Gladys Tang, Professor of Linguistics, Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, Director, The Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Thu 08 Sep 2016, 16:10 - 17:00
DSB 3.10/3.11

If you have a question about this talk, please contact: Mirjam Eiswirth (s1322502)


Classifier predicates are commonly observed in almost all signed languages investigated so far. The iconicity in action or event representation of these constructions originally led to the assumption that they are pantomimes or mimetic actions. However, the systematic study by Supalla (1982) asserts that they are complex morphosyntactic constructions comprised of two basic components: a handshape affix to refer to an argument of a predicate, and a movement affix to encode the predicate root. Therefore, different from nominal classifiers, sign language classifiers are verbal, as they consistently occur in the predicate of a sentence. In (1), the locative predicate consists of a verb root “lie” that merges with a classifier (i.e. Y-hand for an upright being) referring to the noun BOY. The motion directional predicate in (2) involves a different handshape (i.e. two-legged) due to the lexical semantics of the verb root “walk”.


1.         BOYi   liea+CLSEMi                              2. BOYi    awalk_over_thereb+CLSEMi

                    “A boy lies here.”                                   “A boy walks over there.”


Likening sign languages to predicate classifier languages and the handshape component to spoken language classifiers has been quite controversial, to the extent that some researchers regard using the term ‘classifier’ is a misnomer and propose to treat them as some form of agreement markers instead. Yet, they accept the observation that the handshape component and spoken language classifiers share the function of noun classification, i.e. using a linguistic element to “classify” entities based on their salient characteristics like animacy, size and shape, discreteness, quantity, handling of objects, etc. In this presentation, I will argue that, in addition to classification, sign language classifiers also show the functions of individuation and quantification. The individuation function is evidenced by the observation that they behave like a unit counter for both discrete and non-discrete objects, the latter of which are being “packaged” through adopting classifiers denoting containers or discrete groups of different sizes and shapes. As for the function of quantification, sign language classifiers enter the counting domain through merging with the predicate root represented by different movement modulations. They merge with a locative predicate root to yield an existential reading of a set of entities located in space, as well as their cardinality or quantity through an added movement modulation - reduplication. In eventive predicates, dependencies between the predicate root and the arguments for the subject and object are mediated by the number value of the classifiers involved, thus leading to collectivity and distributivity readings in the quantification of plural events.