My areas of interest are: emergence of language structure, communication and meaning, and cultural underpinnings of language form. For most of my career, I have worked on aspects of sign language structure, beginning first with my Ph.D dissertation (UC, San Diego, 1983), on morphology and syntax in American Sign Language (ASL), and most recently, on iconic patterning in sign language and gesture.
In order to understand the foundations of language, I and So-One Hwang, a postdoctoral researcher along with members of our research laboratory at Center for Research in Language (CRL) at UC, San Diego, have designed experiments eliciting spontaneous co-speech gesture, silent gesture, or pantomime, from hearing non-signers and signs from signers of various sign languages. Using pictures and videos, we have shown that there are consistent iconic patterns that can be traced across gesture to sign languages. Our approach to iconic patterning stems from joint work with research colleagues, Mark Aronoff, Irit Meir and Wendy Sandler, on a new sign language spontaneously created in a community of deaf and hearing Bedouins in the Negev region of Israel. Our studies of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), which we estimate to be about 80 years ago, show that communication among deaf and hearing Bedouins was built on a foundation of meaning. Over time, we have been able to observe how linguistic structure emerges and manifests in lexical patterning, including iconic patterning, complex sentences, consistent word order, lexical compounding, argument structure and other narrative forms.
Recently, colleagues at Tufts University, including Rabia Ergin, have been working with us to uncover emerging structure in another new sign language of about the same age, Central Taurus Sign Language (CTSL), used in villages of the Central Taurus Mountains in Turkey. Our research laboratory at CRL has students and colleagues who work on a variety of sign languages around the world, including Kenyan Sign Language, Hanoi (Vietnam) Sign Language, Japanese Sign Language, and Turkish Sign Language (a national sign language unrelated to CTSL). Much of our work includes comparative studies of gesture and sign language, as well as studies of new and established sign languages. We argue that there are robust gestural resources that persist in new and established sign languages, but are restructured in patterned ways that can be distinctive across different sign languages.
Currently in studies led by post-doctoral researcher Tessa Verhoef, we are exploring ways of using artificial, miniature languages as a means of studying emergent structure. Non-signers are shown input and asked to repeat different segments of miniature languages in a chain of learners. After several iterations, structure can emerge, showing in short time, what pressures can combine in order to produce rudimentary linguistic structure. Our goal is to understand how the human body is deployed for purposes of language and communication. We view language as involving either speech or sign, with gesture playing a key role in both modalities.