A Construction Morphology Approach to Sign Language Analysis

  • Ryan LepicEmail author
  • Corrine Occhino
Part of the Studies in Morphology book series (SUMO, volume 4)


In this chapter, we extend a usage-based theory of Construction Morphology to the analysis of sign language structure, to address two long-standing categorization problems in sign language linguistics. Sign language linguistics traditionally distinguishes monomorphemic core lexical signs from multimorphemic classifier construction signs, based on whether or not a sign form exhibits analyzable morphological structure (“the Core vs. Classifier problem”). In this tradition, core signs are retrieved from the lexicon, while classifier signs are derived productively via grammatical rules. Sign linguists are also accustomed to classifying discrete and listable aspects of sign structure as language, while aspects of signing that exhibit more holism or gradience are considered to be gesture (“the Language vs. Gesture problem”). These categories of core vs. classifier on the one hand and language vs. gesture on the other derive from a shared source: the assumption that linguistic forms are built up from discrete building blocks. Instead, we analyze multimodal usage events in terms of constructions, conventional patterns of meaning and form containing both fixed elements and variable slots and organized in a structured network. We argue that the Construction Morphology approach leads to a uniform analysis of core and classifier signs alike, without resorting to an a priori distinction between language and gesture.


Sign language Usage-based Construction grammar Lexicon Classifier Gesture 



We wish to thank Geert Booij, Onno Crasborn, Wendy Sandler, Lynn Hou, and Hope Morgan for their careful and very helpful comments on this chapter. We also wish to acknowledge the input and contributions of Satu Siltaloppi, Stephanie Johnston, and Brennan Terhune-Cotter, as well as the audience members in the “Constructions in Language” session at the 2017 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, for their thoughtful questions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Goldin-Meadow Laboratory, University of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Rochester Institute of TechnologyRochesterUSA

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