The Seeds of Spatial Grammar in the Manual Modality

Cognitive Science 29 (6):1029-1043 (2005)
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Abstract

Sign languages modulate the production of signs in space and use this spatial modulation to refer back to entities—to maintain coreference. We ask here whether spatial modulation is so fundamental to language in the manual modality that it will be invented by individuals asked to create gestures on the spot. English speakers were asked to describe vignettes under 2 conditions: using gesture without speech, and using speech with spontaneous gestures. When using gesture alone, adults placed gestures for particular entities in non-neutral locations and then used those locations to refer back to the entities. When using gesture plus speech, adults also produced gestures in non-neutral locations but used the locations coreferentially far less often. When gesture is forced to take on the full burden of communication, it exploits space for coreference. Coreference thus appears to be a resilient property of language, likely to emerge in communication systems no matter how simple.

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Marie Coppola
University of Connecticut