[Lingtyp] Are there (can there be?) more than two modalities?

Françoise Rose francoise.rose at univ-lyon2.fr
Fri Jan 28 14:23:59 UTC 2022

Dear all,
note that the whistled modality (and also drummed, …) is not of the same type, as it is a rendering of the oral language.

De : Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> De la part de Riccardo Giomi
Envoyé : vendredi 28 janvier 2022 14:51
À : Harald Hammarström <harald at bombo.se>
Cc : LINGTYP <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Objet : Re: [Lingtyp] Are there (can there be?) more than two modalities?

Dear Ian, dear all,

I confess I had never thought about this before, but how about a taxonomy of modalities such as the following:

↓Sensory channel / Mode→




Speaking, Whistling, others?




Writing, Drawings


Tactile signing


As many of you probably know, there have been various attempts to work out a graphic system for the representation of signed languages of the type I -- somewhat sloppily -- refer to as 'drawings', but I am not aware of any really established convention (probably my ignorance). 'Verbal' is also a very tentative, and perhaps inaccurate term, but off the top of my head I cannot think of a better definition. Finally, the 'others?' in the acoustic/verbal cell refers to Daniel Everett's work on Pirahã, a language for which the author has documented three other modes besides speaking and whistling (namely yelling, humming and singing), each with its own, distinct phonetics.

Everett, Daniel. 1985. Syllable weight, sloppy phonemes, and channels in Pirahã discourse. In Mary Niepokuj, Deborah Feder, Vassiliki Nikiforidou, and Mary Van Clay (eds.), Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 408-416. California: Berkeley Linguistics Society.
O'Neill, Gareth. 2014. Humming, whistling, singing, and yelling in Pirahã: Context and channels of communication in FDG. In Núria Alturo, Evelien Keizer & Llúis Payrató (eds.), The interaction between context and grammar in Functional Discourse Grammar. Special issue of Pragmatics 24(2): 349–375.


Harald Hammarström <harald at bombo.se<mailto:harald at bombo.se>> escreveu no dia sexta, 28/01/2022 à(s) 01:54:
Hi Ian! There may be a third modality, tactile, attested on the Bay
Islands off the Honduran coast where a critical mass of deaf-blind
people existed for perhaps three generations. If I understood it correctly,
there's a hereditary disease which causes deafness at birth and (gradually)
blindness later in life. So this group developed their own rural sign
language (Bay Islands Sign Language aka French Harbour Sign Language)
which was continued in a tactile modality for those of age. While there
is little to no documentation on the actual signs in sign or tactile
modality, it seems clear that it is a sign language turned tactile, not
a tactile language developed independently of the other modalities. As such
it is perhaps not very different from most (all?) sign languages which can
be used in a tactile way optionally (e.g., in the dark), without losing too
much efficiency. The only difference is that this was possibly used by
a community (albeit small) as their main and only means of communication,
and as far as I know such a congregation of deaf-blind people is attested
nowhere else, and might never happen again. The little information
available on the tactile language is due to Ali & Braithwaite (2021) but
I understand the genetic background to the disease has been researched
for much longer.

Of course, I would speculate that if there were a community of humans
who, for some reasons, could not use speech/sign/touch they would develop
a smell language or a taste language (assuming they could physically
produce the required amount of signals at will), so there could be all
five modalities corresponding to our senses.

all the best, H

Ali, Kristian & Ben Braithwaite. (2021) Bay Islands Sign Language: A
Sociolinguistic Sketch. In Olivier Le Guen, Josefina Safar & Marie
Coppola (eds.), Emerging Sign Languages of the Americas (Sign Language
Typology [SLT] 9), 435-438. Berlin: DeGruyter Mouton.

Pada tanggal Jum, 28 Jan 2022 pukul 00.15 JOO, Ian [Student] <ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk<mailto:ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk>> menulis:
Dear typologists,

about a year ago, there was a discussion on whether writing is a linguistic modality of its own right, like spoken or signed modalities.
Although the majority opinion is that writing is simply a reflection of the spoken modality and not a modality by itself, I argued that written modality can be independent, based on several factors:

  *   The deaf people can learn and write written languages without exposure to its spoken form;
  *   Some parts of the written modality are untranslatable to speech (such as the bullets I am using here);
  *   There are languages that have been used almost exclusively in written form, such as Classical Chinese, which is incomprehensible when read aloud in any spoken language (other than perhaps Old Chinese).
David Gil disagreed and argued that even if deaf person writes a written language, they are still in some sense communicating in a spoken language, just in its written form.
For now, let's leave that discussion aside, and say that written modality is not an independent modality.
The question I would like to ask is: Are there any other linguistic modalities? Or do we have only two - signed and spoken?
If we have only two modalities, then is it hypothetically possible to have other modalities?
Or are the two modalities biologically ingrained in our brains, and we can only truly acquire a language in either signed or spoken form?
To me this seems to be a critical question regarding how we understand human language, yet to my knowledge, it has been seldom discussed. So I would appreciate your opinion on this issue.

From Uppsala,


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