Antw: Re: O-only agreement

Franz Dotter Franz.Dotter at UNI-KLU.AC.AT
Mon Sep 21 07:40:13 UTC 2009

Dear colleagues,
I am rather sad about the fact that the "language units have to be
arbitrary"-stereotype gets revived in morphology now. That goes together
with the fashion of the use of "blending" (following Liddells
publications): If one finds an item which has some existence outside
language (as, e.g. location), then they argue that we have "blending of
language and non-language". 
I take a cognitive perspective which says that language is "a
phenomenon of the whole body" and only asks whether there is "some
coding for some meaning" (keeping the axiom that cognitive/meaning items
can be a basic standard of comparison of languages). Under this respect
it is more adequate for me to interprete what some people call
"blending", is the human procedure to exploit the non-language area for
items which can be used as languae units. 
>From that standpoint it is also clear that sign languages can transport
what linguists call 'roles', especially by using location or sign
movement direction. For me it is not adequate (neither for spoken nor
for signed languages) to hypothesize that any language utterance may
systematically consist of sequences like: "language unit(s) -
non-language unit(s) - language unit(s) - non-language unit(s) - …".
In other words: From a phenomenological view, we have "coding for
roles" in sign languages. Which formal status these coding may have
(e.g. whether they can be derived from other language phenomena in a
certain model by certain means), is a secondary question, interesting
for anthropology, cognition, psychology, linguistics, etc. That you can
find a model which exactly describes the "language unit(s)-non-language
unit(s)"-sequences as underlying normal utterances (= communication in
natural language), is no argument that there is any relation to
"reality" behind such a model assumption.
There is no scientific possibility "to show" = to prove (as Sonja
Erlenkamp) writes " there is nothing  of a linguistic structure that the
verb and the noun phrases actually share". Neither you can show (as Dan
Slobin writes) that "there is no formal motivation to label any of these
participants in the syntactic terms of grammatical relations,
grammatical cases". You can only make that rationally valid in a special
model of language with special axioms. We all have learned that terms
like subject, direct object, indirect object, nominative, accusative,
dative or ergative, absolutive, oblique etc. are model dependent and are
not definable uniquely for all languages.
>From the standard of comparison, meaning, I would hold the assumption
that sign languages do show (= can code) semantic roles.
As you may notice, I separate "language" and "linguistic" in order to
separate the object area (= language as a phenomenon) from the model
area (= linguistic models about the functioning of language). (In
brackets: No speaker or signer has ever used a "linguistic unit"; they
only use "language units") From that perspective, the phenomenon
"location" or "movement direction", are language units (following my
axiom that a language utterance consists of coding elements used for
language in this moment). Which different forms of status they can get
in different linguistic models, depends on the model, not on the
Sonja Erlenkamp and Dan Slobin talk about their linguistic models. They
should not mix up them with language or "reality" (e.g. by saying: "the
language phenomenon X IS a subject or an agreement").
Best Regards
Franz Dotter
University of Klagenfurt
Center for Sign Language and Deaf Communication
Funded by: Provincial government of Carinthia, Bundessozialamt
Kaernten, European Social Fund
Head: Franz Dotter (hearing)
Collaborators: Elisabeth Bergmeister (deaf), Silke Bornholdt (deaf),
Jennifer Dörrschuck (hearing), Katja Hablich (hearing), Christian Hausch
(deaf), Marlene Hilzensauer (hearing), Petra Käfer (hearing), Klaudia
Krammer (hearing), Christine Kulterer (hearing), Andrea Lackner
(hearing), Anita Pirker (deaf), Andrea Skant (hearing), Nathalie
Slavicek (hard of hearing), Natalie Unterberger (deaf)
Deaf server (in German): 
Fax: ++43 (0)463 2700 2899
Phone: ++43 (0)463 2700 /2821 (Franz Dotter), /2822 (Andrea Skant),
/2823 (Marlene Hilzensauer), /2824 (Klaudia Krammer), /2829 (Christine
Email addresses: firstname.lastname at 

>>> "Dan I. Slobin" <slobin at BERKELEY.EDU> 9/20/2009 8:29 >>>
I agree entirely with Sonja Erlenkamp's response, on the basis of
linguistic work on several sign languages.  The directionality of a sign
(often along with gaze direction) encodes the relationship between the
participants, whose identity has already been established by various
means.  There is no formal motivation to label any of these participants
in the syntactic terms of grammatical relations (subject, direct object,
indirect object), grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, dative or
ergative, absolutive, oblique), or semantic roles (agent, patient,
recipient).  All of the necessary information for clause interpretation
is present in the meanings of spatial locations, handshapes, and motion;
and the interpretation itself does not seem to need anything but some
set of semantic roles.  It follows that there is no such thing as
“grammatical agreement” in these languages.  

