Dr. Carol Padden, “The co-emergence of meaning and structure in new sign languages”

Thursday, April 2, 5-7 PM

Claudia Cohen Hall, Room G-17

About 20 new and young sign languages from around the world
have been reported in the research literature. They share two key
characteristics: they are very young, having come into being within 1 to 3
generations of users, and they are very small, used by as few as a dozen
signers to several thousand. My research lab studies several sign
languages, ranging from new to established, or those that have records of use dating
from 200 or more years ago and having primary users in the hundreds of

From our work on sign languages used “in the wild” in villages and urban
areas around the world, and from iterated learning experiments with non-signers
in the laboratory, we describe how linguistic form emerges from a basic and
fundamental capacity for communication among humans. In this talk, I focus
on the emergence of lexical forms and categories in new sign languages. Using
a series of naming experiments with varying groups of non-signers and
signers, we show that a consistent distinction between names and actions emerges
quickly in a new sign language, by at least the second generation of users, and that
signers of new sign languages make early distinctions in sign type across
semantic categories which becomes further amplified and differentiated in
established sign languages. We argue that these lexical distinctions are
both cognitive and communicative in nature: they consist of categories found in spoken and
sign languages, and they reflect the ways that humans communicate to each
other about their interactions with the world.