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The Paradox of Sign Language Morphology


An interesting article about morphology in sign languages, by Aronoff, Meir, and Sandler. The whole thing is available here and is quite long, but here’s an excerpt from the beginning that introduces the concept of simultaneous versus sequential morphology and what that means for sign languages: in a nutshell, sign languages have striking similarities to both highly inflected languages, like Navajo, and highly uninflected languages, like Tok Pisin, which you’d think wouldn’t be possible. 

In the early days of linguistic research on sign languages, in the 1970s and 1980s, researchers noticed that sign languages have complex morphology. Further research showed that this morphological structure is simultaneous, in the sense that the different morphemes of a word are simultaneously superimposed on each other rather than being strung together, as those of spoken languages usually are. As sign-language research expanded to include more linguistic structures as well as more sign languages, several generalizations emerged. First, all sign languages studied were found to have this particular kind of morphology. Second, the grammatical categories encoded by many of these morphological structures, as well as the form that they take, were found to be quite similar across different sign languages. That is, sign languages show strong crosslinguistic similarities in their morphological structures.

Researchers also noticed early on that sign languages share many properties with young creole languages (Fischer 1978, Meier 1984); yet they differ markedly from young creoles in one crucial respect, the same one that ties sign languages together as a group: their complex simultaneous morphology. What has gone largely unnoticed so far is that sign languages are not confined to simultaneous morphological structures. At least some sign languages also have sequential affixation. These linear structures differ significantly from the simultaneous type, not only in the way the morphemes are affixed to each other, but in other ways as well:

  • the occurrence, grammatical function, and form of the sequential morphological constructions are language-specific;
  • the sequential morphological constructions are variable among signers;
  • the sequential morphological constructions are often of limited productivity.

This morphological state of affairs presents us with two puzzles; we call them the young language puzzle and the typology puzzle.

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