Argument structure of classifier predicates in Russian Sign Language
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We analyze classifier predicates in Russian Sign Language (RSL) using a combination of naturalistic corpus and elicited data in order to determine their argument structure, and to test the generalization, based on research on other sign languages, that there is a clear relation between argument structure and classifier type (Benedicto and Brentari 2004). We propose that whole-entity classifier predicates are intransitive unaccusative, and that body-part classifier predicates are optionally transitive. Contrary to previous research on other sign languages, we argue that handling classifier predicates in RSL describe complex events with two subevents: one of handling, and one of movement, which are not necessarily causally connected. We further suggest that the ‘moving legs’ classifier predicate in RSL also describes a complex event consisting of two subevents. To account for these facts, we develop a formal analysis of classifier predicates in RSL. Specifically, we argue that whole-entity and body-part classifier handshapes are agreement markers, while handling classifier handshapes as well as the ‘moving legs’ classifier handshape represent an argument in combination with a verbal root. This casts doubt on the observation made in the literature that classifiers straightforwardly determine the argument structure of classifier predicates, since different classifiers in RSL represent different grammatical phenomena. In addition, we show that event structures associated with some classifier predicates are more complex than those associated with monoclausal structures in spoken languages.
KeywordsArgument structure Sign language Classifier predicates Event decomposition
man cl we (1)-move.forward
‘The man moves forward.’
In this paper, we discuss the results of the first research on argument structure of classifier predicates in Russian Sign Language (RSL). We use a combination of naturalistic corpus data and several elicitation techniques. Our investigation shows that the relation between classifier type and argument structure in RSL is more intricate than one would assume based on previous studies. We propose a new formal account of CLPs in RSL using the event decomposition approach by Ramchand (2008a) as a theoretical framework. In addition, we find that event structures associated with some classifier predicates in RSL are more complex than possible monoclausal event structures in Ramchand’s (2008a) framework.
2 Classifier predicates in sign languages
2.1 Basic properties
Classifier predicates are predicates of movement or location (Zwitserlood 2012). These signs have a complex morphological structure: they involve movement of the arm that expresses movement of the referent;2 if the sign moves from one location to another, these locations refer to the Source and Goal of the movement that is being described. The handshape (the classifier) refers to some semantic properties of the moving object described by the predicate.
- (1)Whole-entity classifiers, which refer to whole objects whose movement or location is described by the predicate. They can be further divided into:
Body-part classifiers, where the hand refers to a body part: a hand, a head, a leg, a tail, etc. See the center picture in Fig. 2.
Handling classifiers, where the hand refers to a hand or another manipulator handling some object. See the right picture in Fig. 2.
Semantic and body-part classifier handshapes are clearly categorical: a sign language usually has a small set of handshapes that can be used as classifiers of these types. There is also cross-linguistic variation: for instance, the classifier for cars in RSL uses the same shape as the plane classifier in Fig. 2, while in ASL another handshape is used with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger extended. However, for size-and-shape specifiers and handling classifier handshapes, it is more difficult to claim that they are categorical. Consider the handling classifier for handling a thin object depicted in Fig. 2. In principle, various degrees of thickness of the object can be depicted by various degrees of openness of the hand.
Emmorey and Herzig (2003) show that ASL signers in both production and perception of some size-and-shape specifiers show categorical, and not gradual patterns. On the other hand, Sehyr and Cormier (2015) in their experimental investigation of perception of handling handshapes in British Sign Language find a more subtle pattern reflecting graded category organization. More research is needed to understand how signers behave.
For our research the role of iconicity in the development of classifier predicates, and the extent to which they show gradual vs. categorical effects in production and perception are not directly relevant. Recently, it has been demonstrated that formal linguistic analyses are applicable to even highly iconic phenomena in sign languages (Schlenker 2014; Davidson 2015; Oomen 2017). In this paper, we focus on the clearly linguistic parts of CLPs (their event and argument structures), and we return to the issue of iconicity in Sect. 6.3.
2.2 Argument structure
Importantly, similar observations, namely that whole-entity CLPs are intransitive, and handling CLPs are transitive, have been made for other sign languages. Glück and Pfau (1998) have observed it for German Sign Language (DGS), Zwitserlood (2003) for Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT);4 Benedicto et al. (2007) for Argentinian and Catalan Sign Languages, and Pavlič (2016) for Slovenian Sign Language.
2.3 Formal approaches
‘The man moves.’
‘The man moves his head.’
‘The man moves a stick.’
Once an argument has moved to the specifier position of a projection introduced by an f1 or and f2 head, Spec-Head agreement (depicted by the dotted line) determines the choice of the right classifier. This accounts for the fact that the choice of a classifier is dependent on the class or shape of the moving object.
Note that this account of CLPs in ASL views argument structure as a part of syntax: although the verbal root selects one argument, it does not assign any thematic role to it. Thematic roles are assigned later in the derivation when the argument lands in the specifier of a particular projection (f1 or f2). Benedicto and Brentari (2004) acknowledge that it is also possible to formulate a lexical account for these phenomena in which the classifier morpheme is attached to a verbal root and determines its argument structure in the lexicon; however, they do not pursue this idea further. Irrespective of the precise formulation, what the ASL data show is a clear relation between argument structure and classifier type, a relation that has to be modeled within any framework.
