Date/Time: to
Type: Lecture, Presence
Location: Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum, Beethovenstraße 15, Haus 1, 3. Etage, Raum 1.316, 04107 Leipzig

Presentation as part of the DFG-AHRC project "CrossMoGram" by two research teams from the University of Leipzig and the University of Central Lancashire (Preston, UK).


Over 50 years, researchers such as Woodward (1973), Adone (2012) and Bakker (2015) have drawn attention to apparent similarities between sign languages (SLs) and creole languages (CLs). It is also claimed that CLs and SLs seem to lack the grammatical marking that older spoken languages have typically accumulated through millennia of language change (McWhorter 2001, Schembri et al. 2018). Such claims are often based on observations of a few languages per type, without a systematic comparison based on data from a large sample of languages to prove or disprove these claims empirically.

Meanwhile, large-scale systematic typological studies on grammaticalisation have barely included CLs, and SLs are absent entirely: consequently, the consensus on grammaticalisation is incomplete and in need of substantial additional well-researched data from CLs and SLs. Our Cross-Modal Perspectives on Grammaticalisation project is a three-year UK-German deaf-hearing collaboration that seeks to address this gap. We aim to produce a systematic comparative analysis of CLs and SLs for processes of grammaticalisation in the domain of aspect by comparing large amounts of data on creole languages and sign languages systematically in the context of the world’s languages.

Our research is ‘cross-modal’ because CLs inhabit the oral-aural modality, while SLs are produced manually and non-manually (e.g. with facial expressions) and are usually perceived visually. We focus our study on the domain of aspect because CLs and SLs both feature prominent aspect marking, affording ample opportunities to study them from a grammaticalisation perspective; perhaps as a result, aspect is one of the best-researched topics in CL and SL studies, relative to the size of their respective literatures.

Assuming that SLs grammaticalise more similarly to CLs than to other spoken languages (e.g. due to age and other sociolinguistic similarities), we hypothesise that CLs and SLs show more instances of early-stage grammaticalisation (functionalisation such as periphrases, auxiliary constructions) in the domain of aspect than do non-creole spoken languages, and fewer examples of late-stage grammaticalisation (coalescence, such as affixes). To test this hypothesis, we analyse grammaticalisation pathways and apply cross-modal grammaticalisation parameters for aspect markers to 50 CLs, and seven SLs, with a maximally diverse sample for each language type. The disparity for language type reflects the under-documentation of SLs, but we seek to apply the same conceptual apparatus to both modalities.

About the presentation

In this presentation, we share the findings of the first stage of our project, where we assembled the conceptual apparatus and methodological tools needed for cross-modal comparison. Creating robust cross-modal typological standards is challenging given fundamental modality differences, and we explain the theoretical bases for the sociolinguistic and grammaticalisation parameters that we are applying to our data. These parameters have been tested with respect to examples from diverse SLs and CLs, and draw upon those developed for the MAGRAM project (Bisang & Malchukov, 2020) to enable a degree of comparison, but necessarily diverge in key respects given our cross-modal aims. We also present some early findings of the investigative stage, and share some of our initial challenges in applying our parameters.