Gestural demonstrations as a possible marker of part of speech in German Sign Language (DGS)


The iconic potential of the visuo-spatial modality allows for a direct mapping between different aspects of meaning and the morphophonological form of a signed utterance (Perniss et al., 2010; Schlenker 2018). Yet, in contrast to speech and co-speech gesture, sign and co-sign gesture cannot readily be distinguished because both are produced with the same set of articulators and considerable temporal overlap (Kita & Emmorey, 2023).

Here, we investigate the strategies used in German Sign Language (DGS) to morphophonologically mark the distinction between nouns and verbs. We collected data from deaf signers (N = 9, mean age = 40.8) who were asked to watch videos (N = 91) depicting scenes that were designed to elicit either the nominal or the verbal use of a potentially multifunctional DGS sign in the participant’s response. Our preliminary analysis suggests that in DGS, especially iconic verbal signs such as HAIRDRY can be context-dependently supplemented by Constructed Action (CA) involving a gestural demonstration of the action described by the verbal sign. This gestural demonstration can be analysed as a morphophonological part of speech marker. Note that the part of speech and the iconic potential of a sign’s phonological form seems to impact the frequency of CA (Figure 1). The lexically specified non-iconic verbal sign PLAY is not used with CA in our data. Nevertheless, a gestural demonstration for signs like these is not excluded in principle, but the potential appears to be lower. In general, elements of CA seem to primarily occur simultaneously as modifications and/or supplements to a verb’s phonological form, while phonologically and semantically underspecified nouns tend to be complemented by sequentially occurring size and shape specifiers.

In sum, our data suggest that the iconic potential of a sign’s form and the respective context mediate whether a strictly conventionalised lexical strategy or CA involving a gestural demonstration combined with lexicalised components may be used by signers. Accordingly, singers can flexibly combine lexical and iconic strategies for making meaning by exploiting the iconic potential of (verb) signs’ phonological forms via the interface to co-sign gesture.

Figure 1: Example of four different lexical DGS signs in our dataset and the total number of productions classified as either lexical nouns, verbs, or as combinations of verbs with Constructed Action (CA). Plots show only isolated productions of signs (excluding compounds as well as nouns followed by size and shape specifiers).

Notice on sign language interpretation: English ⇔ German Sign Language (DGS) interpreting will be provided for this talk.

Königstein im Taunus, Germany