Benedicto and Brentari (2004) also note an important property of the f1 projection in ASL: the argument that lands in its specifier is interpreted as an Agent, not as a Cause. For instance, it is not possible to have an instrument or a non-human cause as a subject of a handling CLP. In this respect, the CL predicate CLhl(ss)-break in ASL is different from the English verb break, as the latter can take instruments and causes as subjects (e.g. The stone broke the glass.).
Zwitserlood (2003) develops a different formal analysis for similar phenomena in NGT. Her analysis is couched in the Distributed Morphology framework, and its purpose is to account for all types of agreement phenomena in NGT. We will not discuss the details of her analysis because it goes beyond the focus of this paper (see also van Gijn and Zwitserlood 2006). Most importantly, for Zwitserlood, the verbal root selects one obligatory internal argument, the Theme,7 and the classifier itself is a spell-out of the agreement marker agreeing with the Theme argument. Handling classifiers appear when there is a voice node responsible for the introduction of the external argument. Therefore, in Zwitserlood’s analysis, classifiers do not determine the argument structure of CLPs, but they are reflections (spell-out of agreement) of different argument structures.
In this paper, we take the account of Benedicto and Brentari (2004) as a starting point in our investigation of CLPs in RSL because this account contains a clear explanation for the observation that argument structure of CLPs is dependent on the classifier type, and makes clear predictions, also for other signed languages that have similar classifier types. Moreover, this approach has already been extended to several other sign languages (Benedicto et al. 2007; Pavlič 2016).
Is there a clear relation between classifier type and argument structure of CLPs in RSL?
If so, can this relation be accounted for by the model proposed by Benedicto and Brentari (2004)?
3.1 Russian Sign Language
Russian Sign Language (RSL) is a language used by deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Russia. According to the latest census organized in 2010, it is used by 120,000 people.8
Previous research on RSL has been devoted to various topics in morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. However, classifier predicates in RSL have not been described before.
In order to investigate the properties of argument structure of CLPs in RSL, we combined an analysis of corpus data with controlled elicitation and grammaticality judgement tasks.
3.2 Corpus data
In order to investigate the relation between classifier type and argument structure, we looked for examples of classifier predicates in the corpus of RSL (Burkova 2012–2015). The corpus currently contains data from 37 signers, mainly from two regions (Moscow and Novosibirsk). The total number of signs in the corpus, assessed based on the number of glosses on the tier for the right hand, is around 25,000. The corpus has been provided with individual glosses for signs (on separate tiers for the two hands) and with free sentence-level translation.
Classifier predicates are not consistently annotated in the corpus; therefore, no automatic analysis of such predicates is possible. We looked for examples of classifier predicates by searching for glosses that describe motion and location, such as walk, move, run, and also by browsing through texts of one particular type, namely retellings of the Canary Row cartoon9 which are available for 13 signers from Moscow. For the found examples, we identified whether the classifier type (whole-entity, body-part, handling) is predictive of the argument structure of the predicate as described in the previous section.
Whole-entity classifiers are often used in intransitive predicates;
Handling classifiers are often used in transitive predicates;
Patterns (i) and (ii) are not without exception.
In the remainder of the paper, when we use examples from the corpus, we provide a direct link to the example in the online version of the corpus. Interested readers will have to register in order to access the examples.
One important exception to the expected argument structure pattern was the case of handling classifier predicates. We found that the same classifier predicate can describe different situations: (i) an Agent moves a Patient, (ii) an Agent holds to the Patient and moves because the Patient moves, and (iii) an Agent holds a Patient, and the Agent moves (independently). We will discuss these (and other) meanings in detail in Sect. 4.3. The problem with corpus data is that it is impossible to find minimal pairs, that is, exactly the same classifier predicate which has different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, we turned to elicitation.
We created such triplets of animations with different object types (a stick, a balloon, a ball), and with different movement types (a straight movement forward or upward, or an arc-shaped movement). For one type of object (a stick), we also created a complex movement shape (upward-forward zigzag) in order to test whether the classifier predicate is fully productive in all three contexts. In total, there were 21 animations (7 different objects/trajectories * 3 types of handling).
We elicited descriptions of these videos from 10 native signers in Moscow. The signers were instructed to describe the videos as briefly as possible. No explicit instructions about using classifier predicates (or any other means of description) were given. The videos were presented in a pseudo-random order such that two videos of the same object were never adjacent. In addition, after describing video-clips, the signers were asked to provide judgements concerning possible modifications of the constructions that they produced.
Finally, in order to confirm our findings and further investigate the properties of some CLPs, we conducted a grammaticality judgement task with 16 signers in Moscow.
