and Israeli Sign Language, is very similar and is largely inflectional, while what little sequential morphology we have found differs significantly and is derivational. We show that at least two pervasive types of inflectional morphology, verb agreement and classifier constructions, are iconically grounded in spatiotemporal cognition, while the sequential patterns can be traced to normal historical development. We attribute the paucity of sequential morphology in sign languages to their youth. This research both brings sign languages much closer to spoken languages in their morphological structure and shows how the medium of communication contributes to the structure of languages.
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            Author and article information

            Affiliations
            [1]Universiteit van Amsterdam, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VT Amsterdam, NL
            [2]Universität Leipzig, Beethovenstr. 15, 04107 Leipzig, DE
            [3]Universität Göttingen, Käte-Hamburger-Weg 23, 37073 Göttingen, DE
            Contributors
            Journal
            2397-1835
            Glossa: a journal of general linguistics
            Ubiquity Press
            2397-1835
            09 October 2018
            2018
            : 3
            : 1
            10.5334/gjgl.511
            Copyright: © 2018 The Author(s)

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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