Sign Languages and Sign Language Research: Myriam Vermeerbergen and Mieke Van Herreweghe
In the past, sign languages were generally ignored, not only in mainstream society, but also in linguistic research. The main reason for this indifference was that sign languages were not considered to be genuine natural languages. Before the start of modern sign linguistics, it was often assumed that all deaf people across the world used a kind of universal, primitive system of gestures and pantomime. At the same time, many people seemed (and some still seem) to believe that “sign language” is nothing but a word for word transliteration of the local spoken language in which the signs are produced simultaneously with the spoken (content) words. Neither assumption is correct and these false beliefs only gradually started to change after the publication of the book Sign Language Structure by the American linguist William Stokoe in 1960. One of the effects of the publication was that interest into sign linguistics was steadily aroused, and today, even though still not all linguists and nonlinguists are equally convinced of the linguistic status of sign languages, linguistic research into sign languages has conquered a solid position in various linguistic subdisciplines. Among other things, Stokoe maintained in this book that the signs used in American Sign Language (or ASL) should not be considered unanalyzable wholes but should be regarded as consisting of various smaller meaning-distinguishing component parts. As such he was the rst to show that a sign language exhibits duality of patterning, exactly as is the case for spoken languages.* ASL could be considered a genuine human language as in mainstream linguistics duality of patterning is considered to be a:
Stokoe’s (1960) rst modern linguistic analysis of a sign language* received a great deal of attention and particularly during the 1970s, other researchers began to express an interest in the linguistic structure of signs and sign languages, rst mainly in the USA, and from the 1980s onward also in other countries. This has led to detailed analyses of ASL and other sign languages in various linguistic domains. Providing a survey of all of this research lies outside the scope of this paper, but to give some idea, attention has been paid to various aspects in phonetics/phonology (Loncke, 1983 and Demey, 2005 for Flemish Sign Language; Van der Kooij, 2002 and Crasborn, 2001 for Sign Language of the Netherlands), morphology (Bergman, 1983 for Swedish Sign Language; Pizzuto, 1986 for Italian Sign Language; Engberg-Pedersen, 1993 for Danish Sign Language; Brennan, 1990 for British Sign Language), syntax (Deuchar, 1984 for British Sign Language; Vermeerbergen, 1996 and 1997 for Flemish Sign Language; Rissanen, 1986 for Finnish Sign Language), and lexicography/lexicology (Johnston, 1989 for Australian Sign Language; De Weerdt, Vanhecke, Van Herreweghe, & Vermeerbergen for Flemish Sign Language, 2003), and so on.†
Early modern sign linguistics often emphasized the differences between sign languages. Publications from the 1970s and 1980s regularly begin by stating that there is not one universal sign language but instead many different, mutually unintelligible sign languages.‡ At that time, cross-linguistic sign language studies were rare and the limited amount of comparative research mainly concentrated on the lexicon, more specically on signs belonging to the established lexicon. Toward and in the 1990s, there was an increase in the number of sign languages being studied (although this evolution remained mostly limited to North America, Australia, and Western Europe). Johnston (1989, p. 208) noted in his doctoral dissertation on Auslan or ASL:
Apart from such explicit references to the similarities between the grammars of different sign languages, it seemed to be common practice for researchers to compare their own interpretation of a specic grammatical mechanism in sign
language A to the interpretation of another researcher studying the same mechanism in sign language B as if both researchers were dealing with one and the same language-or at least with one and the same mechanism across the sign languages (e.g., Van Herreweghe, 1995). From this, it seemed that a high degree of similarity was at least implicitly assumed. And indeed, the overall picture one obtains from the body of sign language literature available at that time was that sign languages are typologically more similar than spoken languages.