4 Descriptive results
In this section, we describe our findings concerning argument structure of different types of classifier predicates: whole-entity CLPs (Sect. 4.1), body-part CLPs (Sect. 4.2), and handling CLPs (Sect. 4.3). We also discuss what problems these data present for an analysis following Benedicto and Brentari (2004), but our own analysis is postponed until Sect. 5.
4.1 Whole-entity CLPs
RSL has a variety of whole-entity classifiers. For instance, the “1” handshape is used to refer to long objects (including humans); the “1-l” handshape oriented sideways is used to refer to cars, while with the palm oriented down, it is used to refer to planes; the “5b” (all fingers slightly bent) handshape is used to refer to round objects, etc.
self.intens cl we (1-l)-move.back.and.forth self.intens can
‘One can fly around by oneself.’14
4.2 Body-part CLPs
RSL has body-part classifiers. In particular, the hand can represent the hand (clbp(5)), extended index fingers on the two hands can represent the legs (clbp(11)), and the fist can represent the head (clbp(s)).
ix-1 ix-a(head) cl bp (s)-move.down
‘I am nodding my head.’15
my head cl bp (s)-move.back
‘My head moved back.’
ix-1 cl bp (s)-move.down
‘I am nodding.’
ix-1 ix-a(head) cl bp (s)-shake
‘My head is shaking.’
cl ml (2b-move2)-move.up
‘I am walking up.’17
‘A man is moving forward on a moving platform.’
*ix-1 legs cl ml (2b-move2)-move
Intended meaning: ‘I move my legs.’
*ix-1 cl ml (2b-shake)-move
Intended meaning: ‘My leg is shaking.’
ix-1 cl bp (1)-shake
‘My leg is shaking.’
cl ml (2b-move2)-move
‘(The cat) flies through the air wiggling its legs.’18
treadmill cl ml (2b-move2)
‘I am walking on a treadmill.’
4.3 Handling CLPs
4.3.1 Initial investigation
ball heavy cl we (5b5b)-move
‘[The canary] is carrying the heavy ball.’19
ix-1 dog table cl hl (cc)-move.down
‘I move the dog down from the table (by my hands, not by shouting).’
man stick cl hl (s)
‘The man holds a stick.’
man stick cl we (s)-be-a
‘The man causes a stick to be there (at location A).’
rope cl hl (ss)-move.forward
‘[The cat] swings on the rope.’ MBH21
cl hl (s)-move.down
‘[The cat] falls while holding [the canary].’ MWH
4.3.2 Elicitation results
As discussed in Sect. 3, corpus data has the advantage of being naturalistic and providing us with unexpected usages of classifiers, but it does not often contain minimal pairs (triplets) with exactly the same classifier used in minimally different contexts. Thus we elicited such contexts with the help of short animated clips.
As discussed above, 10 signers of RSL participated, and each had to describe 21 situations (7 different objects/trajectories * 3 types of handling). It turns out that (i) not surprisingly, all signers use handling classifiers in the RH contexts; (ii) all signers used handling classifiers in at least one of the MBH contexts; (iii) five of the signers also used handling classifiers in some MWH contexts; (iv) handling classifiers can also be used in the MWH and MBH contexts with complex trajectories. Note also that the difference between MBH and MWH contexts might be less important than it seems: the signers who never used handling classifiers in MWH contexts also rarely used them in the MBH contexts. All together, 39 out of 70 possible MBH descriptions contained an appropriate handling CLP, and 27 out of 70 possible MWH descriptions contained an appropriate handling CLP. It is difficult to interpret these numbers in general, because it is clear that the MWH and MBH contexts can be described without the classifier construction that we are interested in, so the proportion of cases in which such a construction was used is not informative. What is informative is that handling CLPs clearly are compatible with the MBH and MWH contexts for native signers.
Based on elicited data, another observation is that in MBH and MWH contexts, the handling CLP often does not occur alone. For instance, the handling CLP might be articulated simultaneously with a whole-entity CLP on the other hand describing the movement of either the holder or the held object. We think such cases should be analyzed as coordination of predicates, as argued by Zwitserlood (2017). We leave the analysis of these structures for future research and focus on explaining the use of handling CLPs in isolation in Sect. 5.5.
5 Our proposal
In this section, we present a formal account of the properties of RSL CLPs discussed in the previous section. Since our account is based on the framework developed by Ramchand (2008a), we briefly outline her approach.22
5.1 Theoretical framework
Researchers working in various frameworks agree on the basic insight that argument structure is to a large extent dependent on event structure (see, for instance, Borer 2005; Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2005; Van Valin 2005; Ramchand 2008a).
The man builds houses.
*The houses build the man.
Ramchand (2008a) takes the idea that argument structure is dependent on event structure further. In her approach, thematic roles of arguments are directly derived from the positions they take in the syntactically encoded event structure. Consider the representation for the sentence ‘John broke the glass’ in (25). Note that this is a representation of the structure below the VP (the first phase, in Ramchand’s terms), not of a full clause, so tense marking and agreement are not represented.
John broke the glass.
Karena jogged two miles.
Ariel danced her shoes ragged.
