The Emergence of Sign Languages

A special issue of Languages (ISSN 2226-471X).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (15 October 2021) | Viewed by 32341

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Special Issue Editors


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Guest Editor
Sign Language Research Lab, University of Haifa, Haifa 3498838, Israel
Interests: sign language linguistics; sign language phonology; sign language prosody; visual language; language emergence

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Guest Editor
Department of Linguistics, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA
Interests: morphology; language emergence

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Guest Editor
Department of Communication, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92014 USA
Interests: sign language typology; deaf communities; language emergence; iconicity

Special Issue Information

Dear colleagues,

We are happy to announce that we are guest editing a Special Issue of the online journal Languages on the topic of Sign Language Emergence. Sign languages are the only extant languages that can be caught in the act of being born and developing with no model, and they therefore offer the only empirical evidence for language emergence more generally. Our goal is to publish a collection of articles on emerging sign languages that together represent our current understanding of this process. We are pleased to invite you to submit an abstract of 400–600 words to be considered for this collection.

Over the years, we have seen increased interest in sign language emergence in connection with several fundamental issues about language, in sources such as these, among many others: iconicity vs. arbitrariness in language (Dingemanse et al 2015; Perniss et al 2010; Padden et al 2013); the influence of the nature of the community on language emergence (Meir and Sandler 2020); the process and order of emergence of linguistic structure (Goldin-Meadow 2005; Sandler et al 2014; Senghas and Coppola 2001); the role of the body in sign language emergence (Sandler 2012); and language evolution from gesture (Corballis 2003, Arbib 2012). 

Several different approaches for our issue come to mind, and we list some of them here:

  1. Developing a conventionalized lexicon/linguistic structure at any level;
  2. Iconicity/arbitrariness;
  3. Gesture/pantomime in language emergence;
  4. The role of the body, and the extent to which the process we describe is particular to sign languages;
  5. The influence of the community in creating language (size, type, homo/heterogeneity, interaction/shared context);
  6. The role of contact with other sign languages;
  7.  Simulated emergence in the lab;
  8.  Comparison with creole genesis;
  9. Language emergence and language evolution.

The focus of the issue is not village or deaf community sign languages, which might be of any age or at any stage of development, but rather sign languages in which emergence is observable, as well as experimental work on emergence. All articles will present new research that has not appeared elsewhere.

The deadline for submission of abstracts is June 25.  Please send it to the guest editors ([email protected]/[email protected]/[email protected]). Abstracts will be reviewed by the guest editors for the purposes of ensuring proper fit within the scope of the Special Issue, and decisions about the appropriateness of the topic will be made by 15 July. The final deadline for manuscript submission will be 15 September. Full manuscripts will undergo double-blind peer review.

We look forward to producing a compelling and original collection on this exciting topic.

Tentative completion schedule:

  • Abstract submission deadline: 25 June 2021
  • Notification of abstract acceptance: 15 July 2021
  • Full manuscript deadline: 15 October 2021

References:

Arbib, M. (2012). How the Brain Got Language: The Mirror System Hypothesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corballis, M. (2003).  From Hand to Mouth: The Origins of Language. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. and Monaghan, P.  (2015). Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19 (10): 603–615.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005).  The Resilience of Language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York: Psychology Press. 

Meir, I. & Sandler, W. (2020).  Variation and conventionalization in young sign languages In Doron, E., Malka Rappaport Hovav, M., Reshef, Y. and Taube, M. (eds.). Linguistic Contact, Continuity and Change in the Genesis of Modern Hebrew. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp.337–363.

Padden, C., Meir, I., Hwang, S., Lepic, R., Seegers, S. and Sampson, T.  (2013). Patterned Iconicity in Sign Language Lexicons.  Gesture 13: 287–308.

Perniss, P. , Thompson, R. L., and Vigliocco, G. (2010). Iconicity as a general property of language: evidence from spoken and signed languages. Frontiers in Psychology 1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00227.

Sandler, W., Aronoff, M., Padden, C. and Meir, I. (2014). Language emergence. In Sindell, J., Kockelman, P. and Enfield, N. (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook Of Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 250–284

Sandler, W. (2012). Dedicated gestures in the emergence of sign language. Gesture 12(3): 265–307.

Senghas, A. and Coppola, M. (2001). Children creating language:  How Nicaraguan Sign Language acquired a spatial grammar. Psychological Science 12(4): 323–328

Prof. Dr. Wendy Sandler
Prof. Dr. Mark Aronoff
Prof. Dr. Carol Padden
Guest Editors

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Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.

