Linguistics ETDs

Publication Date



Nearly all such studies have sought to understand the linguistic constraints of spoken languages, while largely neglecting signed languages. Despite the fact that spoken languages can be classified into types, signed languages are generally assumed to be clustered all together in one type which the current study challenges. Exploring the potential for a varied typology among signed languages requires identifying patterns across a sampling of geographically distinct and historically unrelated signed languages to formulate linguistic generalizations. To that end this study adopts Greenbergs 1966 analysis of Universals of Kinship Terminology, it examines the linguistic patterns that emerge from a comparison of kinship terminology in 40 signed languages, specifying what patterns can be seen in visual-gestural languages. Findings of this study revealed that form-function mappings of specific semantic domains are constructed by different strategies including: iconicity motivated by universal human and cultural-specific traits, arbitrary elements, and linguistic economy (semantic derivation). Patterns reveal that kin terms are motivated yet contain degrees of arbitrariness, suggesting a continuum of interaction of arbitrariness and iconicity. While iconicity is undeniably pervasive in signed languages, salient properties manifested in signed kinship terminology are not universal, but instead reflect the cultural and cognitive perception experienced by deaf people within their linguistic communities. As a result iconic properties framed by language-specific and cultural specific mappings lend to variations in signs, describing the trend that signed forms' phonological properties are not simply phonemic representations, but instead are phonological properties that inherently signify semantic properties. In turn, iconicity emerges as an undeniable and powerful tool of schematization used to form signs in a visual-spatial modality. Data showed some kin terms were motivated by patterns of specific semantic-phonological interdependency. These patterns identified occurrences of semantic derivation and semantic extension within language-specific sets of kin terms. Signed kin terms are formed by combinations of initialization, fingerspelling/character writing constructions, and iconic and arbitrary descriptions. However, organization of kin terms by linguistic processes may not parallel what Greenberg found in his study of spoken languages. The nature of modality clearly manifests in different ways of organizing signed languages and spoken languages; illustrated by how markedness manifests differently. The extent of linguistic phenomenon seen in the domain of kinship terminology underscores the importance of exploring semantics through studies of phonology, morphology, and grammar in signed languages. Typological analyses of signed languages contribute significantly to understanding what linguistic traits appear consistently through all languages, both spoken and signed, by revealing more about the effects of the modality-independent and modality-dependent behaviors of languages in defining language universals.

Project Sponsors

Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) Pre-doctoral Center Fellowship, funding from NSF grant number SBE-0541953




Signed languages, Language typology

Document Type


Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name

Department of Linguistics

First Committee Member (Chair)

Gorbet, Larry

Second Committee Member

Pizzuto, Elena

Third Committee Member

Wilcox, Sherman


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