A new research paper by Assistant Professor Natasha Abner and co-authors appears in the June edition of the journal Language. The paper is titled “The noun-verb distinction in established and emergent sign systems.” 

In the paper, Abner and co-authors Molly Flaherty, Katelyn Stangl, Marie Coppola, Diane Brentari, and Susan Goldin-Meadow adopt a novel approach that incorporates the study of sign language to examine how language structures emerge and develop.

Sign languages offer us a unique opportunity to study fundamental properties of human language - not only because they show us how language 'works' regardless of how you produce (mouth vs. hands) and perceive (ears vs. eyes) it, but also because they have given us an opportunity to watch how language can develop relatively free from outside influence (but still constrained by the 'inside' influences of human biology). When new Deaf communities develop, so too do new sign languages. 

This research works with signers of new sign language that emerged in Nicaragua at the end of the 20th century, Nicaraguan Sign Language, deaf adults in Nicaragua who have had no access to a conventional language (homesigners), and signers of a relatively well-established sign language, American Sign Language, to examine how language structures emerge and develop. 

It focuses on the emergence and development of the grammatical distinction between nouns and verbs, a linguistic distinction that may be rooted in the difference between how we think about objects versus events.

Read the full abstract.