Schlenker, Philippe: 2015. Visible Meaning: Sign Language and the Foundations of Semantics.  Manuscript, Institut Jean-Nicod and New York University

[Full paper at LingBuzz]

Abstract:  While it is now accepted that sign languages should inform and constrain theories of 'Universal Grammar', their role in 'Universal Semantics' has been under-studied. We argue that they have a crucial role to play in the foundations of semantics, for two reasons. First, in some cases sign languages provide overt evidence on crucial aspects of the Logical Form of sentences, onces that are only inferred indirectly in spoken language. For instance, sign language 'loci', which are positions in signing space that can arguably realize logical variables; they make it possible to revisit foundational debates about the syntactic reality of variables, mechanisms of temporal and modal anaphora, and the existence of dynamic binding. Another example pertains to mechanisms of 'context shift', which were postulated on the basis of indirect evidence in spoken language, but which are arguably realized overtly in sign language. Second, along one dimension sign languages are strictly more expressive than spoken languages because iconic phenomena can be found at their logical core. This applies to loci themselves, which may simultaneously be logical variables and simplified pictures of what they denote; and context shift comes with some iconic requirements as well. As a result, the semantic system of spoken languages can in some respects be seen as a 'degenerate' version of the richer semantics found in sign languages. Two conclusions could be drawn from this observation. One is that the full extent of Universal Semantics can only be studied in sign language. An alternative possibility is that spoken languages have comparable expressive mechanisms, but only when co-speech gestures are taken into account. Either way, sign languages have a crucial role to play in investigations of the foundations of semantics.