Grammatical categorization through space and movement in PSL

Grammatical categorization through space and movement in Polish Sign Language (Focus grant awarded to Dr. Paweł Rutkowski by the Foundation for Polish Science; grant number: 1/2009).

The aim of this project is (at least) twofold: first, to provide a detailed descriptive overview of the most characteristic aspects of the grammar of Polish Sign Language (PJM), and second, to account for them from the perspective of theoretical and typological linguistics.

According to most researchers, sign language communication is based on the same (possibly universal) set of cognitive mechanisms that underlie the use of spoken languages. However, how this fundamental human linguistic competence maps onto the actual grammatical form of individual sign languages is, to a large extent, determined by the visual-spatial medium of sign communication. This medium shapes linguistic structure in ways not available in the auditory-acoustic medium of speech. One of the most striking differences is that, unlike spoken strings of words, signed utterances need not be strictly linear. Signing is spatial and dynamic. Two (or even more) chunks of meaning may be conveyed simultaneously, with the use of different articulators (body parts). This forces us to redefine the notions of syntactic word order and phrasal structure. Grammatical information may be conveyed non-manually, through raised or lowered eyebrows, head tilt, eye gaze etc. Signs also undergo specific types of movement and are always produced in three-dimensional space. The grammatical categories of movement and space do not belong to the traditional set of linguistic features encountered in spoken languages. Therefore, the analysis of the two categories in question is the central point of this research project.

The goal of this endeavor is to provide a theoretical account of the mechanism that allows movements of hands and other articulators to be interpreted as grammaticalized linguistic elements. The results may give us an insight into how mental processes responsible for the linguistic expression of experience are conditioned by the medium of communication. In sign language research, grammar has to be understood in a broad sense, encompassing much more than just word order and inflection. Grammar, i.e. the relations between individual signs, shows us how the Deaf categorize the world through their language.