I am presently working on a paper on sign languages and typology, in
which I suggest that sign languages constitute a possibly unique
linguistic type, with no alignment pattern at all.  This is because
there are no arbitrary grammatical categories to align with formal
markers­-no nominative/accusative or ergative/absolutive or
active/stative or agent/patient, and no relevant formal markers.  In
fact, alignment may be a peculiarity of the auditory modality, and not a
necessary linguistic universal.  

Dan Slobin
Psychology & Linguistics
University of California, Berkeley

At 08:18 AM 9/20/2009, Sonja Erlenkamp wrote:

Well, I have to say, I don't agree with Ulrike on agreement (no pun
intended). Most signed languages do - as far as I can tell - show no
agreement patterns at all. There are constructions which are called
"agreement" verbs by some researchers, but as for example Scott Liddell
has shown for ASL (American Sign Language) in several of his
publications from 1998 to this day, these constructions are not
agreement patterns, since there is nothing  of a linguistic structure
that the verb and the noun phrases actually share. They both make use of
spatial locations to create reference to participants, but spatial
locations are not morphemes in themselves. Signs can be placed at
spatial locations, as well as verbs directed to, but space in itself
cannot be a morpheme.  There are several other reasons why the
application of the term "agreement" on this construction is misleading,
but I won't go into detail on that one here. The number of researchers
who agree with Liddell on this issue for different signed languages has
been increasing since he started the debate.
My own research on Norwegian Sign Languages (and German Sign Language),
shows that these two signed languages do use different markings of
grammatical relations in different construction types withou any clear
S/A or S/O correspondence. The directionality you mention (where
movements are directed in space to mark relations between participants
by means of prompting mental connections between spatial locations and
referents) is only one type of construction, which is not even very
frequent in signed language utterances due to the fact that the verbs
involved are often ditransitive verbs. It seems as if this verb class
consists mostly of verbs conceptualizing some kind of either concrete or
metaphorical transfer, where the movement direction resembles the path
of the transfer. In fact the directional movement in these verbs moves
from the location related to the A towards the location related to the
indirect "object", not the O. I have never seen a directional verb in
the signed languages I have looked at that had a movement towards the O
exclusively, but there are some verbs that can only be moved away from
the spatial location related to the A, something which often involves
another construction: surrogate blends. I wouldn't call that agreement
All the best
Prof. Sonja Erlenkamp
University College of Sør-Trøndelag
Department of teacher - and sign language education
2004 Trondheim
> Date: Sun, 20 Sep 2009 10:23:57 +0100
> From: uzeshan at UCLAN.AC.UK 
> Subject: Re: O-only agreement
> Hi, though this is only partially what you are looking for, the
majority of sign languages have the following agreement patterns:
> - no agreement with intransitive S
> - agreement with both A and O for some transitive verbs
> - agreement with O only for some other transitive verbs
> Interestingly, agreement with A only in transitive verbs does not
> Verb agreement with transitive verbs is also known as
"directionality" in sign linguistics (due to the agreement being shown
by the direction of the hand movement during production of the verb).
> Ulrike
> Prof. Ulrike Zeshan
> Director, International Centre for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies
> Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
> Livesey House, LH212
> University of Central Lancashire
> Preston PR12HE, UK
> uzeshan at 
> Ph. +44-1772-893104
> >>> peterarkadiev <peterarkadiev at YANDEX.RU> 19/09/09 2:51 PM >>>
> Dear typologists,
> while Paul Hopper has come up with an example of A-only agreement in
Malay (see references below), I ask a follow-up question concerning the
mirror-image situation: are there any languages where the verb would
agree exclusively with the transitive O (patient, undergoer, direct
object), but neither with the transitive A nor with the intransitive S?
> Many thanks and best wishes,
> Peter Arkadiev
> Paul J. Hopper, 1987 Stability and change in VN/NV Alternating
> A study in pragmatics and linguistic typology. In M. Bertuccelli Papi
> J.Verscheuren, eds., The Pragmatic Perspective, 455-476. Amsterdam:
> Benjamins.
> Paul J. Hopper, 1983 Ergative, passive, and active in Malay
> discourse. In F. Klein-Andreu, ed., Discourse Perspectives on
> 64-87. New York: Academic Press.

Share your memories online with anyone you want anyone you want. (
Dan I. Slobin
Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics

Department of Psychology           email: slobin at 
3210 Tolman #1650                    phone (Dept):  1-510-642-5292
University of California                phone (home): 1-510-848-1769
Berkeley, CA 94720-1650, USA   fax: 1-510-642-5293 
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