Keywords

  • language emergence
  • sign language emergence
  • the emergence of linguistic structure
  • language emergence and social context
  • simulations of sign language emergence

Published Papers (12 papers)

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Editorial

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6 pages, 284 KiB  
Editorial
Emerging Sign Languages
by Wendy Sandler, Carol Padden and Mark Aronoff
Languages 2022, 7(4), 284; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7040284 - 7 Nov 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 1846
Abstract
The emergence of sign language is of special interest because sign languages are the only human languages that can emerge de novo at any time [...] Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)

Research

Jump to: Editorial

23 pages, 7009 KiB  
Article
Early Emergence of Agreement in Yucatec Maya Sign Language
by Olivier Le Guen
Languages 2022, 7(3), 233; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7030233 - 7 Sep 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 2024
Abstract
In many sign languages, space is used to express grammatical features. However, verb agreement in space is noticeably slow to appear in emerging sign languages. Many reasons have been proposed to explain this delay or even absence: the reduced size of the community, [...] Read more.
In many sign languages, space is used to express grammatical features. However, verb agreement in space is noticeably slow to appear in emerging sign languages. Many reasons have been proposed to explain this delay or even absence: the reduced size of the community, the recent creation of the sign language and the lack of exposure to a fully formed language. To examine the way space is used to express agreement in Yucatec Maya Sign Language (YMSL), a new signed language from the peninsula of Yucatán (Mexico), a task was conducted using video stimuli created to elicit ditransitive constructions showing transfer events, such as events of giving or taking. Results show that agreement is present early in YMSL, even from the first generation of deaf signers. While many signers used single agreement constructions, the second generation of deaf children systematically employed double agreement constructions, placing them on the high end of the evolutionary path proposed for verb agreement in sign languages. I argue that cultural habits of the surrounding community, namely the preference for a geocentric frame of reference among Yucatec Maya speakers, is what facilitates the early emergence of the use of space to express agreement in YMSL. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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15 pages, 1883 KiB  
Article
Spoken and Sign Language Emergence: A Comparison
by John McWhorter
Languages 2022, 7(3), 184; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7030184 - 18 Jul 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 3020
Abstract
A comparison of emerging signed languages and creole languages provides evidence that, when language is emerging, it prioritizes marking the novelty of information; is readily recursive; favors the manner of action (aspect) over the time of action (tense); develops inflection readily only in [...] Read more.
A comparison of emerging signed languages and creole languages provides evidence that, when language is emerging, it prioritizes marking the novelty of information; is readily recursive; favors the manner of action (aspect) over the time of action (tense); develops inflection readily only in a visual, as opposed to aural, mode; and develops derivational opacity only as the result of drift over long periods of time. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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21 pages, 951 KiB  
Article
Conventionalization of Iconic Handshape Preferences in Family Homesign Systems
by Madeline Quam, Diane Brentari and Marie Coppola
Languages 2022, 7(3), 156; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7030156 - 21 Jun 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2082
Abstract
Variation in the linguistic use of handshapes exists across sign languages, but it is unclear how these iconic handshape preferences arise and become conventionalized. In order to understand the factors that shape such handshape preferences in the earliest stages of language emergence, we [...] Read more.
Variation in the linguistic use of handshapes exists across sign languages, but it is unclear how these iconic handshape preferences arise and become conventionalized. In order to understand the factors that shape such handshape preferences in the earliest stages of language emergence, we examined communication within family homesign systems. Homesigners are deaf individuals who have not acquired a signed or spoken language and who innovate unique gesture systems to communicate with hearing friends and family (“communication partners”). We analyzed how characteristics of participants and stimulus items influence handshape preferences and conventionalization. Participants included 11 deaf homesigners, 24 hearing communication partners (CPs), and 8 hearing non-signing adults from Nicaragua. Participants were asked to label items using gestures or signs. The handshape type (Handling, Object, or combined Handling + Object) was then coded. The participants and groups showed variability in iconic handshape preferences. Adult homesigners’ families demonstrated more conventionalization than did child homesigners’ families. Adult homesigners also used a combined Handling+Object form more than other participants. Younger CPs and those with fewer years of experience using a homesign system showed greater conventionalization. Items that elicited a reliable handshape preference were more likely to elicit Handling rather than Object handshapes. These findings suggest that similarity in terms of handshape type varies even within families, including hearing gesturers in the same culture. Although adult homesigners’ families were more conventionalized than child homesigners’ families, full conventionalization of these handshape preferences do not seem to appear reliably within two to three decades of use in a family when only one deaf homesigner uses it as a primary system. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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18 pages, 5653 KiB  
