A Project in Collaboration with Annemarie Kocab
Every language needs to develop a way to indicate who does what to whom. Sentences have structure that links nouns to verbs, and differentiates the roles of the participants in the event. English uses word order for this function; hence, The man bites the dog differs from The dog bites the man only in the roles of the participants. Sign languages typically use spatial strategies for this function, associating participants with physical locations in the three-dimensional signing space, and using these locations anaphorically to refer back to the participants.
This project explores the ways that Nicaraguan Sign Language indicates the agent or subject of
a verb, and how devices for this function have emerged and changed over the past four decades. We are particularly interested in devices for shifting reference from one agent to another within a narrative. We are finding that the earliest devices to emerge were lexical, including inserting a word like other, or producing the name of the new agent, like man or dog, when the agent shifts. Later to emerge, and increasing in use, are devices that take advantage of the three-dimensional signing space, including points and movements of the body to one side.