Content questions in American sign language: An RRG analysis
Binns-Dray, Kathleen Renee
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The goal of this dissertation is to determine whether, from a grammatical perspective, ASL syntax, particularly in regard to question formation, is like that of natural spoken languages. The theoretical framework I will employ is Van Valin & LaPolla's (1997) Role and Reference Grammar (RRG). The theory is typologically friendly; with its flexibility, RRG seems ideal for the medium and multi-dimensionality of signed languages. RRG emphasizes the interaction of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, so a study of ASL from this perspective will provide a broader description of the major syntactic properties of the language, including information structure and content questions. An RRG analysis of verb classes in ASL illuminates an obscure feature of the language, one which makes it typologically unique: indexing verbs are head-marking, while plain verbs are neither head- nor dependent-marking. With fixed focus, ASL relies on a combination of word order movement and syntactic focus constructions to achieve a range of focus possibilities; among these constructions are topicalization, pseudoclefts, and doubling. One of the most interesting of ASL question constructions is wh -doubles. By analyzing wh -double constructions in an RRG framework, it becomes clear that the in situ wh-element is always necessary and the other wh -element, regardless of its position in the utterance, is the double. Of particular interest in signed languages are covert questions, those that do not include an overt question word but rely solely on the nonmanual marking to indicate the scope of the wh -question. I propose a different way of analyzing nonmanual marking, with a focus on questions in signed languages: Polar questions are marked with a different particle (in this case, facial expression) than content questions and are not, therefore, typologically unusual. Finally, I compare the arguments for considering nonmanual marking as a form of intonation with those for considering it a type of question particle. Despite their different modality and medium, signed languages are not typologically different from spoken languages.