Colloquium: The split nature of scalar focus particles in sign languages

October 7, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Annika Herrmann, University of Göttingen

As visual-­spatial languages, sign languages simultaneously use different articulators for various purposes. In this talk, I present original findings on the systematic combination of manual and nonmanual means to express different meaning levels of scalar focus particles in signed languages. Focus particles are quantifying expressions that associate with the highlighted part of a sentence and trigger a specific interpretation of the focused constituent in relation to a set of alternatives (cf. Rooth 1992, Krifka 2007, Büring & Hartmann 2001). Only, also, and even are the basic representatives of this particle class. Only is a prototypical restrictive particle, also is an additive particle, and even is an additive particle that inherently posits the focus constituent on a particular scale.

My cross-linguistic study of three sign languages—German Sign Language (DGS), Irish Sign Language (ISL), and Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT)—systematically investigated focus particles in these languages. I developed an experimental elicitation battery including a picture task, a translation task, and a picture story task eliciting 405 videos of signed utterances that were thoroughly annotated with ELAN using 14 tiers for manual and nonmanual articulators. The results yield that only and also have manual equivalents in all sign languages (cf. Wilbur 1999 for ASL). In contrast, what contributes to the meaning associated with even is a combination of manual additive particles and specific nonmanuals such as body leans, head tilts, raised brows, and wide eyes.

A syntactic analysis is provided that accounts for the distributional patterns of these means. Different levels of meaning such as additive and scalar are represented by different syntactic features which have different instantiations. Manual and nonmanual components combine to derive at the correct interpretation. Thus, sign languages separate the meaning levels of even through the use of different articulatory channels.

The results show how important nonmanuals are for the analysis of focus particles in sign languages. Compared to spoken language theories, the findings indicate that focus particles as a universal concept have equivalents in signed languages, but the actual realization patterns are modality specific.

Büring, Daniel & Katharina Hartmann. 2001. The Syntax and Semantics of Focus-­sensitive Particles in German. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 19, 229-281.
Krifka, Manfred. 2007. Basic Notions of Information Structure. Pages 13-55 of: Féry, Caroline, Fanselow, Gisbert, & Manfred Krifka (eds.): The notions of Information Structure. Interdisciplinary Studies on Information Structure 6. Universitätsverlag Potsdam.
Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics, 1, 75-116.
Wilbur, Ronnie B. & Cynthia Patschke. 1999. Syntactic Correlates of Brow Raise in ASL. Sign Language & Linguistics, 2:1, 3-41.