Constructing complexity in a young sign language

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A universally acknowledged, core property of language is its complexity, at each level of structure - sounds, words, phrases, clauses, utterances, and higher levels of discourse. How does this complexity originate and develop in a language? We cannot fully answer this question from spoken languages, since they are all thousands of years old or descended from old languages. However, sign languages of deaf communities can arise at any time and provide empirical data for testing hypotheses related to the emergence of language complexity. An added advantage of the signed modality is a correspondence between visible physical articulations and linguistic structures, providing a more transparent view of linguistic complexity and its emergence (Sandler, 2012). These essential characteristics of sign languages allow us to address the issue of emerging complexity by documenting the use of the body for linguistic purposes. We look at three types of discourse relations of increasing complexity motivated by research on spoken languages - additive, symmetric, and asymmetric (Mann and Thompson, 1988; Sanders et al., 1992). Each relation type can connect units at two different levels: within propositions (simpler) and across propositions (more complex).1 We hypothesized that these relations provide a measure for charting the time course of emergence of complexity, from simplest to most complex, in a new sign language. We test this hypothesis on Israeli Sign Language (ISL), a young language, some of whose earliest users are still available for recording. Taking advantage of the unique relation in sign languages between bodily articulations and linguistic form, we study fifteen ISL signers from three generations, and demonstrate that the predictions indeed hold. We also find that younger signers tend to converge on more systematic marking of relations, that they use fewer articulators for a given linguistic function than older signers, and that the form of articulations becomes reduced, as the language matures. Mapping discourse relations to the bodily expression of linguistic components across age groups reveals how simpler, less constrained, and more gesture-like expressions, become language.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2202
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberDEC
StatePublished - 13 Dec 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Dachkovsky, Stamp and Sandler.


  • Compositionality
  • Discourse relations
  • Gesture
  • Language complexity
  • Language emergence
  • Sign languages
  • Use of body

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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