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Visible degrees in Italian Sign Language


Data from Italian Sign Language provide evidence in favor of a degree-based analysis over a non-degree based analysis for gradable adjectives and comparative constructions. Morphological and phonological constraints identify a class of gradable adjectives in which degree variables can be overtly represented as ordered points established in the signing space by an iconic mapping. When this happens the visible degree becomes available as an antecedent for a later pronoun, as in the nominal, temporal and modal domain, showing that the same anaphoric system is at work.

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  1. This analysis is identical to that of Cresswell (1976), but this is not the only option. Other analyses assume a partial ordering relation (Heim 1985).

  2. These constraints include the following: (i) for a given comparison class X, an individual cannot be both tall and not tall in X; (ii) for two comparison classes X1 and X2, it can’t be the case that John is tall and Mary is not tall in X1, but Mary is tall and John is not tall in X2 (Burnett 2015).

  3. Another possibility could be that the English pronominal system lacks a pronominal form that refers to degrees altogether. This situation would be similar to the one described for parasitic gaps targeting prepositional phrases in English (Engdahl 2001, but see Levine et al. 2001 for counter arguments). Specifically, Engdahl (2001) argues that differently from Swedish, English does not have parasitic gaps on prepositional phrases because English lacks proforms that are able to refer to prepositional phrases.

  4. The sign for deep is glossed deep-cl rather than deep because in the lexicon of LIS there are two signs for deep. One is a classifier sign while the other is not (see also the discussion around the example (14a) in the text).

  5. For convenience we translate the meaning of the sentence with an English than-clause even if the syntactic structure of the LIS sentence is different from the than-clause.

  6. Iconic-more behaves like the positive morpheme pos, it iconically maps the amount of the property denoted by the subject (the man and the woman in the case of (15b)). Specifically, the iconic mapping of the comparative morpheme iconic-more needs to be the same as that of the positive morpheme pos (a vertical line in the case of tall, a horizontal in the case of big, etc.)

  7. The main difference between iconic-more and iconic-less is that the movement of the latter goes in the opposite direction. More generally, in more-comparatives the movement of iconic-more goes in the same direction as that of the positive form. Hence, if the movement of the positive form is directed downward, as in deep-cl, then iconic-more is also directed downward.

  8. An anonymous reviewer asked whether forcing the presence of boundaries at the edges of gradable adjectives makes degree scales visible as an effect of coercion, as reported for ASL (Wilbur et al. 2012:198). We tested this with some adjectives including thin and long and the degrees are never accessible.

  9. One crucial difference between our proposal and that of Wilbur et al. (2012) is that in our proposal neither of the two points represents any of the scale boundaries but just two of its degrees along a scale which is itself visible, see the discussion in Sect. 3.3. Furthermore, Wilbur et al. (2012) do not discuss comparatives or anaphoric relations.

  10. Kennedy and McNally (2005:349): “Gradable adjectives are those adjectives that map their arguments onto abstract representations of measurement, or degrees, which are formalized as points or intervals partially ordered along some dimension (i.e. Tall is ordered by a measure of height). A scale is a set of ordered degrees.”


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We wish to thank our LIS consultants Mirko Santoro and Lorenzo Laudo. This work would not be possible without them. The work also benefited from discussion with Philippe Schlenker, Jeremy Kuhn, as well as audiences at FEAST 2015, IGG41, CGG25 and Workshop on Gradability Scale structure and Vagueness: Experimental perspective.

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Correspondence to Valentina Aristodemo.

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The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement N°324115 FRONTSEM (PI: Schlenker). Research was conducted at Institut d’Études Cognitives, École Normale Supérieure – PSL Research University. Institut d’Études Cognitives is supported by grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC and ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL. This research has been possible also thanks to the SIGN-HUB project, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement N. 693349 (PI: Carlo Geraci) and to the Fyssen Foundation Research Grant Historical relations across sign languages: Language Families or Iconic similarities? (PI: Carlo Geraci)

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Aristodemo, V., Geraci, C. Visible degrees in Italian Sign Language. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 36, 685–699 (2018).

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  • Degrees
  • Gradable adjectives
  • Comparatives
  • Sign Language
  • Iconicity
  • Degree anaphora