A comprehensive study of referring expressions in ASL
Czubek, Todd Alan
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Substantial research has examined how linguistic structures are realized in the visual/spatial modality. However, we know less about linguistic pragmatics in signed languages, particularly the functioning of referring expressions (REs). Recent research has explored how REs are deployed in signed languages, but much remains to be learned. Study 1 explores the inventory and workings of REs in American Sign Language by seeking to replicate and build upon Frederiksen & Mayberry (2016). Following Ariel, F&M propose an inventory of REs in ASL ranked according to the typical accessibility of the referents each RE type signals. Study 1 reproduced their results using more complex narratives and including a wider range of REs in various syntactic roles. Using Toole’s (1997) accessibility rating protocol, we calculated average accessibility ratings for each RE type, thus making possible statistical analyses that show more precisely which REs differ significantly in average accessibility. Further, several RE types that F&M had collapsed are shown to be distinct. Finally, we find general similarities between allocations of REs in ASL and in spoken English, based on 6 matched narratives produced by native English speakers. Study 2 explores a previously unexamined set of questions about concurrently occurring REs: collections of REs produced simultaneously. It compares isolated REs that occur in a linear fashion, similar to spoken language grammars, with co-occurring REs, signaling multiple referents simultaneously (termed here constellations). This study asks whether REs in constellations have pragmatic properties different from those of isolated/linear REs. Statistical evidence is presented that some categories of REs do differ significantly in the average accessibility values of their referents, when compared across linear versus concurrent configurations. Study 3 examines whether the proportions of various RE categories used by native ASL signers vary according to the recipient’s familiarity with the narrative. Do ASL narratives designed to be maximally explicit because of low recipient familiarity demonstrate distinct RE allocations? In this sample of 34 narratives, there is no statistically significant difference in RE use attributable to recipient familiarity. These findings have important implications for understanding the impact of modality on accessibility, the use of REs in ASL, and visual processing.