Maximal monoclausal event structure:
5.2 Whole-entity CLPs
As we discussed in Sect. 4.1, whole-entity CLPs in RSL behave as intransitive unaccusatives: they have one argument, which is the Theme (Undergoer) that moves or is located, and the classifier refers to this argument.
Furthermore, if we want to account for the transitive use of whole-entity CLPs (as in (11)) using the same structure, we only need to claim that the external argument is introduced above the VP (similar to what we will claim for body-part CLPs). The classifier handshape still is an agreement marker agreeing with the Undergoer argument, even if an external argument is present.
A general note on our analysis of the classifier as an agreement morpheme is due. Various researchers (Glück and Pfau 1998; Zwitserlood 2003) have provided arguments in favor of analyzing classifier morphemes as agreement markers (in DGS and NGT, respectively). The crucial piece of evidence for us consists of two elements: (1) the classifier is used alongside a full NP argument in the clause, so it is not an instance of noun incorporation (Meir 2001), and (2) the shape of the classifier is determined by the class of the argument it refers to. In Sect. 6.2, we further discuss another prediction that the agreement analysis makes, namely the expected pro-drop licensing by a classifier predicate.25
The whole-entity CLPs are intransitive unaccusative, because the verbal root is only associated with the proc head, so only one Undergoer argument is licensed.26 Some instances of transitive use are also attested, so another argument can be introduced independently of the type of classifier.
The shape of the classifier is dependent on the Undergoer argument of the verb, because the classifier is an agreement morpheme.
5.3 Body-part CLPs
As discussed in Sect. 4.2, body-part CLPs in RSL are transitive: they combine with a body-part argument (that undergoes the movement described by the CLP), and, optionally, the possessor of the body-part argument, which is the subject (if present). Importantly, the possessor subject is not interpreted thematically as Agent (recall example (13)).
Since the subject is not an Agent, or in Ramchand’s (2008a) terminology, not an Initiator, we suggest that body-part CLPs in RSL have in fact the same underlying event structure as whole-entity CLPs: the verbal root is associated with the proc head, and it therefore licenses only the Undergoer argument (the body part). The body-part argument moves to the specifier of AgrP, headed by the classifier; the choice of classifier is achieved through agreement. This structure is represented in (30).
my head cl bp (s)-move
‘My head moves.’
5.4 The ‘moving legs’ CLP
In Sect. 4.2, we demonstrated that the ‘moving legs’ CLP has a complex event structure. Specifically, it describes two events: the movement of the legs, which is controlled by the possessor, and the movement of the whole person, which does not have to be controlled by the moving person. The first event is expressed by the movement of the fingers, while the second event is expressed by the movement of the hand. Furthermore, this CLP can only have one overt argument: the moving person.27
Event structure for a ‘moving legs’ CLP: first attempt
cl ml (2b-move2)-move
‘(The cat) flies through the air wiggling its legs.’29
Event structure for a ‘moving legs’ CLP: second attempt
Event structure for a ‘moving legs’ CLP: third attempt
Morphologically, the verbal root move2 is the movement of the fingers; the Initiator argument is a full noun phrase which becomes the subject, and the Undergoer argument is the clml-2b handshape. The argument and the verbal root fuse in phonology, because neither handshape nor movement alone can constitute a well-formed sign.30
Turning to the right daughter of XP, it represents the event of a person moving in space. As discussed above, this movement is not necessarily controlled, so we suggest that the same movement root present in other classifier predicates discussed in the two previous sections is also present here. This move root is only associated with the proc head and thus only licenses the presence of a single Undergoer argument (the moving person).
Morphologically, the verbal root in the right daughter of XP is just the movement of the hand. Since, as discussed for the move2 root above, the movement of the hand cannot be physiologically realized without a handshape, it fuses with or cliticizes to the predicate in the left daughter in phonology. Note that after linearization move will be adjacent to the clml(2b-move2) complex.
We find further evidence for the structure in the fact that each daughter of the XP can occur on its own, without the other daughter. As discussed in Sect. 4.2, the movement of the legs might be described without the movement of the person, e.g. in a situation of a person walking on a treadmill (18), and the movement of the person can be described without the movement of the legs (14b).
To sum up, our analysis of the ‘moving legs’ CLP is very different from our analysis for whole-entity and body-part CLPs. Firstly, the proposed event structure is more complex, as it no longer fits the maximal monoclausal event structure proposed by Ramchand (2008a). Secondly, the classifier handshape is not analyzed as an agreement marker, but as an argument referring to the legs.
5.5 Handling CLPs
rope cl hl (ss)-move.forward
‘[The cat] swings on the rope.’ MBH33
cl hl (s)-move.down
‘[The cat] falls while holding [the canary].’ MWH
ix-1 cup cl hl (b)-move
‘I moved the cup with the back of my hand.’
