SASLJ Vol. 2 No. 2 - Page 8

Revolution for Deaf People's Language Lillo-Martin Summary Before 1960, signs had been described and illustrated in dictionaries and other sources, but the general treatment was a holistic description of an image created by a sign. Using the structuralist approach, Stokoe identified three primary components to individual signs. He used the term ‘tabula’, abbreviated ‘tab’, to indicate the location at which a sign is made, such as the brow, neck, neutral space in front of the body, or even the non-dominant hand. ‘Designator’, or ‘dez’, was Stokoe’s term for the hand configurations, most of which were represented by the English letter denoted by that handshape in the fingerspelling system. Finally, he called the movement of the sign its ‘signation’, or ‘sig’. Stokoe aimed to identify only the distinctive components of a sign, and he grouped together those aspects that were not used distinctively. For example, he saw no minimal pairs distinguishing signs using the handshapes representing G, D, or 1, so he grouped them together with the label G. The system was meant to find contrast and groupings, not to accurately describe each component in detail. Many of Stokoe’s observations about the form of signs have stood the test of time, but not all of his ideas have been sustained. The characterization of hand configuration, location, and movement as the primary ‘parameters’ of sign formation is still generally accepted, although Stokoe’s obscure terms for these characteristics have fallen out of usage. Similarly, while Stokoe eschewed the term ‘phonology’ for this level of analysis in signs, given the root phono (‘sound’), and he proposed the use of the terms ‘cherology’, ‘cheremes’, ‘allochers’, etc. (using the root cher, ‘handy’), it did not take long for linguists to drop this neologism and use the terms known from the study of the meaningless components of words in spoken languages. In addition, Stokoe made a number of observations in his long Introduction which are contrary to current understanding. Going beyond the foundational observation that signs are composed of a small set of combinatorial pieces, Stokoe identified a number of other aspects of sign phonology that have stimulated much further research. For example, Stokoe noticed that the non-dominant hand sometimes plays the role of a co-articulator, but sometimes forms the location at which the dominant hand makes a sign. He noted that the non-dominant hand may be omitted in some signs, under some circumstances (now known as weak drop). He also noted other functions of the non- dominant hand, including its potential use in discourse to hold a sign while the dominant hand continues. Stokoe’s work on sign phonology has been the most influential, but he also made a number of observations about what is now considered morphology and syntax. For example, he recognized that some signs are (or are derived from) compounds, and that phonological processes apply to reduce the two signs of a compound into a structure closer to that of a single sign. He recognized that non-manual markings are important in ASL, and that a signer might use non-manual marking to convey both syntactic and paralinguistic functions. He also noted that there are differences in the ways that people sign when producing simultaneous English and Sign as opposed to other contexts. In other words, this is a resource dense with insights and observations that was truly remarkable for its time; modern sign linguists should read it again to remind themselves where different observations were first made, and possibly to latch onto an insight that can lead to a new research direction. SASLJ, Vol. 2, No. 2 – Fall/Winter 2018 8