Re: Multimodal language (was: Wordless language (was: NonVerbal Conlang?))
|From:||Patrick Littell <puchitao@...>|
|Date:||Monday, July 3, 2006, 20:44|
On 7/3/06, Kalle Bergman <seppu_kong@...> wrote:
> If I have understood things correctly, this could be a
> problem, since sign languages don't rely exclusively
> on a sequential delivery of phonemes, as spoken
> languages do.
Actually, you've slightly misunderstood my aims, although understandably
inasmuch as I didn't provide any implementation details.
I'm not suggesting that we take, say, a spoken phonology and come up with a
manual analogue of it. (And the grammar of Western European-style spoken
language and come up with a manual version of that, too.) Like below, you
noted that things like spelling out a spoken phonology and doing English in
signs are too slow and cumbersome, and would put deaf users at a
disadvantage. This is entirely true, but I wasn't suggesting anything so
> Whereas spoken language is
> one-dimensional (phonemes are spoken one at a time in
> a long "row"), sign language uses all three spatial
> dimensions in addition to the time dimension used by
> spoken language.
Treating spoken language as one dimensional isn't wholly adequate,
actually. We started out working with words as strings of phonemes, but the
last 50 years have broadened our understanding of their nonlinear and
suprasegmental properties. (Note: this doesn't mean that some language X
can't be described in a wholly linear phonology, but rather that spoken
languages have more options than just put this after this after this.
English doesn't make much use of them, but they're there.)
So even though sign phonology is indeed multidimensional, so is oral
phonology. (This is not to say that the dimensions of sound space could
make as many precise distinctions as body space does, just that a mapping
between them need not completely impoverish sign's wealth of dimensional
So let's take a practical example, dealing with one of the big stumbling
points this project might come across: simultaneity. Spoken language does,
as you say, mostly work by putting one thing after each other. But take a
sign for "close it (the window) repeatedly". Quite a few things might be
going on at once: the motion for closing, the classifier appropriate for
windows, the movement to indicate habitual aspect.
This superimposition is going to be one of the trickiest things to get right
for a project like this. I don't suggest we leave things like this out
entirely; the result would be, as you say, a very *unnatural* sign
language. But on the other hand, working out a spoken language in which
these simultaneously-occuring sounds are represented suprasegmentally will
not lead us to an unnatural spoken language. It will lead us to a language
very unlike English, yes, and possibly to a typologically improbable
language, but not to something unspeakable.
(As a side note, we often forget the wealth of features that might resonably
be suprasegmental in a spoken language. The first thing that comes to mind
for this project is tone, of course, but vowel quality features belong to
more than one segment in languages with vowel harmony, consonant POA
features in languages with consonant harmony, other features like voice or
laryngealization... even *nasality* can be suprasegmental... for
example, take a look at languages in the Yanomami or Macro-Je families.)
Anyway, let's play around with this. I'll take David's analogy (his section
on the similarities and differences between spoken and signed phonology is
very good if you haven't yet read it) and go from there. Here's my
specification of the spoken language:
Verbs work by the sort of root-and-pattern morphology we find in Semitic
languages, in which the root meaning of the verb is indicated by consonants
and some of the vowels, and other vowels are left unspecified, to be filled
in as part of aspectual inflection. The root for "close" is t*t*, where *
is a vowel slot. The inflection for completive aspect involves filling it
in with [a]s, whereas habitual aspect involves [ai]s instead, and
progressive is [u], etc.
Furthermore, the language exhibits classification-by-verbs, aka
classificatory incorporation, aka type IV noun incorporation, although
instead of doing this by affixation or compounding this is realized
suprasegmentally by tone patterns. Say, a high-high pattern for flat
things, a high-rising pattern for cylindrical things, a low-low pattern for
roundish things, etc.
In this case, "close it (the window) repeatedly" comes out as "taitai" with
two high tones. (Note: although this language is absolutely nothing like
English, this sort of game is not "unnatural" for speech. All of these are
perfectly reasonable things for a spoken language to do.)
Now, take something like David's mappings of consonants to discrete signs,
vowels to movements, and handshape to tone. If the phoneme realized orally
as [tj] is realized manually as lateral hand contact, and [ai] as a vertical
circular movement, and the high-high tone corresponds to a flat handshape...
then we get a case where a natural sign and a natural spoken word
correspond. The sign in which one puts two flat hands in contact while
moving in a vertical circle is just spoken as [tjaitjai] with HH tones.
And negation might be realized manually as a head-shake, but orally as a
[+NASAL] suprasegment over the entire word, giving us [njainjai]. (Sign
language still wins against spoken when it comes to the number of things
that can be happening at once, but spoken language does have usually-unused
resources that at least help it catch up.)
For instance; signers often place reocurring
> concepts in their dialogue at a certain position in
> the space around them, and when referring to that
> concept, they indicate the position in question with
> their hands (this is a kind of pronouns).
This is so, and I'm not 100% sure we could find a way to implement this with
sounds. It may just be a thing that gets left out in the end, just like
subject agreement might be left out in order to allow classifiers instead.
It wouldn't necessarily lead to an *unnatural* signed language, though, just
as leaving out subject agreement or plural inflection doesn't lead to an
impoverished spoken language. (On the other hand, I think that leaving out
classification and aspect-as-movement might well lead to a unnatural sign
language, so I think they should be on the short list of things-to-keep.)
> I have the feeling that this property of sign language
> would make it problematic to create a language whose
> underlying representation can be realized as either
> speech or signs - at least, and this is, granted, a
> big "at least", if one wishes the language to behave
> as a natural sign language.
> Of course, one can always create a inventory of signs
> which corresponds to an inventory of spoken phonemes,
> and which are suppposed to be used in a strict
> sequential manner like the phonemes of spoken
> language. This would then be reminiscent of "signed
> english" - that is, the convention of assigning a hand
> gesture to each letter in the english alphabet, used
> to spell out english words in sign language. It is
> illustrative, however, that signed english isn't used
> as a native language by any community of deaf people.
> The problem with signed english and similar
> conventions is that they're simply too slow; one can
> never achieve the same speed when signing letters as
> when speaking, which everyone can easily convince
> themselves of by looking up signed english on the web
> and attempting to sign a few easy words as quick as
> they can - and then comparing with the speed of saying
> the words in question. Natural sign languages, on the
> other hand, which use four dimensions instead of just
> one, can easily compress their information rate to a
> level equalling spoken language.
> If one aims to construct an auxlang which can be used
> equally well by hearing and deaf, then this is the
> wrong way to go; the hearing people would get an
> obvious advantage, because the language would not
> behave as a natural sign language.
Entirely true. As I mentioned above, though, a sign language rigidly
constrained to behave like a spoken language wasn't what I was going for.
The game isn't to try to force one mode of communication into the mold of
another, but to try to find those similarities that allow for natural
communication within both. Not easy, definitely, but I do believe possible.