Article
From Seed to System: The Emergence of Non-Manual Markers for Wh-Questions in Nicaraguan Sign Language
by Annemarie Kocab, Ann Senghas and Jennie Pyers
Languages 2022, 7(2), 137; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7020137 - 30 May 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 3070
Abstract
At a language’s inception, what determines which elements are taken up to build a grammar? How is the initial raw material reshaped through intergenerational language learning? We approached this question by focusing on the emergence of non-manual wh-question markers in Nicaraguan Sign Language [...] Read more.
At a language’s inception, what determines which elements are taken up to build a grammar? How is the initial raw material reshaped through intergenerational language learning? We approached this question by focusing on the emergence of non-manual wh-question markers in Nicaraguan Sign Language (LSN), a young sign language. We asked whether the seeds of non-manual markers originate in the facial gestures of the hearing Nicaraguan community, and we explored the iterated process by which a form becomes selected and then systematized through generational transmission. We identified six non-manual facial and body movements produced with questions by 34 deaf LSN signers, representing three sequential age cohorts of learners, and compared them to those produced by 16 non-signing Spanish speakers. We examined the frequency and duration of each non-manual, and its temporal overlap with a question word. One non-manual, the brow furrow, was overwhelmingly represented among LSN signers, despite appearing rarely among non-signers and not being initially favored in duration or temporal overlap. With the second and third cohorts, the brow furrow emerges as a frequent and systematic marker. With each cycle of child learners, variable input was transformed into a more constrained set of grammatical forms. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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24 pages, 4464 KiB  
Article
Emerging Lexicon for Objects in Central Taurus Sign Language
by Rabia Ergin
Languages 2022, 7(2), 118; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7020118 - 11 May 2022
Viewed by 1850
Abstract
This paper investigates object-based and action-based iconic strategies and combinations of them to refer to everyday objects in the lexicon of an emerging village sign language, namely Central Taurus Sign Language (CTSL) of Turkey. CTSL naturally emerged in the absence of an accessible [...] Read more.
This paper investigates object-based and action-based iconic strategies and combinations of them to refer to everyday objects in the lexicon of an emerging village sign language, namely Central Taurus Sign Language (CTSL) of Turkey. CTSL naturally emerged in the absence of an accessible language model within the last half century. It provides a vantage point for how languages emerge, because it is relatively young and its very first creators are still alive today. Participants from two successive age cohorts were tested in two studies: (1) CTSL signers viewed 26 everyday objects in isolation and labeled them to an addressee in a picture-naming task, and (2) CTSL signers viewed 16 everyday objects in isolation and labeled them to an addressee before they viewed the same objects in context being acted upon by a human agent in short video clips and described the event in the clips to a communicative partner. The overall results show that the CTSL signers equally favored object-based and action-based iconic strategies with no significant difference across cohorts in the implementation of iconic strategies in both studies. However, there were significant differences in the implementation of iconic strategies in response to objects presented in isolation vs. context. Additionally, the CTSL-2 signers produced significantly longer sign strings than the CTSL-1 signers when objects were presented in isolation and significantly more combinatorial sign strings than the CTSL-1 signers. When objects were presented in context, both cohorts produced significantly shorter sign strings and more single-sign strings in the overall responses. The CTSL-2 signers still produced significantly more combinatorial sign strings in context. The two studies together portray the type and combination of iconic strategies in isolation vs. context in the emerging lexicon of a language system in its initial stages. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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35 pages, 22736 KiB  
Article
Comparing Iconicity Trade-Offs in Cena and Libras during a Sign Language Production Task
by Diane Stoianov, Diná Souza da Silva, Jó Carlos Neves Freitas, Anderson Almeida-Silva and Andrew Nevins
Languages 2022, 7(2), 98; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7020098 - 15 Apr 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 2540
Abstract
Although classifier constructions generally aim for highly iconic depictions, like any other part of language they may be constrained by phonology. We compare utterances containing motion events between signers of Cena, an emerging rural sign language in Brazil, and Libras, the national sign [...] Read more.
