The Challenge of Sign Language Phonology

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Comparing phonology in spoken language and sign language reveals that core properties, such as features, feature categories, the syllable, and constraints on form, exist in both naturally occurring language modalities. But apparent ubiquity can be deceptive. The features themselves are quintessentially different, and key properties, such as linearity and arbitrariness, although universal, occur in inverse proportions to their counterparts, simultaneity and iconicity, in the two modalities. Phonology does not appear full blown in a new sign language, but it does gradually emerge, accruing linguistic structure over time. Sign languages suggest that the phonological component of the language faculty is a product of the ways in which the physical system, cognitive structure, and language use among people interact over time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-63
Number of pages21
JournalAnnual Review of Linguistics
StatePublished - 14 Jan 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.


  • Sign language
  • duality of patterning
  • iconicity
  • language emergence
  • phonology
  • simultaneity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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