Morphologically, the Initiator argument and the Location argument are full noun phrases. The Resultee argument (the hand) is realized as the signer’s hand itself, and it fuses with the verbal root keep in a way parallel to the ‘moving legs’ CLP model. The verbal root itself does not have a distinguishable form: together with the hand argument, it is realized as a particular configuration of the hand, e.g. as a curved hand when holding round objects, or as a flat hand when touching objects. We would argue that the shape of the hand in this case is determined not via agreement with an argument, but via an iconic demonstration procedure, which we further discuss in 6.3. The reason not to analyze the handshape as agreement here is the same as for the ‘moving legs’ argument in Sect. 5.4: the hand cannot be realized as an overt NP in the same clause.
The right daughter of the XP in (39) is basically the same as in the structure for the ‘moving legs’ CLP: it describes a potentially uncontrolled movement of the hand. That this movement can be uncontrolled is clear in the MBH situations (37). The verbal root move is thus a proc head.
Again, as in the case of the ‘moving legs’ CLP, the verbal root in the right daughter of the XP contains movement only, so it is not a well-formed sign. Therefore, it fuses with the handshape and the movement of the verbal sign in the left daughter, to form the complex CLP: clhl(s)-keep-move. Notice that, after linearization, the two verbal roots will be adjacent, because in RSL, similarly to other sign languages, CLPs are clause-final (see all examples above). The Locative argument (the stick in (39)) will have to move to a specifier outside the VP.
The compositional meaning derived from the event structure in (39) is thus as follows: ‘The man (Initiator) keeps his hand (Undergoer-Resultee) at the stick (Location), and it (the hand) moves.’ It should be clear that this event semantics is compatible with all three contexts in which handling CLPs can be used. In regular handling, the man keeps his hand around the stick, and he deliberately moves his hand forward (thereby also moving the stick). In ‘moving because handling’ situations, the man keeps his hand around the stick, and the stick moves independently, causing the man’s hand (and maybe also the man) to move. Finally, in ‘moving while handling’ situations, the man keeps his hand around the stick, and the man moves, but since he is holding the stick, the stick also moves.
We thus argue that the choice between the three meanings is not encoded in syntax. Instead, the linguistically-encoded meaning is compatible with all three scenarios, and the choice of interpretation is based on context/pragmatics.
man stick cl hl (s)-keep
‘The man holds a stick.’ (lit.: ‘The man keeps his hand around the stick.’)
Our analyses for the ‘moving legs’ and handling CLPs, while similar, are also not identical. One difference between the ‘moving legs’ CLP and handling CLPs concerns the number of arguments: while the ‘moving legs’ CLP has only one overt argument (not counting the Source and Goal arguments) not fused with the verb, handling CLPs also have a Location argument (the object that is being held).
A major conclusion of this section, and to a large extent, of this paper in general, is that, at least in RSL, the relation between classifier type and argument structure is more complex than suggested by, for instance, Benedicto and Brentari (2004) for ASL. In RSL, different classifier types involve different phenomena: some classifiers are agreement markers (and thus are not really related to argument structure at all), while others are incorporated arguments. Contrary to Benedicto and Brentari (2004), we do not find support for the proposal that classifiers themselves introduce functional heads to host and assign thematic roles to arguments.
6.1 Event structure of CLPs larger than expected?
In our analyses of the ‘moving legs’ and handling CLPs in RSL, we argued that they have an event structure that is more complex than predicted by Ramchand (2008a) for monoclausal structures: these CLPs involve an event structure in which the sub-events do not form a causal chain but appear to belong to two independent sub-events. We have to ask ourselves what this means theoretically.
One option is to say that the ‘moving legs’ and handling CLPs in RSL are actually bi-clausal structures. The first clause then describes the first event, and the second clause describes the second event. Within such an approach, the fact that the event structure is complex does not constitute a problem, as the restrictions on how complex the event structure of a complex sentence can be are clearly much looser. However, this solution does not seem ideal.
Firstly, we would then need to claim that the bi-clausal structure can in fact be realized as a single one-handed sign. It is not clear what would be more far-fetched: to claim that event structure in sign languages can be more complex than expected, or to claim that single signs in sign languages can be bi-clausal structures. Secondly, it is very hard to find any evidence for the presence of two clauses within CLPs. Obviously, it is not possible to apply movement tests, because the putative clauses are realized as single signs. Other tests, such as, for instance, negation, would also not be directly applicable. In a bi-clausal structure, we would expect negation to be able to scope separately over one of the two clauses. However, in the case of CLPs, both manual and non-manual negation would be syntactically outside the level at which the two clauses are combined, so the lack of scopal ambiguity would not be informative.
We are thus more inclined to conclude that, in RSL (and probably other sign languages), some CLPs do in fact have a monoclausal event structure that is more complex than predicted by Ramchand (2008a) for spoken languages.
The hawk screeched across the sky.
While this paper is devoted to the argument and event structure of CLPs, it is necessary to say a couple of words about other verbs in RSL. We expect that non-classifier predicates in RSL have the same event structures and therefore the same argument structures as proposed for verbs in spoken languages. In fact, Kimmelman (2018a) has recently analyzed lexical verbs in RSL demonstrating that they fit neatly into verb classes widely attested in spoken languages. Moreover, whole-entity CLPs and body-part CLPs in RSL are also not special in terms of event and argument structure: they are simply predicates of motion, which happen to lack phonological specification for handshape, so they are combined with classifier morphemes. However, we have argued that the ‘moving legs’ and handling CLPs in RSL have complex event structures, and we hypothesize that non-classifier predicates in RSL (or other signed or spoken languages) will not have these complex event structures.
