Directeur de Recherche, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris
Global Distinguished Professor, New York University
Combining Logic and Iconicity in Sign Language Semantics
It has long been accepted that sign language (i) employs the same logical structures as spoken language (occasionally making its abstract components overt), and simultaneously (ii) makes extensive use of iconicity. But the articulation between these two modules has only been discussed piecemeal. Based on new data from American Sign Language (ASL), we argue that formal semantics must be extended with a pictorial component, one that makes crucial use of the semantics of pictures recently developed by Greenberg and Abusch. Specifically, some constructions, called classifier predicates, are lexically specified as having a pictorial semantics. Just like for a picture, their truth-conditional contribution is evaluated with respect to a viewpoint. In ASL, the viewpoint is determined by a viewpoint variable, which may be left free or existentially quantified, in which case it yields a remarkable interaction with logical operators. We also show that the pictorial semantics of classifier predicates has consequences for their syntax. Classifier predicates often override the basic SVO order of ASL, yielding preverbal objects instead, but crucially this is only true to the extent that the denoted object is typically visible before the action (e.g. x ate up y). This is in essence because the classifier predicate creates a visual animation of the denoted scene. When the object is visible only *after* the action (e.g. x spit out y), an SVO order is regained.
Optional background readings
On sign language