The emerging grammar of nouns in a first generation sign language

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A first generation family homesign system, dubbed “Z”, from the Tzotzil-speaking township of Zinacantán, in Chiapas, Mexico, provides insight into how a new sign language can begin to distinguish formally different “part-of-speech” categories. After describing the small signing community, consisting of 3 deaf sibling and their intermediate hearing sister, plus a younger cousin — the entire set of fluent adult signers — plus the hearing child of the oldest deaf signer, and setting out some of the theoretical issues surrounding the nature of “part-of-speech” in sign languages, the chapter considers three sorts of mechanisms the language has developed to help distinguish signs that refer to objects from signs that refer to actions. These include a set of size-shape specifiers that co-occur with presumed nominal signs, an iconic contrast between different sign formational elements that somewhat inconsistently signal a noun/verb distinction, and, perhaps most interestingly, a construction involving a clearly grammaticalized locative or copular element that allows Z signers to make clear that they are referring to (physical) objects rather than actions. The chapter concludes by considering the overall effect of these quite different formal strategies on the evolving language structure.


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