The medium and the message: Prosodic interpretation of linguistic content in israeli sign language

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In natural communication, the medium through which language is transmitted plays an important and systematic role. Sentences are broken up rhythmically into chunks; certain elements receive special stress; and, in spoken language, intonational tunes are superimposed onto these chunks in particular ways — all resulting in an intricate system of prosody. Investigations of prosody in Israeli Sign Language demonstrate that sign languages have comparable prosodic systems to those of spoken languages, although the phonetic medium is completely different. Evidence for the prosodic word and for the phonological phrase in ISL is examined here within the context of the relationship between the medium and the message. New evidence is offered to support the claim that facial expression in sign languages corresponds to intonation in spoken languages, and the term “superarticulation” is coined to describe this system in sign languages. Interesting formaldiffer ences between the intonationaltunes of spoken language and the “superarticulatory arrays” of sign language are shown to offer a new perspective on the relation between the phonetic basis of language, its phonological organization, and its communicative content.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-215
Number of pages29
JournalSign Language and Linguistics (Online)
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1999

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research is supported in part by Israel Science Foundation grant number 750/99–1. It has been presented in parts and in different stages of development at the conference on The Phonological Word, Berlin, 1997; the workshop on Prosody in Signed and Spoken Language in Haifa, 1997; and at TISLR at Gallaudet, Washington, 1998. My thanks to participants of those conferences for their comments and questions. I also wish to thank SLL reviewers for helpful comments, and ISL consultants Meir Etedgi, Orna Levy, and Doron Levy.


  • Intonation
  • Israeli Sign Language
  • Prosody
  • Sign language
  • Superarticulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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