(A)symmetries and Movement in Spoken and Sign Language


Neha Kulshreshtha
Markus Steinbach
Seid Tvica
Hedde Zeijlstra

Description of the project

One of the most intriguing properties of organization of sentences is the pervasiveness of certain kinds of “left-right asymmetries” (LRA). A well-attested asymmetry concerns the preponderance of specifier-initial orders over the specifier-final orders. This asymmetry raises the question to what extent the underlying structure itself is asymmetric. Over the last few decades the inquiry yielded (at least) two opposing views w.r.t. the symmetry of the underlying syntactic structure. In one approach, grammar is underlyingly symmetric in that it can output either specifier-final or specifier-initial orders, as well as either head-initial or head-final orders. In this “symmetric” approach, the preponderance of specifier-initial over specifier-final orders may follow from a “ban on rightward movement” (BORM), which may even follow from extra-grammatical principles. In the other “asymmetric” approach, all phrases are linearized in the specifier-head-complement (SHC) orders while patterns that deviate from the SHC schema must be derived via a series of movements. Both approaches continue to face empirical hurdles and the fundamental question of whether grammar is underlyingly symmetric or asymmetric remains unanswered.

With the aim of addressing this question, this project focuses on two areas of interest: (i) existing LRA in spoken languages (and whether these follow from the BORM or something else) and (ii) existing LRA in sign languages, and how they differ from spoken languages. The overarching goal is to determine the extent to which the phenomena studied in (i) and (ii) provide evidence for a grammar-external BORM as the sole source for syntactic LRA, as well as the extent to which grammar-external factors, such as modality, contribute to surface asymmetries.

LRA have generally been used as arguments in favor of the asymmetric approach. The first step is to investigate in both spoken and sign languages whether grammar at its core must be asymmetric. If existing LRA can also be said to be due to the BORM that is conceived of as extra-grammatical, they can be fully compatible with both a symmetric and an asymmetric perspective on grammar. Such LRA, may then no longer provide evidence in favor of asymmetric approach. In fact, if all existing LRA are reducible to the BORM, there would be no empirical argument left to pursue the asymmetric approach.

The second step is to investigate whether the abundance of leftward and the scarcity of rightward movement directly reflect a principally asymmetric grammar, or whether this asymmetry emerges for any independent, extra-grammatical reasons, such as the parsing limitations and the effects of modality. Since rightward movement is more pervasive in sign languages, our goal is to shed more light on why sign languages lack the constraints that spoken languages are subject to and what does the absence of such constraints in sign languages tell us about the (a)symmetry of the underlying structure.