The emergence of referential shift devices in three young sign languages

Rose Stamp, Wendy Sandler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Speakers use a range of devices, such as nouns and pronouns, to introduce referents and to indicate a shift between multiple referents. Sign languages also exploit different devices for signalling reference and referential shift. In established sign languages, the hands convey words and proforms, while the face, head, and body also contribute to the reference system, both mimetically and abstractly. Here we investigate how a system of referential shift emerges at different points in the development of young languages with varying socio-linguistic characteristics: Israeli Sign Language (large, heterogeneous, geographically dispersed population), Al-Sayyid Bedouin SL, and Kufr Qassem SL (smaller, homogeneous village/town settings). Early on, signers favor both lexical symbols and mimetic use of the body for shifting reference. Over time, more abstract structures with more simultaneous complexity increase. These factors interact with characteristics of the language community, suggesting a role for the amount and type of interaction in the emergence of reference in language.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103070
StatePublished - Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme , grant agreement No. 340140 . Thanks to Shai Davidi for video and other technical assistance, to Shiri Barnhart for her administrative help, and to Debi Menashe for her ISL expertise. We are grateful to the participants of Deictic Communication 2017 and the International Congress of Linguists, Cape Town for their useful feedback. Special thanks go to all of our deaf participants who were involved in our study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors


  • Abstract
  • Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
  • Body
  • Interaction
  • Israeli Sign Language
  • Kufr Qassem Sign Language
  • Language emergence
  • Mimetic
  • Reference
  • Referential shift

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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