March 15, 2023
Faculté de philosophie et lettres
Europe/Brussels timezone
When the mainstream is not enough: studying the embodied-visual signals of signers

Séance du 15 mars 2023: Anna Puupponen (U Jyväskylä)

La séance sera accessible en langue des signes de Belgique francophone (LSFB).

The signals produced with the signer’s face, head and body – also referred to as nonmanual signals – are significant in sign languages of the world. In this talk, I will give a short overview of what these signals are, how they have been addressed in the research literature, and what findings have been made about the role of these signals in sign language, particularly in Finnish Sign Language. Furthermore, through the example of nonmanual signals, I will discuss the fact that – despite the growing volume of and increasing attention to linguistic research on sign languages – a sign language researcher studying such phenomena may sometimes feel quite stranded at sea. That is, the mainstream of (sign language) linguistics may not offer sufficient help when trying to understand the role of these signals in the structure of a sign language, and in the embodied communication practices and interaction of signers.

When the focus is not on the action of the signer's hands, but on head and body movements or facial expressions, the research literature may define these, depending on the framework, as prosodic, morphemic or entirely “extra-linguistic” phenomena. The researcher is therefore confronted with the question of how far should one try to parallel the phenomenon with a conceptual framework based on (i) written language research (ii) spoken language research, (iii) traditional sign language linguistics, which is largely based on (i) and (ii), (iv) gesture research, or for example (v) multimodal interaction analysis.

In such a cross-flow of approaches, I myself have tried to discuss my research findings in relation to more than one of the above-mentioned approaches. This has led me towards a semiotic framework that does not make a categorical distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic signs. According to the approach, different ways for humans to express and interpret meaning can be roughly defined on the basis of how much the signaling depicts (through iconicity), indicates (through indexicality), or describes (through symbolicity). In the talk I will discuss this semiotic approach from the perspective of signals produced with different parts of the signer’s body.

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