Word Order and Agreement in American Sign Language (ASL)
Word Order and Agreement in American Sign Language (ASL) Hyun-Jong Hahm University of Guam firstname.lastname@example.org There have been debates on whether grammatical agreement exists in ASL (e.g. Bahan 1996; Liddell 2000; Lillo-Martin 1986; Rathmann and Mathur 2002) as well as on word order (e.g. Fischer 1975, Friedman 1976, Lidell 1977, 1980). My research, based on data that I have gathered from native ASL signers, claims that it is necessary to consider the interfaces between the two to fully understand the agreement system in ASL, and that the ASL agreement patterns as well as word order are systematic as in spoken languages. I argue that ASL shows the strict number agreement between verbs and objects in basic SVO order, while anaphoric agreement between dislocated objects and incorporated pronouns in OSV order. This paper analyzes this interface between agreement and word order in the LFG framework.
Basic description on ASL:
The basic word order of ASL in pragmatically neutral context is SVO, but various word orders are exhibited when associated with discourse markers, such as topic and focus (Fischer 1975, Lidell 1980). ASL has a group of verbs called agreement verbs, which change the direction of movement of a sign to indicate the loci associated with grammatical object (e.g. 1SGASKi.SG'I ask him/her'; i.SGASK1SG 'S/he asks me'). Plural number of verbs is marked with a sweeping (SW) movement (e.g. 1SGASKi.SW 'I ask them'). Only some of the agreement verbs show subject agreement (Padden 1988). Bare nouns in ASL denote an unspecified quantity (e.g. YESTERDAY I WATCH BOY PLAY 'Yesterday I watched a boy/boys playing.') (Hahm 2008). Nouns can reflect number feature with pointing signs by a single movement (PTi) for singular NPs and a sweeping movement (PTj.sw) for plural.
Agreement and word order:
In SVO word order, when a grammatical object expresses number with either a single or sweeping pointing sign, the verb should agree with it in number feature (see 1 below). When the object is a bare noun, the verb can be in 'either number' depending on the meaning of the bare noun (2). However, in OSV order the plural verbs cannot agree with bare nouns, regardless of their semantic meaning as shown in (3). Lastly, the verb in singular can agree with a topicalized object in either number with a pointing sign (4).
This paper analyzes that in basic SVO order, verbs show strict number agreement with objects realized with pointing signs. This paper adopts the Agreement Marking Principle that an agreement target checks the trigger for a grammatical feature, assigning that feature's semantic interpretation to the trigger denotation if no syntactic feature is found (Wechsler and Hahm 2011). The singular verbs, for example, have the constraint, (↑OBJ NUM) =c SG ∨ [non-aggregate ((↑OBJ)σ) ∧ ¬(↑SUBJ NUM)]. It ensures that the singular verb can agree with the object with either grammatically singular or semantically non- aggregate lacking the grammatical number feature.
I propose that bare nouns without pointing signs lack grammatical number (as in bare nouns with no number specification in Bayso, a Cushitic language, Corbett 2000: 10-11). According to the Agreement Marking Principle, the agreement verbs in either number can agree with these bare nouns since the verbs fail to find their object's number feature and assign the meaning of number to them.
In the topicalized OSV construction, I suggest that verbs and topicalized object arguments are not in grammatical agreement relationship but anaphoric agreement. To explain this, we need to consider the case where agreement verbs appear without their object arguments (e.g. I WANT 1HELPi.SW 'I want to help themi). I analyze these verbs in an identical way as the verbs in many Bantu languages, which incorporate the function of grammatical arguments (Givón 1976; Bresnan and Mchombo 1987). That is, those verbs have an optional incorporated pronominal argument which can be chosen when there is no overt argument, and which is otherwise an agreement marker. The ungrammaticality of sentence (3a) is because the incorporated object argument has morphologically plural by the sweeping movement of verbs, while the topic does not specify number value as it does not accompany the pointing sign (cp. 4a). On the other hand, incorporated pronouns in verbs without sweeping movement encode non-plural number which can bind singular topic (4c) or a plural topic with a collective referent which can be shown with sweeping pointing sign in ASL (4b). On contrary to (4b), the verb in (1b') cannot have the option of incorporated pronoun since the argument is overt, and its ungrammaticality is due to the disagreement between the singular verb and the plural object.
