Schlenker, Philippe. 2010. "Quantifiers and Variables: Insights from Sign Language (ASL and LSF)" [non-technical discussion of donkey anaphora and sign language]

Note: Several important details (including many ASL and LSF examples) are found in the Appendix.

[Full paper in pdf]  

In standard logical systems, quantifiers and variables are essential to express complex relations among objects. Natural language has expressions that have an analogous function: some noun phrases play the role of quantifiers (e.g. every man), and some pronouns play the role of variables (e.g. him, as in Every man likes people who admire him). Since the 1980’s, there has been a vibrant debate in linguistics about the way in which pronouns come to depend on their antecedents. According to one view, natural language is governed by a ‘dynamic’ logic which allows for dependencies that are far more flexible than those of standard logic. According to a competing view, traditional logic does not have to be revised to be applied to natural language. While the debate centers around the formal links that connect pronouns to their antecedents, these links are not overtly expressed in spoken language, and the debate has remained open. In sign language, by contrast, pronouns can literally ‘point’ towards their antecedents. We argue that in crucial cases the formal connections postulated by the dynamic view are morphologically realized in American and French Sign Language, and we discuss consequences of this finding for the characterization of the logic that underlies sign and spoken language.