The interaction of classifiers and syntax in South African sign language

  • Debra Aarons Stellenbosch University
  • Ruth Morgan


In this paper 1 we examine two aspects of constructions involving classifier handshapes in interaction with the syntax of an utterance. 'The first aspect we examine is the requirement that in South Afiican Sign Language, classifier predicates2 are preceded by at least one element in the topic position3 of a sentence. Accordingly, we explore the syntactic constraints on sign order in the use of classifier predicates in South Afiican Sign Language (henceforth SASL). Whereas it seems obvious that in signed language sentences involving classifier constructions, the lexical NPs should first be identified, this requirement, and the constraints on this requirement have not really been explored in the literature. We know, for instance, that in American Sign Language (henceforth ASL) and SASL (at least) a sentence may not contain more than two topics (except in a listing construction)4. Many sentences containing classifier predicates have at least three lexical NPs thematically, e.g., in a signed language utterance with the English meaning, "The woman put the cup on the table", but only two of the NPs may occur as topics. We thus examine what may and may not appear in topic positions in these constructions (and whether or not these restrictions are detennined by thematic roles). Further, we examine the syntactic relationship between classifier predicates and the items occurring in topic positions.