Committee: Philippe Schlenker (chair), Chris Barker, Lucas Champollion, Diane Lillo-Martin, Kathryn Davidson
This dissertation addresses a range of semantic topics—anaphora, plurality, dependency, telicity, and pluractionality—and investigates them from the point of view of sign language, focusing on data from American Sign Language and French Sign Language. The importance of sign language to these debates arises from its visuospatial modality, in which the hands and face generate a signal that is perceived with the visual system. From a semantic perspective,this modality offers several unique expressive possibilities, including the ability to use space in a meaningful way, and the pervasive availability of iconic, picture-like representations. In this dissertation, I argue that the use of space in sign language provides a new window into the machinery underlying the compositional system; I leverage the properties of the visuospatial modality to gain new insights into theories of natural language semantics.
Chapter 2 overviews several areas where sign language has previously been argued to bear on semantic debates, focusing in particular on the case of singular pronouns. The chapter reviews debates about variables, the role of iconicity, and cross-sentential anaphora. Of particular relevance to subsequent chapters, the chapter introduces theories of dynamic semantics, in which discourse referents can be introduced into a discourse context.
The last 20 years have seen enrichments to the theory of dynamic semantics, allowing the semantic system to represent and manipulate functional relationships between plural discourse referents. In Chapters 3 and 4, I argue that American Sign Language provides new evidence in favor of these new dynamic theories of plurals. In Chapter 3, I show that dependent indefinites and the adjectives SAME and DIFFERENT in ASL are strikingly unified through the use of space; dependency is overtly represented through spatial association. Chapter 4 provides a new analysis of dependent indefinites within the framework of Dynamic Plural Logic; I argue that the ASL data informs recent debates about dependency in spoken language.
In Part II of the dissertation, I turn to questions regarding iconicity. Like spoken languages, sign languages can communicate information through a discrete combinatorial system that combines words and morphemes into meaningful sentences. Additionally, though, sign languages are famous for displaying a ‘pictorial’ quality; they can communicate information graphically,through an iconic mapping that preserves information about the form of a sign. Thus, in the second part of the dissertation, I investigate the relation between iconicity and the combinatorial grammar, focusing on points of interface between the two, where iconic representations result in categorical effects that feed into the combinatorial system.
Chapter 6 addresses the existing observation that, in many sign languages, the telicity of a predicate is often reflected in the phonological form of the verb. I argue that this pattern arises from an iconic mapping that maps the phonetic form of a verb to the progression of the event it denotes. I present an analysis in terms of a scalar semantics for change-of-state verbs; phonetic endpoints iconically represent the maxim a of closed scales, resulting in telic interpretations.
In Chapter 7, I address cases of verbal pluractionality in French Sign Language, in which repetition of a verb in one of several ways communicates that there are a plurality of events.This chapter brings together several themes from the preceding chapters: at the same time as displaying iconic effects similar to those discussed in Chapter 6, pluractional verbs in LSF show licensing patterns that are formally identical to those from Chapters 3 and 4.