Finally, it is important to note that we are not the first to claim that event structure in classifier predicates is more complex than event structure of verbs in spoken languages. Bradley (2013) argued, in particular, that CLPs in ASL do not obey some of the constraints on macro-events identified by Bohnemeyer et al. (2007). For instance, verbs in spoken languages can either encode or entail change of direction in the path, but not both (Unique Vector Constraint), but CLPs in ASL can both encode and entail change of direction. At the same time, lexical verbs in ASL obey the constraints. Another example is provided by Calderón Verde et al. (2018), who recently argued for a complex event structure in CLPs in Sign Language of Cuba.
It would be interesting to see whether all the differences in event structures between CLPs and other verbs in spoken and signed languages can be derived from a single underlying mechanism, such as demonstration (discussed below). However, this goes far beyond the scope of this paper.
6.2 Classifiers as agreement markers?
Some of the influential previous accounts of CLPs analyzed classifiers as agreement markers (Glück and Pfau 1998; Zwitserlood 2003). Benedicto and Brentari (2004) analyze classifiers as functional heads which introduce functional projections to host arguments, but also participate in agreement with the argument. However, in our analysis, only whole-entity and body-part classifiers are agreement markers, while in the ‘moving legs’ and handling CLPs, the handshape is analyzed as an argument.
In Sect. 5, we discussed two main arguments to analyze some, but not other classifier handshapes as agreement morphemes. Firstly, the handshapes in whole-entity and body-part CLPs co-occur with overt co-referent arguments in the same clause, so they cannot be instances of incorporation. For the ‘moving legs’ and handling handshapes, the opposite applies: they cannot co-occur with an overt argument (that is, the legs or the hand argument). Secondly, the choice of whole-entity and body-part classifier handshapes is dependent on the argument, which is nicely modeled as Spec-Head agreement. For the ‘moving legs’ CLP, the handshape actually cannot be changed at all. For handling CLPs, the handshape does change depending on the way the handling is performed (but not necessarily depending on the shape of the object being moved), but we model this via demonstration in Sect. 6.3.
book-ai, boy think proishelf clwe(b)-be.at
‘This booki, the boy thinks, iti is on the shelf.’
book-ai, boy think ix-b man proishelf clhl(fO)-move
‘This booki, the boy thinks, the man has put iti on the shelf.’
*book-ai, boy thinkman ix-b buy proi
‘This booki, the boy thinks the man bought iti.’
*book-ai, boy thinkman ix-b see-a proi
‘This booki, the boy thinks the man saw iti.’
6.3 The role of demonstration
Finally, let us return to the issue of iconicity and demonstration. As we discussed at the very beginning of the paper, CLPs are highly iconic. However, so far, we have completely ignored this iconicity. The reason for this is that we are convinced that the underlying grammatical properties of classifier predicates have to be linguistic in nature, as they are used as linguistic entities (predicates), and have linguistic properties. Specifically, they have argument structure: they combine with certain arguments; the number of arguments and their thematic roles are restricted. And as it turns out, it is possible to describe the argument and event structures of the CLPs using the same framework that has been applied to spoken languages.
man clml(2b-move2)-move ‘A man moves his legs and moves forward.’
Whole clause: ∃e.[theme(e1,man)∧moving(e1)∧demonstration(d1,e1) ∧agent(e2,man)∧theme(e2,legs)∧move(e2) ∧ demonstration(d2,e2)]
[[the gestural movement of the hand]]=d1
[[the gestural movement of the fingers]]=d2
man stick clhl(s)-keep-move ‘A man holds the stick and it moves.’
Whole clause: ∃e.[theme(e1,man)∧moving(e1)∧demonstration(d1,e1) ∧agent(e2,man)∧theme(e2,hand)∧location(e2,stick) ∧keep(e2)∧demonstration(d2,e2)]
[[the gestural movement of the hand]]=d1
[[the shape of the hand]]=d2
Finally, our analysis, according to which handling classifier handshapes involve demonstration, while whole-entity and body-part classifier handshapes are purely morphological, seems to be supported by recent psycholinguistic research discussed in Sect. 2.1 (Sehyr and Cormier 2015). Nevertheless, further research is clearly needed to pin down the iconic aspects of CLPs in RSL, as well as in other sign languages. Importantly we already have the tools to formally model these iconic aspects (see also Schlenker (2014)).
In this paper, we analyzed argument and event structures of the major types of classifier predicates in Russian Sign Language. We used a combination of naturalistic corpus data and data elicited trough various techniques. We argued that whole-entity and body-part classifiers are agreement markers, while the ‘moving legs’ and handling classifiers are in fact arguments fused with the verbal root. Concerning event structure, we argued that whole-entity and body-part CLPs contain the move root which is a proc head (it is a dynamic event describing the movement of a single Undergoer argument). In contrast, both the ‘moving legs’ and the handling CLPs have a complex event structure with two verbs, where a movement event is adjoined to another event (either the movement of the legs, or a handling event). We modeled these insights in Ramchand’s (2008a) framework.
