Co-emergence of Meaning and Structure in a New Language

Session Date: 
Feb 20, 2015

About 20 new and young sign languages from around the world have been reported in the research literature. They have drawn interest because they provide a unique opportunity not available in spoken languages to study the spontaneous emergence of language within 1 to 3 generations. My research lab studies sign languages ranging from those that are new to those that are more established, having records of use dating from 200 or more years and now have primary users in the hundreds of thousands. In this talk, I focus on the emergence of words and lexical categories in new sign languages. Using naming experiments with groups of non-signing gesturers and signers of new languages, we show that all groups consistently distinguish between names and actions, and across semantic categories such as tool, natural objects and animates, we show that these preferences in gesture become amplified and differentiated in new and then more prominently, in established sign languages. We show that emerging lexical distinctions are both cognitive and communicative in nature. They constitute common categories found in languages because they reflect the shared ways that humans interact with the world, involving self, other and mediating tools. Our goal is to explain the fundamental expressive capabilities of humans that become realized in the myriad different languages of the world.

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