The Points of Language

Dr. Richard Meier, University of Texas Austin

Pointing gestures are ubiquitous in co-speech gesture. Pointing signs are also a fundamental building block of signed languages. Given that pointing signs for ME, YOU, and HIM/HER are largely identical to the pointing gestures used by non-signers, how do we determine the status of pointing signs in signed languages? In this talk, I consider two kinds of evidence that speak to the status of pointing signs in signed languages such as American Sign Language (ASL).  Evidence from native-signing deaf children with autism spectrum disorder suggests that the ASL pointing signs ME and YOU function much like the English pronouns me and you for these children. Deaf children with autism spectrum disorder avoid signed pronouns in favor of names, just as their hearing counterparts avoid spoken pronouns (Shield & Meier, in press; Shield, Meier, & Tager-Flusberg, in submission). I then turn to a variety of linguistic arguments that may help us to decide the linguistic versus gestural status of signed pronouns (Meier & Lillo-Martin, 2010, 2013; Lillo-Martin & Meier, 2011). These arguments focus on the conventionality of signed pronouns, their phonological structure,  and their grammatical distribution. By looking at evidence from within ASL, and from other signed languages, we can conclude that pointing signs are in significant measure linguistic, but that they also have important gestural aspects.