Prosody in Israeli sign language

Marina Nespor, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This is a study of the interaction of phonology with syntax, and, to some extent, with meaning, in a natural sign language. It adopts the theory of prosodic phonology (Nespor & Vogel, 1986), testing both its assumptions, which had been based on data from spoken language, and its predictions, on the language of the deaf community in Israel. Evidence is provided to show that Israeli Sign Language (ISL) divides its sentences into the prosodic constituents, phonological phrase and intonational phrase. It is argued that prominence falls at the end of phonological phrases, as the theory predicts for languages like ISL, whose basic word order is head first, then complement. It is suggested that this correspondence between prominence pattern and word order may have important implications for language acquisition. An assimilation rule whose domain is the phonological phrase provides further evidence for the phonological phrase constituent. The rule involves a phonetic element that has no equivalent in spoken language: the nondominant hand. In this way, it is shown how a phonetic system that bears no physical relation to that of spoken language is recruited to serve a phonological-syntactic organization that is in many ways the same. The study also provides evidence for the next higher constituent in the prosodic hierarchy, the intonational phrase. Elements such as topicalized constituents form their own intonational phrases in ISL as in spoken languages. Intonational phrases have clear phonetic correlates, one of which is facial expressions which characterize entire intonational phrases. It is argued that facial expressions are analogous to intonational melodies in spoken languages. But unlike the tones of spoken language, which follow one another in a sequence, facial articulations can occur simultaneously with one another and with the rest of the communicative message conveyed by the hands. This difference, it is argued, results from the fact that the many facial articulators are independent, both of each other and of the primary articulators, the hands. The investigation illuminates the similarities as well as the differences of prosodic systems in the two natural human language modalities, and points out directions for future research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-176
Number of pages34
JournalLanguage and Speech
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - 1999


  • Intonation
  • Prosodic phonology
  • Prosody
  • Sign language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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