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Complex classifier constructions and the expression of spatial relations

Complex classifier constructions. Commonly, the conceptual structure of motion predicates in sign languages involves two components, figure and ground (the latter assuming the semantic roles of location, source or goal). In complex classifier constructions, the spatial relationship between the two might be expressed by the dominant and the non-dominant hand (henceforth, h2) respectively. Note that in the classifier system each hand “instead of being a phonological element, may represent a morpheme by its configuration” (Sandler 2006: 193). Hence, in classifier constructions, the non-dominant hand may function as an independent classifier; it can be used with “articulatory freedom” (Sandler 2006: 202), which implies that it can break phonological constraints that hold otherwise of ordinary words, that is, the Symmetry and Dominance conditions[1].

Discourse buoys. H2 classifiers might also be retained in the signing space during a discourse stretch to serve a discourse regulatory function. These classifiers serving the function of conceptual landmarks for discourse are commonly referred to as discourse buoys (for DGS Happ & Vorkoper 2006: 417f.; for ASL Sandler 2006: 195; Liddell et al. 2007; for HKSL Tang et al. 2007: 287). For example

(see (69) from Happ & Vorkoper 2006: 420, our transl.), a referent introduced in a locative predicate (such as tree, in (69)) can be retained in the subsequent expression of a motion predicate, in which the spatial relation is described in relation to the locus of the buoy (that is, cl:tree in (69)).

Notice, in addition, that the non-dominant hand can be used like a second dominant hand for specific discourse functions, for example, to express the simultaneity of two events.

  • [1] Basically, the Dominance condition stipulates that “[i]f the hands of a two-handed lexeme donot share the same specification for handshape, then one hand must be passive while the activehand articulates the movement, and the specification of the passive handshape is restricted to beone of a small set” (Sandler 2006: 188, based on Battison 1978). The Symmetry Condition statesthat “[i]f both hands move independently, then both hands must be specified for the same hand-shape and the same movement (whether performed simultaneously or in alternation), and thespecifications for location and orientation must be either identical or mirror-image.”
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