The developmental trajectory of combinatorial patterning in Nicaraguan Sign Language
Heidi Getz
March 2015

This paper explores the claim that combinatorial patterning developed in Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) through segmentation and sequencing of holistic gestures accompanying speech (Senghas, Kita, & Özyürek, 2004). I suggest an alternative interpretation of the NSL data and argue that segmentation alone, while a prerequisite for combinatorial patterning, does not constitute evidence for combinatorial structure. I additionally point out the discrepancy that arises when attempting to reconcile the changes in NSL with existing evidence on sign language morphology more generally. The omnipresence of simultaneous morphology in the world’s sign languages (Aronoff, Meir, & Sandler, 2005) suggests empirical inadequacies with the original account of the NSL data, in which the development of sequencing was attributed to a universal bias for linearization (Senghas et al., 2004). I propose that sequencing in early NSL actually reflects an intermediate stage in the language’s development from simultaneous-holistic to simultaneous-combinatorial representation. Drawing from linguistic analyses of simultaneous morphology in American Sign Language (Supalla, 1982), I show how simultaneous-combinatorial patterning might be expected to manifest in NSL and outline a set of specific predictions for its emergence. These predictions find empirical support in evidence from sign languages’ historical development (Aronoff et al., 2005) and their acquisition by children (Newport, 1988). The paper concludes by showing how my account, but not the original, captures the modest differences between second- and third-cohort NSL signers’ representation of motion events, suggesting that the change to simultaneous-combinatorial patterning may already be underway.
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Reference: lingbuzz/006326
(please use that when you cite this article)
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keywords: morphology, combinatorial structure, nicaraguan sign language, morphology
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