Prof. Philippe Schlenker (Institut Jean-Nicod, Paris; New York University) will give a colloquium talk “Formal Semantics with Iconicity: the case of Sign Language Pronouns” on Sept. 26th, 2014
Sign languages are known to display the same general grammatical properties as spoken languages (‘Universal Grammar’), but also to make greater use of iconic mechanisms. In Schlenker, Lamberton and Santoro’s ‘Iconic Variables’ (2013), it was argued that loci (= positions in signing space corresponding to discourse referents) can have an iconic semantics, in the sense that certain geometric relations among loci (subset and relative complementation, as well as high/low position relative to the signer) are preserved by the interpretation function. We extend these results in two ways. First, we ask whether plural and height specifications of loci display the formal behavior of phi-features in remaining uninterpreted in focus- and ellipsis-constructions (as in the bound readings of, e.g., Only Mary admires herself, or of Mary admires herself, and John does too). Data from ASL and LSF show that plural and height specifications may indeed remain uninterpreted in these constructions, although we conclude that the interpretation of this fact is complex. Second, we ask whether the iconic analysis should be extended to instances of ‘locative shift’, i.e. cases in which a locus refers to a spatial location (e.g. Paris), another locus refers to an individual (e.g. John), but one may sometimes point towards thespatial locus to refer to the individual (e.g. because John lives in Paris). This is non-trivial since earlier cases that were discussed within an iconic semantics pertained to the orientation of loci, not to the displacement of loci in signing space. While one may initially wish to analyze these cases in terms of a (possibly non-standard) mechanism of agreement, we argue on the basis of new data that an iconic analysis is more promising. We conclude that pronouns in sign language must be analyzed within a formal semantics with iconicity, one in which grammatical, logical and iconic constraints interact within a unified framework.