There are lots of researches to be done on signed languages. I discuss number features in verbs as well as nouns with data that I have gathered from native signers. This work contributes to signed linguistics and syntax in that it provides an integrated analysis on verb number agreement of American Sign Language, taking the word order effect into an account as well as the relationship between topic and incorporated pronouns, which has not been done in the literature of signed linguistics.
|(1)||a.||I NEED 1E-M-A-I-Lk.SG STUDENT PTk.SG INFO ABOUT DEAF EVENT|
|a'.||*I NEED 1E-M-A-I-Lk.SW STUDENT PTk.SG INFO ABOUT DEAF EVENT|
|'I need to email a student about the information on Deaf event.'|
|b.||I NEED 1E-M-A-I-Lk.SW STUDENT PTk.SW INFO ABOUT DEAF EVENT|
|b'.||*I NEED 1E-M-A-I-Lk.SG STUDENT PTk.SW INFO ABOUT DEAF EVENT|
|'I need to email students about the information on Deaf event.'|
|(2)||a.||I 1HELPi.SG HEARING STUDNET WHO HAVE DEAF PARENTS ASL CULTURE|
|b.||I 1HELPi.SW HEARING STUDNET WHO HAVE DEAF PARENTS ASL CULTURE|
|'I help a hearing student (a) / students (b) who has(a)/have(b) deaf parents about ASL culture.|
|(3)||a.||*POOR PEOPLE, I WANT 1HELPj.SW|
|b.||POOR PEOPLE, I WANT 1HELPj.SG|
|'Poor people, I want to help.'|
|c.||I WANT 1HELPj.SW POOR PEOPLE|
|'I want to help poor people.'|
|(4)||a.||ASL STUDENT PTk.SW, I WANT 1HELPk,SW|
|b.||ASL STUDENT PTk.SW, I WANT 1HELPk.SG|
|'The ASL students, I want to help.'|
|c.||ASL STUDENT PTl.SG, I WANT 1HELPl.SG|
|'The ASL student, I want to help. '|
The English glosses in capital letters, such as ASK, stand for signs with approximately the same meaning as the English word; and the subscripts besides verbs indicate their starting and ending loci in space (e.g., i.SGASK1SG denotes that the starting and ending loci do not exhibit a plural morpheme (sweeping movement), its ending locus is in front of the signer, and its starting locus is neither in front of the signer nor the addressee, which can be specified as any letter as i, j, k, ...).
- Bahan, Benjamin. 1996. Non-Manual Realization of Agreement in American Sign Language, Doctoral Dissertation, Boston, University of Graduate School.
- Bresnan, Joan and Sam A Mchombo. 1987. Topic, Pronoun, and Agreement in Chichewa. Language 63, no. 4: 741-782.
- Corbett, Greville. 2000. Number. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Givón, Talmy. 1976. Topic, Pronoun and Grammatical Agreement. In Subject and Topic, ed. Charles N. Li, 149-188. New York: Academic Press.
- Hahm, Hyun-Jong. 2008. Pointing Signs and Plurality. Paper presented at the Workshop in General Linguistics (WIGL), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.
- Liddell, Scott. 2000. Indicating verbs and pronouns: Pointing away from agreement. In Karen Emmorey and Harlan Lane (Eds.), The signs of language revisited: An anthology to honor Ursula Bellugi and Edward Klima. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 303-320.
- Lillo-Martin, Diane. 1986. Two kinds of Null Arguments in ASL. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 4: 415-444.
- Padden, Carol. 1988. Interaction of Morphology and Syntax in American Sign Language. Garland Publishing, Inc.: New York and London.
- Wechsler, Stephen and Hyun-Jong Hahm. 2011. Polite Plurals and Adjective Agreement. Morphology 21-2: 247-281 (DOI: 10.1007/s11525-010-9168-z).