Growing a Spatial Grammar: The Emergence of Verb Agreement in... Language Language of Presentation: English

Growing a Spatial Grammar: The Emergence of Verb Agreement in Nicaraguan Sign
Language of Presentation: English
The young sign language in Nicaragua has provided researchers with a unique
opportunity: the chance to study a language from its birth. With the founding of a new
school for special education in Managua approximately thirty years ago, Deaf
Nicaraguans came together in greater numbers than ever before. Though teaching in this
school was exclusively in written Spanish, students soon began to communicate
manually, giving birth to a new language: Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Each year
children enter the school and learn the language naturally from their older peers,
eventually becoming Deaf adults who use NSL for daily communication. As succeeding
cohorts learn NSL, the language itself grows and changes, yielding the unique
opportunity to view the language’s development by comparing signers of succeeding
One area in Nicaraguan Sign that has shown striking development is the
emergence of verb agreement. Mature sign languages around the world use space to
indicate agreement between verbs and their subjects and objects; however, little work
examines how this type of agreement arises.
We investigate the emergence of spatial verb agreement in Nicaraguan Sign
Language across four groups: adult Nicaraguan homesigners (n=4, isolated individuals
who have not learned NSL but communicate manually though systems of their own
creation) and three cohorts of adult Nicaraguan signers (n=4 per cohort, average ages cohort 1: 39.5 years, cohort 2: 28.5 years, cohort 3: 20.25 years). All individuals viewed a
series of short clips of transitive and intransitive events and then were asked to describe
what they had seen. Responses were coded and analyzed for axis of verb articulation
(sagittal vs. horizontal, after Padden, Meir, Aronoff, and Sandler, 2010) and agreement
with nominals. We find that the emergence of spatial verb agreement is not monolithic
and that its developmental trajectory is gradual and discontinuous.
The seeds of spatial agreement are present even in adult homesigners, but even by
the third cohort of adult signers, a full system of spatial verb agreement is still not in
place. In fact, second cohort signers display higher levels of spatial verb agreement than
do their younger third cohort peers (Figure 1). Although the third cohort signers institute
sweeping changes into the language’s spatial grammar system, this change seems to
come at a cost to the verb agreement system. The youngest signers are reorienting the
language to function not only on a sagittal axis (straight out from the signer’s body), as is
seen among older signers’ productions, but also on the horizontal axis (Figure 2). The
signers do not, however, always set up their nominals along the same axis as their verbs.
Time and continued study will reveal if younger cohorts of signers produce a language
that spatially resembles the other sign languages of the world and is also rich in spatial
verb agreement. By observing the continued development of verb agreement in
Nicaraguan Sign we can see just how the processes of time and iterated transmission give
rise to natural language structure.
Words: 491
100% 90% 80% 70% 60% Subject & Object 50% Object 40% Subject 30% None 20% 10% 0% Homesigners Cohort 1 Cohort 2 Cohort 3 Figure 1. Spatial verb agreement by group of signers. Cohort 3 has a higher proportion of
sentences with no spatial agreement or with only one semantic element marked than
cohort 2 and, in this sense, uses less spatial agreement.
100% 90% 80% 70% 60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0% Diagonal Axis Horizontal Axis Sagittal Axis Figure 2. Spatial layout axis use by group of signers. Cohort 3 makes greater use of the
horizontal than the other groups.
Padden, C., Meir, I., Aronoff, M., Sandler, W. (2010) The grammar of space in two new
sign languages. In D. Brentari (ed.) Sign Languages, 570-592. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press.