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In search of a universal grammar

Dr. Fabian Bross from the Institute of Linguistics focuses on the German Sign Language, especially the South German variant. As part of the Publizieren! series, we talked with him about his findings, which he has published in various specialist journals.

The linguist Dr. Fabian Bross explores both the differences and similarities between different spoken languages and sign language.

Linguist Dr. Fabian Bross has been interested in sign languages since he was a university student. He is researching both differences and similarities among various spoken languages and sign languages. In his paper “Object marking in German Sign Language”, which he published in June 2020, the linguist is primarily concerned with the phenomenon of differential object marking. This means that an object within a sentence can be given different markings, depending on the context, and thus it acquires a special meaning. In many languages, animate and uniquely defined objects are marked. Fabian Bross shows that differential object marking is also present in German Sign Language. However, it is almost non-existent in spoken German. Nevertheless, a search for traces shows that approaches to differential object marking can be found in spoken German, too. The research assistant from the Institute of Linguistics won’t be running out of questions anytime soon. The University of Stuttgart is the only university in Southern Germany that conducts linguistic research in sign languages - a unique feature. Fabian Bross would also like to investigate, for example, the youth variation of the sign language.

Original publication

Bross, F. (2020). Object marking in German Sign Language (Deutsche Gebärdensprache): Differential object marking and object shift in the visual modality. In: Glossa, A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1), 63, http://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.992.
Further publications can be found at: https://www.ling.uni-stuttgart.de/institut/team/Bross/.

What are sign languages?

Dr. Fabian Bross: There are about 200 to 400 different sign languages worldwide. We don’t know exactly how many there are, because they have hardly been explored. They differ in their grammar and in the signs they use. Due to the visual nature of sign languages, some things are expressed in such a way that someone who uses the German Sign Language can understand someone who uses the Japanese Sign Language. This applies, for example, to the sign for drinking. But these two people still can’t have a complex conversation about abstract topics. Sign languages are visual languages in their own right, with a complex grammar that is often very different from the spoken language that surrounds them. For example, there are no tenses in German Sign Language. These can only be expressed using descriptions like “tomorrow” or “yesterday”. By the way, this is the case in many other languages, too, for example in Chinese.

What is being researched in Stuttgart?

FB: Our focus is on all aspects of the grammar of German Sign Language. I examine the South German variant of German Sign Language as it is used, for example, in Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Heidelberg, and Munich. The South German variant has a few linguistic peculiarities that we do not find in other parts of Germany. This applies, for one thing, to the signs themselves. In the more Catholic parts of Germany, the sign for Sunday is made by two praying hands placed together, and in the more Protestant areas, one strokes from the neck down over the chest, reminiscent of the bands (neckwear) of Protestant clergymen. For another thing, there are also differences in grammar, such as in the word order or in the way that negation is expressed.

What does differential object marking mean?

FB: The phenomenon of “differential object marking” is known in many languages all over the world, it concerns the direct object in a language. For example, in the sentences “Paul embraces the man” and “Paul embraces a road sign”, the direct objects are the man and a road sign.

There is no differential object marking in the German language. Direct objects appear, quite consistently, in the accusative. Languages such as Spanish, Turkish, and many Bantu languages that have differential object marking, mark different types of objects in different ways. It makes a difference, for example, whether the objects are animate or inanimate, or whether they are definite or indefinite. In the example sentences, the object “man” is both animate and definite, which can be recognized by the definite article the. The object “road sign” is inanimate and indefinite, which can be recognized by the indefinite article a.

The sign AUF. The sign is made by spreading the thumb and forefinger and making an arching motion. The gesture ends where the object will be gestured later.

How did you demonstrate differential object marking in German Sign Language?

FB: There is a sign that has long puzzled linguists. The sign is called AUF. Here are some examples of how the sign is used in sentences (for the sake of simplicity, the gesture is written in capital letters and using the German words):
PAUL AUF MARIA SAUER means “Paul is angry with Maria.”  
MARIA AUF PAUL KENNEN means “Paul knows Maria.”    
MARIA AUF PAUL UMARMEN means “Maria embraces Paul.”

Up to now, the sign AUF has always been analyzed as an auxiliary verb, because it occurs mostly with verbs that cannot be inflected. However, this theory has several flaws. The most obvious is that AUF only occurs with animate direct objects. If you want to say that Paul knows Maria, you use AUF. If you want to say that Paul knows Stuttgart, you can’t use AUF.

The sentence Paul knows Maria in German Sign Language. In the sign language world, every person involved will be assigned a name at some point. However, the names Paul and Maria are only abbreviations here, namely a P for Paul and an M for Maria.
The sentence Paul knows Stuttgart in German Sign Language. One can see well that the mouth always moves with the signing. The mouth movements are often syllables borrowed from the German phonetic language. These so-called visemes have developed from the contact with spoken German.

In addition, there are verbs that are inflected completely, but will still only work with AUF if the direct object is animate. Also, I was able to show that there are environments in which auxiliary verbs cannot occur, but AUF must still be used.

Therefore, the question arose as to what AUF is if it’s not an auxiliary verb. And that’s where differential object marking comes in. The findings indicate that AUF is a sign whose only function is to mark animate objects. This means that German Sign Language, completely independently of the German phonetic language, developed a system that we know from many other languages, some of which are very exotic to us.

What similarities between languages have you found?

FB: In linguistics, we are interested in the question of whether there are things that work the same in all languages, despite the diversity of the world’s languages. Like a kind of universal grammar that is the same in all languages. Of course, there are significant differences between the languages in some cases, which does not exactly make it easy to filter out the commonalities. To illustrate this, one can also take a look at spoken German, where differential object marking does not occur. Interestingly, however, the German language sometimes behaves as if this phenomenon did exist. This is shown, for example, in the sentences “... that Paul embraces the man often” and “ ... that Paul often embraces a road sign”. In German subordinate clauses, definite direct objects come before adverbs such as often, but indefinite direct objects are behind such adverbs.

There is a similar effect with regard to animate objects. Although we have a relatively flexible word order in German, if there are two objects in a sentence and one of them is animate, it would sound strange not to mention the animate object first: “The professor shows the students a picture” sounds great, whereas “The professor shows a picture to the students” sounds kind of weird in German.

Now this doesn’t mean that German has differential object marking, but it does mean that the same forces that drive differential object marking are also at work in the German language. And this is exactly what linguists are interested in: What cognitive mechanisms drive the grammar of languages and what does that tell us about us humans.

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Open AccessThe discussed paper was published in Glossa. Glossa is a journal of the Open Library of Humanities (OLH), a publication platform that was established by scientists. Glossa has been indexed in Scopus since May 2020, and its publications thus contribute to university rankings.
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