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Prosody and syntax in sign languages


Department of English Language and Literature
University of Haifa
31905 Haifa


Prosodic structure in sign languages is encoded by articulations of the hands, face, and body. Despite the different physical system, there are many similarities to prosody of spoken language, such as the existence of a prosodic hierarchy, alignment of intonational elements (conveyed by the face) with temporally marked prosodic constituents (conveyed by the hands), and a close relation between prosody and syntax. The latter relation is indirect, however, and does not imply isomorphism. As such, the distribution of intonational elements cannot reliably be used as a diagnostic for syntactic structure, nor can their occurrence be predicted by syntax alone. While the existence of prosody in sign languages underscores the ‘naturalness’ of prosody in human language, the prosodic system emerges gradually, both in children acquiring established sign languages and in new sign languages, underscoring both its complexity and its grammatical character.