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Referential Cohesion in American Sign Language: Modality-Specific and Modality-General Influences


Understanding how producers and comprehenders converge on the same discourse entities is a central task in psycholinguistics. For example, how does a language producer decide to use a pronoun (‘she’) instead of a noun in a sentence such as ‘the cook hates the teacher, because she is grumpy’? Similarly, how does the comprehender determine which of the previously mentioned entities such an ambiguous pronoun refers to? Previous work on spoken language referential cohesion has been concerned with questions such as how the accessibility of the referent in the discourse context influences choice of referring expression, whether pronouns prefer antecedents with a particular grammatical role, and how verb semantics influences pronoun resolution. Research on sign language linguistics, however, has focused primarily on the spatial co-reference made possible by the use of space and the body.

This dissertation investigates how factors specific to and independent of the articulatory modality jointly influence referential cohesion in American Sign Language (ASL). The first study (Chapter 2) examines the referential hierarchy proposed for spoken languages and finds that it largely applies to reference tracking in ASL. The second study (Chapter 3) focuses on whether the articulatory modality influences how a specific kind of verb semantics, known as implicit causality, is distributed across verbs in ASL. Results indicate a distribution that is language-specific rather than modality-specific. Finally, the third study (Chapter 4) examines how spatial co-reference, grammatical role, and implicit causality biases influence pronoun production and interpretation in ASL. The results suggest a much greater role for the modality-independent factors than had previously been assumed.

Together, the studies in this dissertation indicate that referential cohesion is remarkably similar across modalities. This has important theoretical implications in the domains of psycholinguistic theory and sign language linguistics, as well as practical implications for the education of Deaf signing children.

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