Philippe Schlenker

Anaphora: Insights from Sign Language


Sign language anaphora is realized rather differently from its spoken language counterpart, and it sometimes provides overt evidence for operations that must be inferred indirectly in spoken language.  In simple cases, an antecedent is associated with a locus [= position] in signing space, and an anaphoric link is obtained by pointing towards that locus to recover its semantic value. This mechanism has been argued to be an overt realization of coindexation; if so, it can then be used to bring new light to traditional debates pertaining to donkey anaphora (is there binding without c-command?) and temporal and modal anaphora (are there time- and world-denoting pronominals?). The analysis of context dependency also has much to gain from sign language data, as the operation of context shift postulated for some spoken languages appears to have an overt sign language counterpart, realized by a shift of the signer’s body (‘role shift’). Finally, there are cases in which sign language data raise entirely new theoretical questions: while sign language loci behave in many respects like formal variables, they also have a life as simplified pictorial representations of their denotations – and a ‘formal semantics with iconicity‘ must be developed in order to handle them.

Topics to be discussed include: (i) donkey anaphora; (ii) temporal and modal anaphora; (iii) role shift and context shift; (iv) logical and iconic variables; (v) phi-features and iconic features.

A summary of some early results can be found here: