Comparing sign language and gesture: Insights from pointing

Jordan Fenlon, Kensy Cooperrider, Jon Keane, Diane Brentari, Susan Goldin-Meadow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Citations (Scopus)
287 Downloads (Pure)


How do the signs of sign language differ from the gestures that speakers produce when they talk? We address this question by focusing on pointing. Pointing signs play an important role in sign language grammar and are analogous to pronouns in spoken language (e.g., Sandler & Lillo-Martin 2006). Pointing gestures, in contrast, are not usually described in linguistic terms even though they play an important role in everyday communication. Researchers have focused on the similarities between pointing in signers and speakers (e.g., Cormier et al. 2013), but no studies to date have directly compared the two at a fine-grained level. In this paper, we compare the formational properties of 574 pointing signs produced by British Sign Language signers (BSL Corpus) and 543 pointing gestures produced by American English speakers (Tavis Smiley Corpus) with respect to three characteristics typically associated with language systems: conventionalization, reduction, and integration. We find that, even though pointing signs and pointing gestures both exhibit regularities of form, pointing signs are more consistent across uses, more reduced in form, and more integrated into sign language prosodic structure, than pointing gestures. Pointing is thus constrained differently when it is produced along with a signed language than when it is produced along with a spoken language.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jan 2019


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