March 1996 — Volume 2, Number 1
Language, Gesture, and Space
Karen Emmorey and Judy Reilly, eds. (1995)
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Pp. x + 454
US $79.95 (cloth)
Language, Gesture, and Space is a compilation of selected papers from the 4th international conference on Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research, which was held in San Diego in 1992. Because the information presented is not of an introductory nature, some background is needed in order to understand the scope of the discussion. That background will be provided before the book is reviewed.
The “space” referred to in the title is that space between and in view of the listener and the speaker, which we can call conversational space. Although this space is used in spoken languages, it is not traditionally considered part of their linguistic structure. “Gesture” is concerned with the use of the hands as articulators. The articulators that are available to manipulate the conversational space can be formally part of a language, as in the signed languages of the world, or may be viewed as supplemental to the spoken languages of the world. Hands, eyes, position of the head, and position of the body are all available for manipulation in conversational space. In American Sign Language (ASL) and other visual languages, space is formally used as either a topographical component or as a referential component. When space is used as a topographical component, objects (e.g, people, buildings, vehicles, etc.) can be located either arbitrarily or by making use of the listener’s knowledge to establish linguistic relationships between entities in the conversation. When used as a referential component, arbitrarily designated locations in space may function as lexical forms which can be referred to using pronominals, or as agreement locations to specify subject and object in certain types of verbs.
In signed languages, the use of space in its formal sense may consist of actually designating certain points or loci in space to represent objects. For example, specific loci to the left and right of the signer would be designated as representing “John” on the left and “Mary” on the right. These designated loci would be maintained as long as the topic included the two people. Since they have been established in the conversational space and can be held in memory, the loci may then be referred to for use at different times in the conversation. For example, the signer could “point” to Mary’s location, change handshape to an “O” (with fingertips down), and move his or her hand to John’s location, indicating that “Mary moved next to John.” One can also designate or refer to these loci with one’s eyes (eye gaze) and with the tilt of one’s head (Bahan & Supalla, this volume). [-1-]
Language, Gesture, and Space is divided into five parts: part one is a discussion of the relationship between space, spatial referencing, and language; part two is an analysis of narratives with attention to discourse features and the structural components of ASL narratives; part three presents papers analyzing lexical and verb agreement processes; part four discusses the relationship between gestures and visual language; and part five discusses the acquisition of prelinguistic and linguistic use of gestures and language in Deaf and hearing children.
Within each section, the topics range from examining the nature of gesture to its relationship to natural languages, both spoken and signed, and its role and function in American Sign Language. Issues are presented from cross-linguistic perspectives, with specific descriptions from a variety of signed languages. The theoretical views are then tested for predictability through discussion of children’s acquisition of spoken language, gesture, and signed languages.
The theoretical discussions are presented from various points of view. Some researchers view space as having a role and function in gesture and language, while others view space as separate from the linguistic properties of language. The questions are not necessarily answered, but the papers provide an excellent entry into issues involving the role of space in gesture and language.
In natural signed languages the use of the hands, eyes, head and body are all linguistic devices. The nature of gestures that accompany speech is discussed in a chapter on the use of these articulators in spoken language. McNeil & Pedelty suggest that these gestures can be viewed as part of and important to spoken language. Gestures may play a role in obtaining meaning in spoken language. McNeil & Pedelty suggest that gestures and space demonstrate their importance in the use of language in persons with hemispheric damage. In essence, they suggest that there are different and distinct uses of space by the brain, one of which is used in language.
For spoken language users, space and gesture are thus strongly related. Gesture is able to take advantage of space for different linguistic purposes, for example, locating objects and demonstrating relationships between objects. These uses are examined in discussing the nature of gesture vs. formal signed language in papers by Singleton, Goldin-Meadow, & McNeil, and by Morford. Gestures that may be universal are examined in a cross-linguistic discussion of international sign language by Supalla & Webb. What constitutes a gesture and how space is used when speakers of different signed languages come into contact yield information about the necessary and sufficient conditions of language interaction. [-2-]
This text provides excellent discussions of the mechanisms in signed languages that make use of the different levels of complex linguistic processes taking advantage of the use of space. Morphological and syntactic processes are discussed at the sentence level: Lillo-Martin focuses on verb agreement, Aarons, Bahan, Kegl & Neidle discuss tense markers, Metlay & Supalla examine inflections. The discourse level is examined across languages in five papers by Winston, Poulin & Miller, Engber-Pedersen, Lillo-Martin, and Bahan & Supalla.
The final section of the text consists of discussions of when gestures are linguistic and of the acquisition of gesture. The question of when gestures are linguistic refers to when they carry meaning if the topic or referent is not present. The acquisition papers present arguments for the early and late entrance of first signs vs. first words. This distinction is firmly embedded in the elusive definition of gesture as a prelinguistic element vs. a sign as a formal linguistic device.
All in all, this book is one of the most recent that contains information about American Sign Language and brings to the discussion some very interesting issues regarding how we view gestures and their relationship to spoken and signed languages.
Robert J. Hoffmeister
Center for the Study of Communication and Deafness
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