Our analysis has two theoretical implications. Firstly, we demonstrated that, at least in RSL, classifier type does not straightforwardly determine argument structure, and that classifiers are not functional heads determining thematic roles of arguments, as suggested by Benedicto and Brentari (2004) for ASL. Secondly, we showed that the event structure associated with some classifiers is complex and does not comply with the predictions of Ramchand’s (2008a) model.
One final issue that we want to mention is whether our model of CLPs in RSL could be applied to other sign languages. Previous research on other sign languages suggests that whole-entity CLPs have very similar argument and event structures cross-linguistically, and we would therefore expect our model to be applicable. Body-part CLPs in ASL are intransitive (or transitive underlyingly, but with the internal argument never expressed as a full NP in the sentence), in contrast to what we observed in RSL, so our analysis is not directly applicable. We do not know any detailed descriptions of the analogues of the ‘moving legs’ CLP for other sign languages, so it is difficult to make predictions. In our analysis, this CLP has a verbal root move2, which selects the ‘legs’ argument. Other sign languages might not have the same root. Finally, for handling CLPs in most other sign languages, the more complex event structures that we propose for RSL have not been explicitly described (see Zwitserlood 2003 and Özyürek 2012 for some exceptions). However, through our experience in conducting research on several other sign languages, we expect that handling CLPs in those languages behave in a similar way: they should not only be compatible with regular handling, but also with the other two contexts, and the hand should be a semantic part of these predicates. We expect handling CLPs to be cross-linguistically similar because of the relatively large role of demonstration in such constructions. We therefore think that the main insights of our analysis of handling CLPs will have cross-linguistic validity.
8 Annotation conventions
Signs are glossed in small caps; cl stands for classifier, followed by a subscript indicating the classifier type (we – whole-entity, hl – handling, bp – body part, ml – moving legs), and followed between brackets by a symbol referring to the handshape. Fingerspelled words are glossed with dashes (e.g. m-a-r-i-s-a). Locations in space are glossed with letters (A, B, etc.), and these letters are used in combination with pronouns glossed as ix for index (e.g. ix-a ‘he’) and with agreeing verbs (e.g. look-a ‘look at him’); semantic referential indexes are glossed as non-capitalized subscript (e.g. mani). For the sake of space, nonmanual markers are omitted in all examples. When two hands are producing two different signs simultaneously, they are glossed on separate lines starting with H1 and H2.
We refer to handshapes with letters or numbers that are expressed with these handshapes in the ASL fingerspelling system, with the exception of the “1-l” handshape which is a handshape used for fingerspelling in RSL, but not in ASL. All the handshapes can be viewed at https://aslfont.github.io/Symbol-Font-For-ASL/asl/handshapes.html (accessed 12 March 2019). The correspondences between the symbols we use and the names on the webpage in the Gloss column are as follows: 1 – 1, 2 – V, 2b – Bent-V, 5b – Bent-5 Claw, 3 – 3, B – B, C – C, F – F, fO – Flat-O, S – S, 1-L – 1-l.
All examples come from Russian Sign Language, unless specified otherwise. Signs are glossed in small caps; cl stands for classifier. For the sake of space, nonmanual markers are omitted in all examples. See further the annotation conventions at the end of the paper.
A small downward movement is used to express location of a referent that does not move.
Here, we only mean static size-and-shape specifiers, because tracing specifiers do not belong to the system of classifier predicates, as convincingly argued e.g. by Zwitserlood (2012).
See, however, de Lint (2018) on a recent account of classifier predicates in NGT arguing against some of the generalizations above.
This and the following examples are simplified representations of the proposal in Benedicto and Brentari (2004).
Grose (2008) also developed a general analysis of event and argument structures for ASL in terms somewhat similar to the ones we are going to use in Sect. 5. We do not discuss his proposal in detail, focussing instead on comparing empirical claims about ASL to our findings for RSL, and on assessing Benedicto and Brentari (2004) against RSL data.
It also optionally selects one or two external arguments, the Goal and the Source.
See the preliminary results of the census reported here: http://www.rg.ru/2011/12/16/stat.html (accessed 12 March 2019).
Retelling of this cartoon has been used to investigate classifier predicates and spatial language in general in many previous studies of sign languages and co-speech gesture.
Animations were created by A. Rysaeva. We thank her for her kind collaboration.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/198/t/871901/d/874614.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/31/t/40300/d/45300.
See glossing conventions at the end of the paper for the description of all handshapes mentioned in the text.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/198/t/915760/d/918184.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/198/t/237242/d/238222.
H1 and H2 stand for the two hands which simultaneously perform different signs.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/21/t/41040/d/42610.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/311/t/41250/d/42500.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/243/t/18310/d/19870.
