Running head: FINGERSPELLING 1. Fingerspelling Versus Lexicalized Fingerspelling in American Sign Language. Hope Williams

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1 Running head: FINGERSPELLING 1 Fingerspelling Versus Lexicalized Fingerspelling in American Sign Language Hope Williams

2 FINGERSPELLING 2 According to Valli et al. (2011) morphology can be defined as the study of how words are constructed by smaller, meaningful units; these units are called morphemes. The purpose of studying morphemes is to gain a better understanding of how language builds upon these small units in order to produce larger units. For example, morphemes create words, those words create sentences, and the sentences can be used in conversation or written language. In order to better understand morphology and morphemes, one must also understand phonology. Phonology is an equally important component of linguistics, defined as the study of speech sounds. It is focused on phonetics; the pronunciation, physical properties, and interpretation of the sounds of speech. All languages can be broken down into phonemes, which for English are individual letters. ASL however has five phonemes, also known as five parameters. They are handshape, palm orientation, nonmanual signals, location, and movement. This paper uses those five parameters in order to describe morphemes and what linguists have discovered regarding morphology in ASL. An important aspect of ASL is the manual alphabet. Using this alphabet to convey English concepts is the process of fingerspelling. Fingerspelling dates back to the seventh century, when monks needed to devise a system of communicating without speech. Their system drastically changed come the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the monks began tutoring deaf children. The monks preferred using manual communication as opposed to written communication because they were able to maintain the intimacy of spoken language, while still upholding their vow of silence (Padden 2004). This manual alphabet through years of evolution has become the ASL alphabet widely used today. Fingerspelling is an important component of ASL because the Deaf community does not occur in a vacuum. As Padden explains, deaf people need to be able to access and represent

3 FINGERSPELLING 3 the spoken language of their larger community (2004). As mentioned before, ASL uses fingerspelling in order to express an English concept. Throughout the evolution of fingerspelling lexical borrowing occurred. Lexical borrowing occurs when any two languages come in contact, in this instance English and ASL. If one language has a word or sign for a concept that the other language does not, they will often borrow these terms from one another, adopting it into their own language. Throughout the evolution of ASL, using fingerspelling for English concepts became lexicalized fingerspelling. This means that where ASL lacked a term, users would fingerspell the English concept in order to convey the meaning. Through a series of phonological processes these fingerspelled concepts become signs just as widely used and accepted as those that do not originate from fingerspelled sequences. In order to better understand this concept, that fully fingerspelled English sequences can become ASL signs, one must have some understanding of the phonological processes taking place. There are two processes that are most closely related to lexicalized fingerspelling, they are assimilation and deletion. Assimilation occurs when phonemes, earlier defined as individual letters for English, influence one another and subsequently take on characteristics of a phoneme either directly in front of or behind it. For example, the English phrase red kite, /rɛd/ and /kaɪt/, becomes /rɛg kaɪt/ when produced together. In order to make for more fluid production the /d/ becomes /g/ (Tench 2003). Deletion occurs when a phoneme is completely omitted from a word. An English example of deletion is the word /wɛst/ which in everyday conversation often omits the /t/ and becomes /wɛs/. These processes are essential in understanding lexicalized fingerspelling because when a fully fingerspelled word become lexicalized, or becomes an actual sign, phonemes become

4 FINGERSPELLING 4 assimilated or deleted. These processes occur in order to make production and conversation more fluid. As mentioned before, ASL, like English, has phonemes. They are palm orientation, movement, location, nonmanual signals, and handshape. These are often referred to as five parameters, but function as an equivalent to a spoken phoneme. Therefore when words become lexicalized in ASL, the phonological processes take place at these five parameters. One researcher noticed that although phonology is closely related to lexical borrowing in ASL, it is simultaneously associated with morphology. Also mentioned previously, morphemes are the smallest unit of language that still has meaning. According to Lucas (2002), Robbin Battison found that each fingerspelled letter alone was produced much differently than the word as a whole. The separate letters when produced together would become a single morpheme. For example, the sign #EARLY is produced very differently than it s fully fingerspelled citation form E-A-R-L-Y. Each letter individually is a phoneme because it is represented by a handshape. Once the letters are produced in sequence, the word becomes a morpheme. In his own book, Battison (1978) studied the changes that took place when words become lexicalized. He devised a system for tracking these changes and recorded each word s own restructured profile (RP). Each possible change was represented by a letter, and if the lexicalized term had changed in that way he would record a + symbol, if not a - symbol. Using the same example #EARLY, the RP is as follows: Deletion Location Handshape Movement Orientation Reduplication 2 nd Morphological Semantics Hand Involvement Before lexicalization the fully fingerspelled sequence E-A-R-L-Y maintains the features of any other fingerspelled English concept, no modification. However, through the evolution of ASL

5 FINGERSPELLING 5 users have adopted a lexicalized version, and the changes can be noted using the RP developed by Battison (1978). Lexical borrowing can occur in any language. When one language does not have a specific term to convey an idea, but another does, they borrow that term and adopt it into their own language. Some of the oldest research for lexicalization in ASL is less than thirty-five years old; which goes to show that research regarding linguistics of ASL is still in its infancy. Although fingerspelling remains a vital component, lexicalized fingerspelling has allowed users to adopt English terms where there was no ASL equivalent. The phonological and morphological processes included are vast, and the evolution of American Sign Language is never ending.

6 FINGERSPELLING 6 References Battison, R. (1978). Lexical borrowing in american sign language. Silver Spring, MD: Linstock Press, Incorporated. Clark, D. (2003). How the alphabet came to be used in a sign language. Sign Language Studies, 4(1), Retrieved from Lucas, C. (2002). Turn-taking, fingerspelling, and contact in signed language. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. Tench, P. (2003). Transcribing English phrases [PDF document]. Retrieved from online paper: Valli, C., Lucas, C., Mulrooney, K.J., & Villanueva M. (2011). Linguistics of american sign language (5 th ed.). Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

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