Sign languages as 'super languages? Evidence from the use of space in British Sign Language. With speaker Adam Schembri (MOSAIC Seminar)

Room 139, School of Education (Building R19)
Wednesday 1 May 2019 (16:00-17:30)

Dr Elizabeth Chilton


MOSAIC Group for Research on Multilingualism seminar series 2018-19

Speaker: Adam Schembri, Reader in Linguistics in the Department of English Language & Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK

Recently, Schlenker (2018) suggested that sign languages may be “more expressive” than spoken languages because form-meaning relationships in the grammar of sign languages work in ways that may be different to what we see in spoken languages. Indeed, in a media release from New York University, Schlenker referred to sign languages as ‘super languages’ because of their unique properties.

In this paper, I examine recent work on one aspect of the form-meaning relationship – the use of space in British Sign Language verbs to signal who is doing what to whom (Cormier et al., 2015; Fenlon et al., 2018; Schembri et al., 2018) – and discuss to what extent this feature can be seen as “more expressive” than equivalent systems in spoken languages.  In addition, I will discuss the importance of comparing sign languages with speech and gesture working together, rather than speech alone, and how sign languages contribute to our understanding of multichannel and multimodal aspects of human communication in general.


Adam Schembri is Reader in Linguistics in the Department of English Language & Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, UK. He completed a PhD in linguistics at the University of Sydney in 2002, worked at the University of Bristol 2000-2002 and at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London during 2006-2010, where he initiated the British Sign Language Corpus Project ( His research and teaching experience has encompassed a number of areas in sign language linguistics, including work on aspects of the lexicon, grammar and sociolinguistics of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and British Sign Language. He is the co-author (with Trevor Johnston) of ‘Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An introduction to sign language linguistics’, and co-editor with Ceil Lucas of ‘Sociolinguistics and Deaf Communities’, both published by Cambridge University Press.

All welcome at this free seminar. 

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