Note, however, that Zwitserlood excludes these non-standard usages of handling classifiers by definition, so her analysis is not supposed to account for them, as she considers such uses different from the “regular” use of handling classifiers.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/251/t/21461/d/23750.
Note that we do not claim that the RSL data could or should only be accounted for in Ramchand’s framework. On the contrary, it is very likely that different formal analyses are applicable. Much more research would be needed to make a choice between different formal analyses for the RSL data. However, we consider it useful to stick to one commonly accepted framework in this paper, as this framework makes concrete predictions for CLPs in RSL which can be tested.
So in Ramchand’s approach break does not move from one head to another; it is simultaneously inserted in all three positions. This is represented by the <break> notation.
A reviewer pointed out that the root move seems to be too abstract in the sense that it does not contribute any meaning to the structure. In fact, a combination of proc with PathP itself encodes motion along a path. The issue with roots in CLPs being very abstract and lacking traditional lexical meaning has indeed been discussed before, see e.g. Zwitserlood (2003). We cannot resolve this issue in this paper, but we can speculate. First, one can indeed say that there is no root like move; the meaning of motion is fully encoded by the empty proc head in combination with the PathP. There is a problem, however, with the syntax-phonology interface, as we then would need to postulate some rule that would match this syntactic structure without any lexical item in the proc head to movement of the hand. Second, another option is to say that there is in fact additional meaning associated with the root, namely the demonstration component, which we discuss in Sect. 6.3. Informally, the root comes with the additional signal saying ‘interpret this movement iconically.’
Note also that Kimmelman and Khristoforova (2018) have argued that whole-entity classifiers in RSL are in fact not agreement markers, but predicate modifiers associated with the Undergoer argument. If this is indeed the case, then the analysis in (29) has to be revised slightly. The main observation, namely that whole-entity classifiers do not determine argument or event structure, still holds.
We disregard the potential locative arguments here.
Here, as with all CLPs, we disregard the Source and Goal arguments.
The moving legs event should also have an init layer, as we discuss below.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/311/t/41250/d/42500.
One could argue that the Undergoer argument is incorporated into the verbal root after Head Movement (Baker 2009). However, more research is necessary to see whether this is indeed incorporation, or simply a phonological process.
See also Aboh (2009) for a discussion on SVCs.
There are some indications that when SVCs in spoken languages involve coordination, this severely restricts interpretive possibilities (Basu and Wilbur 2010). Since we do not observe such restrictions in RSL, it could be used as an argument for the adjunction analysis.
Video available at http://rsl.nstu.ru/data/view/id/251/t/21461/d/23750.
In a series of papers, Wilbur argues for the Event Visibility Hypothesis (EVH); she argues that event structure is visible in phonology (Wilbur 2008, 2010). It is not our purpose in this paper to test this theory against RSL data. However, it seems that at least our analysis for the left daughter of XP in (39) is problematic for the EVH: while the event structure we propose is telic, as it has the res head, there is no movement with a change of a parameter as would be predicted by the EVH—in fact, there is no movement at all. As for the other event structures that we propose, they seem to be unproblematic for the EVH: mostly, CLPs have path movement, which either has or lacks an abrupt end point, and thus can be either telic or atelic.
One might decide that such cases of handling CLPs describing touching are a different construction altogether, and only account for the holding scenario. In this case, the left daughter of XP in (39) can get a simpler structure, namely the same one as the English verb hold would have: the holder is the Initiator, and the held object is the Undergoer-Resultee. However, this leads to another problem: if the hand is no longer an argument in the left daughter of XP in (39), it is unclear why it would not be expressed overtly in the right daughter. Our analysis accounts for this fact: the Undergoer argument in the right daughter of XP is a PRO controlled by the Undergoer-Resultee argument in the left daughter—and also allows us to analyze holding and touching cases uniformly.
We modified the example here to include the verbal root keep, which we only introduced in this section.
A better parallel to the complex event CLPs in RSL might be represented by some SVCs, like the ones in Saramaccan discussed above. In Veenstra’s (1996) analysis the two verbs in SVCs are not in a complementation relation; instead, the combination is formed via adjunction. Further research is necessary to show similarities and differences between SVCs and CLPs in sign languages.
Recently, the traditional division of verbs into agreeing and plain has been questioned by e.g. Lourenço and Wilbur (2018), who argued for Brazilian Sign Language that all verbs agree by co-localization, except for the ones that are phonologically restricted. If this is correct, it raises questions about the proposed relation between agreement and pro-drop discussed below. Clearly more research is needed on this relation, as we also show for classifier predicates.
Recall also that Kimmelman and Khristoforova (2018) argued that whole-entity classifiers in RSL are not agreement markers, but predicate modifiers. This is largely compatible with our analysis, and deserves further investigation.
This research was supported by the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO, grant number 360-70-520). We are also grateful to Marloes Oomen, Vanja de Lint, Gillian Ramchand, Diane Lillo-Martin, the three anonymous reviewers, and the audiences at GLOW 40 and FEAST 2017 for their comments. We wish to thank the RSL signers who participated in this research.
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