Ph.D. in Linguistics, University of California, San Diego (1983)
My areas of research broadly stated are: language, communication and culture. For most of my career I have been involved in the study of sign language, particularly American Sign Language (ASL). The field of sign language studies, now involving many more sign languages than just those in North America and Europe, has sought to understand properties of human language as they are expressed in either sound or vision. Are sentences structured in similar ways? How are narratives told using the hands and body instead of through speech and sound? How do art forms exploit the medium in which the language is expressed? In recent years, together with my colleagues Mark Aronoff, Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler, I have taken my interest in language in new directions. My colleagues and I have had the opportunity to study a new sign language developing in social and cultural circumstances quite different from that of North America, where ASL is primarily used.
This work has allowed me to explore ways in which language forms are created, propagated, and conventionalized in natural environments. Some of our findings concern the linguistic structure of a new language, what properties emerge quickly after one or two generations of language use, and what properties may take time to evolve. We found, much to our surprise, that signers of the second generation of this new language used consistent word order to indicate the subject of an action, as well as the object and recipient of that action. Broadly, our work has implications for theories of communication. First, a small society of language users can conventionalize communicative forms in a very short time, indeed without overtly acknowledging the presence of these forms. We have found not only word order, but many other conventions of language across signers, some so small and subtle, it is hard to imagine that signers were aware of them at all. How do language and other cultural forms begin and take hold in a social group? What sustains the form as it spreads throughout the group, and how do groups come to an agreement about which of possible forms to use? In all my work, I seek to understand the most basic of communication media: human language.
Human languages exist in the nourishing medium of culture and society. Natural sign languages, or those that are transmitted across generations of signers, are no exception: they exist in communities of deaf people who share a common language and culture even as they live among hearing people. Deafness is a very old disability, and sign language, even communities of signers have been recorded as existing through history since the ancient times. Modern technologies such as cochlear implants and genetic engineering have introduced new tensions in today’s world, creating conflicts over ideas about disability and culture. On the one hand, sign language is celebrated as a remarkable example of the flexibility of humans and the human language capacity, but on the other, modern technologies are often described in the popular media as strategies for eliminating disability, and by extension, sign language as well. In my work on culture, I explore ways in which cultural solutions to human needs – to communicate, to create society, and to live among others – bring a different dimension to understanding diversity of humans, and the need to imagine futures that include this diversity.