Phonological features and feature classes: The case of movements in sign language

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The signs of sign language consist phonetically of hand configurations, locations on the body or in space, and movements. Some models claim that dynamic movements and static locations are the sequential segments of sign language, and even that movements are analogous to vowels. Others claim that movements are redundant, or in any case should not be represented as fully-fledged sequential segments. The present study measures movements against stringent phonological and morphological criteria for featurehood and classhood, in light of the current controversy over their status. Data from American Sign Language and from Israeli Sign Language support the claims made here, among them, that there is a set of phonologically contrastive features of movement which is phonetically coherent, and that these features constitute a class that is referred to in a blocking constraint on Multiple inflection and other processes. It is shown that the distinction between sequences of dynamic movements and static elements in signs is exploited in templatic morphology in both sign languages. While this analysis supports the claim that movements are phonologically significant at the underlying level, it suggests that their linear position need not be lexically specified.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-220
Number of pages24
Issue number1-3 SPEC. ISS.
StatePublished - Mar 1996

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
From the earliest days of sign language linguistics, it has been accepted that there arc threc categories of phonological features: hand configuration, location, and ~' I am very grateful ~o Harry van der Hulsl and to anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this paper. Thanks as well to paflic:.pants for their questions and comments at the following conferences where earlier versLon:+o f this paper were presented: the Workshop on Sign Language Phonology and Morphology. Amsterdam and Leiden, July 1993; the Linguistics Association ef Great Britain Annual Meeting, Saiford 1994; and the Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics, Haifa !q94+ I also wish m thank the following israeli Sign Language signers for their dedicated and excellent work: Meir Etedgi, Oma Halevy, and Doron Levy. The Israeli Sign Language research is supported by grants from the Israel Academy of Sciences and Israel Foundations Trustees. * E-mail:

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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