Deaf Studies Lecture Series: May 2018

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May 17, 2018 @ 1:15 PM – 3:00 PM
Van Wijkplaats 2, Room 002
2311 BX Leiden
Leiden Deaf Studies

Presenters: Masha Kyuseva & Tessa Verhoef

Dutch Sign Language interpreters present

Size and shape specifiers in Russian Sign Language and how they differ from gesture



Masha Kyuseva, University of Melbourne/University of Birmingham


This talk will present an analysis of Russian Sign Language (RSL) signs denoting size and shape of objects (SASSes). Although SASSes have been found in many sign languages[1], there has been little research focusing on this group of signs (see, however, Ferrara, 2012). At the same time, SASSes represent a worthy of study object, as they exhibit features of both linguistic and gestural nature. The talk will focus on the comparison between RSL SASSes and Russian co-speech iconic gestures of size and shape.

The method of the study entailed a series of psycholinguistic experiments in which participants performed a range of communicative games (“matching task type” scenario). Overall, 16 deaf and 14 hearing individuals participated in the experiments. The talk will cover the following topics:

  • data collection specifics for SASSes vs. co-speech gestures
  • use of the manual components in RSL SASSes vs. Russian co-speech gestures
  • use of the mouth in RSL SASSes
  • speech vs. gesture interaction



Bauer, A. (2014). The Use of Signing Space in a Shared Sign Language of Australia. De Gruyter Mouton.

Ferrara, L. (2012). The grammar of depiction: Exploring gesture and language in Australian Sign Language (Auslan) (PhD thesis). Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Johnston, T., & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge University Press.

Supalla, T. R. (1986). The Classifier System in American Sign Language. In C. Craig (Ed.), Noun Classes and Categorization (pp. 181–214). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Sutton-Spence, R., & Woll, B. (1999). The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Zwitserlood, I. (2003). Classifying hand configurations in Nederlandse Gebarentaal (Sign Language of the Netherlands). Utrecht: LOT.

[1] See, for example, Zwitserlood 2003 (Sign Language of the Netherlands), Supalla 1986; Valli & Lucas 1995 (American Sign Language), Trevor Johnston & Schembri, 2007 (Australian Sign Language), Sutton-Spence & Woll 1999 (British Sign Language), Bauer 2014 (Yolngu Sign Language).


Experiments investigating the emergence of structure and meaning in gesture and sign language.



Tessa Verhoef, Leiden University


Language is an important defining feature of the human species. There is, however, still a lot we do not know about how language evolved. I will discuss recent data collected as part of several studies that mimic language evolution processes by inviting participants to take part in experiments online and in interactive games. In sign languages and gesture, systematic preferences have been found for the use of different iconic naming strategies when representing tools. In this talk, I will present experiments that were conducted to explore the influence of biases in gestural representation on the emergence of conventionalized patterns in sign languages. In a large-scale online experiment we mapped out the initial biases people have for pairing ACTION and OBJECT concepts related to tools (e.g. ‘using a toothbrush’ and ‘a toothbrush’) with HANDLING (showing how you hold it) and INSTRUMENT (showing what it looks like). In line with earlier findings (Padden et al., 2015; Ortega & Ozyurek, 2016), we show that non-signers have a strong preference for HANDLING forms. We also find a strong preference for mapping HANDLING to ACTION and INSTRUMENT to OBJECT. The second experiment investigates the effects of these biases on the learnability of artificial languages. We see a clear influence of the tension between learning biases and gestural preferences on the changes happening in these systems. In addition, I will show how Microsoft Kinect, a technology that was designed for video game control, can be used to measure formal changes in gesture as a consequence of conventionalization in interactive games. The results of these experiments contribute to our understanding of the relation between the macro-level patterns we see emerge in languages and the micro-level individual behaviors and cognitive biases that shape them.