Although classifier constructions generally aim for highly iconic depictions, like any other part of language they may be constrained by phonology. We compare utterances containing motion events between signers of Cena, an emerging rural sign language in Brazil, and Libras, the national sign language of Brazil, to investigate whether a difference in time-depth—a relevant factor in phonological reorganisation—influences trade-offs involving iconicity. First, we find that contrary to what may be expected, given that emerging sign languages exhibit great variation and favour highly iconic prototypes, Cena signers exhibit neither greater variation nor the use of more complex handshapes in classifier constructions. We also report a divergence from findings on Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) in how signers encode movement in a young language, showing that Cena signers tend to encode manner and path simultaneously, unlike NSL signers of comparable cohorts. Cena signers therefore pattern more like non-signing gesturers and signers of urban sign languages, including the Libras signers in our study. The study contributes an addition to the as-yet limited investigations into classifiers in emerging sign languages, demonstrating how different aspects of linguistic organisation, including phonology, can interact with classifier form. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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27 pages, 3747 KiB  
Article
The Seeds of the Noun–Verb Distinction in the Manual Modality: Improvisation and Interaction in the Emergence of Grammatical Categories
by Yasamin Motamedi, Kathryn Montemurro, Natasha Abner, Molly Flaherty, Simon Kirby and Susan Goldin-Meadow
Languages 2022, 7(2), 95; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7020095 - 11 Apr 2022
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 2603
Abstract
The noun–verb distinction has long been considered a fundamental property of human language, and has been found in some form even in the earliest stages of language emergence, including homesign and the early generations of emerging sign languages. We present two experimental studies [...] Read more.
The noun–verb distinction has long been considered a fundamental property of human language, and has been found in some form even in the earliest stages of language emergence, including homesign and the early generations of emerging sign languages. We present two experimental studies that use silent gesture to investigate how noun–verb distinctions develop in the manual modality through two key processes: (i) improvising using novel signals by individuals, and (ii) using those signals in the interaction between communicators. We operationalise communicative interaction in two ways: a setting in which members of the dyad were in separate booths and were given a comprehension test after each stimulus vs. a more naturalistic face-to-face conversation without comprehension checks. There were few differences between the two conditions, highlighting the robustness of the paradigm. Our findings from both experiments reflect patterns found in naturally emerging sign languages. Some formal distinctions arise in the earliest stages of improvisation and do not require interaction to develop. However, the full range of formal distinctions between nouns and verbs found in naturally emerging language did not appear with either improvisation or interaction, suggesting that transmitting the language to a new generation of learners might be necessary for these properties to emerge. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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30 pages, 19728 KiB  
Article
How and When to Sign “Hey!” Socialization into Grammar in Z, a 1st Generation Family Sign Language from Mexico
by John B. Haviland
Languages 2022, 7(2), 80; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7020080 - 29 Mar 2022
Cited by 5 | Viewed by 2316
Abstract
“Z” is a young sign language developing in a family whose hearing members speak Tzotzil (Mayan). Three deaf siblings, together with an intervening hearing sister and a hearing niece, formed the original cohort of signing adults. A hearing son of the original signer [...] Read more.
“Z” is a young sign language developing in a family whose hearing members speak Tzotzil (Mayan). Three deaf siblings, together with an intervening hearing sister and a hearing niece, formed the original cohort of signing adults. A hearing son of the original signer became the first native signer of a second generation. Z provides evidence for a classic grammaticalization chain linking a sign requesting attention (HEY1) to a pragmatic turn-initiating particle (HEY2), which signals a new utterance or change of topic. Such an emergent grammatical particle linked to the pragmatic exigencies of communication is a primordial example of emergent grammar. The chapter presents the stages in the son’s language socialization and acquisition of HEY1 and HEY2, starting at 11 months, through his subsequent bilingual development in both Z and Tzotzil, jointly deploying other communicative modalities such as gaze and touch. It proposes a series of stages leading, by 4 years of age, to his understanding of the complex sequential structure that using the sign involves. Acquiring pragmatic signs such as HEY in Z demonstrates how the grammar of a language, including an emergent sign language, is built upon the practices of a language community and the basic expected parameters of local social life. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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21 pages, 1104 KiB  
Article
The Vulnerability of Emerging Sign Languages: (E)merging Sign Languages?
by Marah Jaraisy and Rose Stamp
Languages 2022, 7(1), 49; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010049 - 24 Feb 2022
Cited by 5 | Viewed by 3347
Abstract
Emerging sign languages offer linguists an opportunity to observe language emergence in real time, far beyond the capabilities of spoken language studies. Sign languages can emerge in different social circumstances—some in larger heterogeneous communities, while others in smaller and more homogeneous communities. Often, [...] Read more.
