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This project will conduct the first ever large-scale, detailed investigation of the grammatical system of British Sign Language (BSL), combining the use of converging evidence from both experimental data and spontaneous conversation data with corpus-based, cognitive/functional and sociolinguistic approaches. Corpus-based studies of language are those that rely on large, representative, computerised collections of language recordings (such as the British National Corpus of English). Cognitive/functional theories of grammar assume that our knowledge of language arises out of the many ways we use it. Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors, such as a person’s gender or age, are involved in language variation and change. There is growing recognition in the field of linguistics that there is considerable overlap across these three areas of study – as they all rely on language use. This broadly usage-based, multi-pronged approach to studying grammatical structure constitutes the current state-of-the-art in linguistic theory and description for spoken languages and will be applied here to a sign language for the first time, using evidence from the BSL Corpus. Other data collected will include both production (i.e., signed responses to stimuli such as cartoons) and judgement data (i.e.,asking BSL signers for their intuitions about the acceptability of various grammatical structures). We will use these data to study clause structure of BSL including word order and structure of non-manual features in declaratives, questions and negation.

Overall, this project takes a multidisciplinary approach to the study of sign language grammar across usage-based linguistics and related disciplines, taking advantage of new methods and technologies. Since little is known about how sign languages are structured and used, this project will enable us to study what is possible and impossible in BSL grammar (which is suggested via elicited production and judgement data, on a much larger scale from previous research) and importantly, what is probable and improbable in BSL (which is directly shown via spontaneous corpus data). The use of both types of data, using a broad range of usage-based approaches, is the best way to discover facts about (sign) language structure and use. This will put researchers in a position to make appropriate comparisons between signed and spoken languages, and thus understand language diversity and linguistic universals, a key area of interest within linguistics and cognitive science more generally.

The BSL Sentence Task aims to seek judgements about acceptability/typicality of various grammatical structures in BSL.

This research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK.

Project title: A broadly usage-based account of British Sign Language syntax
Project team: Kearsy Cormier (PI), Adam Schembri (Co-investigator)Jordan Fenlon (Co-investigator), Gabrielle Hodge (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Project duration: December 2016 – March 2021