Indicating verbs in British Sign Language favour motivated use of space

Kearsy Cormier, Jordan Fenlon, Adam Schembri

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    Sign languages have traditionally been described as having a distinction between (1) arbitrary (referential or syntactic) space, considered to be a purely grammatical use of space in which locations arbitrarily represent concrete or abstract subject and/or object arguments using pronouns or indicating verbs, for example, and (2) motivated (topographic or surrogate) space, involving mapping of locations of concrete referents onto the signing space via classifier constructions. Some linguists have suggested that it may be misleading to see the two uses of space as being completely distinct from one another. In this study, we use conversational data from the British Sign Language Corpus ( to look at the use of space with modified indicating verbs – specifically the directions in which these verbs are used as well as the co-occurrence of eyegaze shifts and constructed action. Our findings suggest that indicating verbs are frequently produced in conditions that use space in a motivated way and are rarely modified using arbitrary space. This contrasts with previous claims that indicating verbs in BSL prototypically use arbitrary space. We discuss the implications of this for theories about grammaticalisation and the role of gesture in sign languages and for sign language teaching.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)684–707
    Number of pages24
    JournalOpen Linguistics
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015


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