SignRef: Discourse Referents in Space – Anaphora Resolution in German Sign Language

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Principal investigators:
Prof. Dr. Markus Steinbach
Prof. Dr. Nivedita Mani
Prof. Dr. Edgar Onea
Universität Göttingen

Project description:
Natural languages come in two modalities, the oral-auditory modality of spoken languages and the visual-gestural modality of sign languages. Although the two modalities clearly differ in the production and perception of communicative signals, the underlying linguistic structures and cognitive processes seem to be very similar across both modalities. Nevertheless, sign languages retain some modality-specific properties that may impact the linguistic and cognitive processes underlying the perception and production of signed communication. In this project, we focus on a characteristic of sign languages which is directly linked to the modality-specific realization of morphosyntactic, semantic, and pragmatic categories in the three-dimensional signing space: Sign languages actively use the geometrical properties of the signing space to establish discourse referents and disambiguate anaphoric relationships in a way which is alien to oral-auditory languages. The objective of the proposed research project is a theory of the linguistic structure and cognitive processing of anaphoric relations and discourse referents in sign language that is based on empirical and experimental data. On the one hand, this will contribute to the understanding of an under-studied language in the visual-gestural modality. On the other hand, it will also broaden our knowledge of the human language faculty in general and will provide new insights into the influence of modality on linguistic structure.