Emerging sign languages offer linguists an opportunity to observe language emergence in real time, far beyond the capabilities of spoken language studies. Sign languages can emerge in different social circumstances—some in larger heterogeneous communities, while others in smaller and more homogeneous communities. Often, examples of the latter, such as Ban Khor Sign Language (in Thailand), Al Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (in Israel), and Mardin Sign Language (in Turkey), arise in communities with a high incidence of hereditary deafness. Traditionally, these communities were in limited contact with the wider deaf community in the region, and so the local sign language remained relatively uninfluenced by the surrounding signed language(s). Yet, in recent years, changes in education, mobility, and social communication patterns have resulted in increased interaction between sign languages. Rather than undergoing language emergence, these sign languages are now facing a state of “mergence” with the majority sign language used by the wider deaf community. This study focuses on the language contact situation between two sign languages in Kufr Qassem, Israel. In the current situation, third-generation deaf signers in Kufr Qassem are exposed to the local sign language, Kufr Qassem Sign Language (KQSL), and the dominant sign language of the wider Israeli deaf community, Israeli Sign Language (ISL), both of which emerged around 90 years ago. In the current study, we analyzed the signing of twelve deaf sign-bilinguals from Kufr Qassem whilst they engaged in a semi-spontaneous task in three language conditions: (1) with another bilingual signer, (2) with a monolingual KQSL signer, and (3) with a monolingual ISL signer. The results demonstrate that KQSL-ISL sign-bilinguals show a preference for ISL in all conditions, even when paired with a monolingual KQSL signer. We conclude that the degree of language shift in Kufr Qassem is considerable. KQSL may be endangered due to the risk of social and linguistic mergence of the KQSL community with the ISL community in the near future. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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26 pages, 15074 KiB  
Article
Shared Context Facilitates Lexical Variation in Sign Language Emergence
by Katie Mudd, Connie de Vos and Bart de Boer
Languages 2022, 7(1), 31; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010031 - 10 Feb 2022
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2246
Abstract
It has been suggested that social structure affects the degree of lexical variation in sign language emergence. Evidence from signing communities supports this, with smaller, more insular communities typically displaying a higher degree of lexical variation compared to larger, more dispersed and diverse [...] Read more.
It has been suggested that social structure affects the degree of lexical variation in sign language emergence. Evidence from signing communities supports this, with smaller, more insular communities typically displaying a higher degree of lexical variation compared to larger, more dispersed and diverse communities. Though several factors have been proposed to affect the degree of variation, here we focus on how shared context, facilitating the use of iconic signs, facilitates the retention of lexical variation in language emergence. As interlocutors with the same background have similar salient features for real world concepts, shared context allows for the successful communication of iconic mappings between form and culturally salient features (i.e., the meaning specific to an individual based on their cultural context). Because in this case the culturally salient features can be retrieved from the form, there is less pressure to converge on a single form for a concept. We operationalize the relationship between lexical variation and iconic affordances using an agent-based model, studying how shared context and also population size affects the degree of lexical variation in a population of agents. Our model provides support for the relationship between shared context, population size and lexical variation, though several extensions would help improve the explanatory power of this model. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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26 pages, 8704 KiB  
Article
Emergence or Grammaticalization? The Case of Negation in Kata Kolok
by Hannah Lutzenberger, Roland Pfau and Connie de Vos
Languages 2022, 7(1), 23; https://doi.org/10.3390/languages7010023 - 28 Jan 2022
Cited by 5 | Viewed by 3127
Abstract
Typological comparisons have revealed that signers can use manual elements and/or a non-manual marker to express standard negation, but little is known about how such systematic marking emerges from its gestural counterparts as a new sign language arises. We analyzed 1.73 h of [...] Read more.
Typological comparisons have revealed that signers can use manual elements and/or a non-manual marker to express standard negation, but little is known about how such systematic marking emerges from its gestural counterparts as a new sign language arises. We analyzed 1.73 h of spontaneous language data, featuring six deaf native signers from generations III-V of the sign language isolate Kata Kolok (Bali). These data show that Kata Kolok cannot be classified as a manual dominant or non-manual dominant sign language since both the manual negative sign and a side-to-side headshake are used extensively. Moreover, the intergenerational comparisons indicate a considerable increase in the use of headshake spreading for generation V which is unlikely to have resulted from contact with Indonesian Sign Language varieties. We also attest a specialized negative existential marker, namely, tongue protrusion, which does not appear in co-speech gesture in the surrounding community. We conclude that Kata Kolok is uniquely placed in the typological landscape of sign language negation, and that grammaticalization theory is essential to a deeper understanding of the emergence of grammatical structure from gesture. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Emergence of Sign Languages)
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