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Conceptualizing the phonology of sign language: As a matter of emphasis and elucidation

Patrick Sibanda


Like any other language, sign language is, among other things, guided by phonological principles involving several parameters combining in space to form lexical signs. According to Klima and Bellugi (1979), a simple lexical sign is essentially a simultaneous occurrence of a particular value of each of the several parameters.  These parameters occur within a constrained signing space in combination with each other. William Stokoe (1960) equated phonology in oral language to what he termed cherology in sign language. However, most sign linguists prefer to use the term phonology. In oral language, phonology is the study of sounds, but in sign language, it is concerned with the parameters that make sign language a systematic and intelligible language system. One basic difference between oral and sign language is that in oral language we use words while in sign language we use signs. The other important difference is that while oral language is produced in the oral cavity using articulatory organs such as the mouth, sign language is produced in space using mostly the hands. Yet the structural difference is that while a phoneme in oral language is the basic unit of a word a chereme in sign language is the basic unit of a sign. In oral language words are organized sequentially while the signs in sign language are organized as a combination of simultaneously occurring components derived from several spatial dimensions. The purpose of this paper is to examine the parameters that characterize sign language and to demonstrate the formation, vocabulary and organization of signs. The paper demonstrates how signs are executed in space. The paper addresses four major phonological (cherological) parameters of sign language, namely hand configuration (hand shape), place of articulation (location / position), movement and orientation. Major parameters save to distinguish very large classes of signs. In addition the paper articulates how these parameters combine to formulate meaningful signs within the constrained signing space. From the analysis, the author concludes that the phonology of sign language is highly complex and is resident in space as a function of the hand acting as a highly articulatory linguistic organ.


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