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Syntax Interface Lectures Utrecht


Marloes Oomen (Institut Jean Nicod, École Normale Supérieure)

Verbal constructions in German Sign Language: A unified analysis in terms of agreement

Marloes Oomen (in collaboration with Vadim Kimmelman)


For many sign languages around the world, it has been claimed that some verbs can express grammatical agreement – and not just with one but with two arguments – while other verbs do not do so at all. Strikingly, it appears that this division it at least partially semantically grounded, as there is a remarkable degree of overlap across sign languages in terms of which verbs allow for agreement marking. It is evident that iconicity (form-meaning correspondences) has some part to play in this: in sign languages, there is much potential for aspects of verb meaning to be iconically represented in a verb’s form.

In this talk, I will further scrutinize the relationship between verb agreement, verb semantics, and iconicity in German Sign Language (DGS) through the analysis of patterns of agreement marking and null subjects in naturalistic dialogues from the DGS Corpus (https://www.sign-lang.uni-hamburg.de/meinedgs/ling/). As one of the key findings, I show that verbs that are articulated on the signer’s body – traditionally considered to be non-agreeing verbs – restrict subject drop to first person subjects only. This appears to be an iconicity effect: body-anchoring apparently triggers an automatic association with the signer, i.e. first person. Formally, I account for this observation by arguing that all verbs in DGS grammatically agree with their argument, proposing a unified syntactic analysis in terms of agreement of constructions with verbs that do and that do not overtly express it. As such, I present a novel solution to the typological puzzle that supposedly only verbs of a partially semantically definable subset agree in DGS (and other sign languages).