Variation, lexicalization and grammaticalization in signed languages

Trevor Johnston*, Adam Schembri

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    31 Citations (Scopus)


    We suggest that construction-based theories of language structure and change offer a particularly useful framework for understanding variation and grammaticalization in signed languages. We show that there is a complementary dimension to sociolinguistic variation in signed languages that is only now opening up to systematic investigation through the use of large machine-readable corpora : namely, the frequency and environments of use of particular variants as a manifestation of on-going lexicalization and grammaticalization. This promises to increase our knowledge about the sociolinguistics of signed languages, as well as broaden our understanding of variation in language generally. Specifically, it promises to yield evidence from signed languages on the extent of grammaticalization in these relatively young languages, on the one hand, and the unique gestural and lexical grammaticalization pathways preferentially exploited by face-to-face visual-gestural languages, on the other. We begin by summarizing the findings from research on sociolinguistic variation in signed languages that show how variation is often not random, but is conditioned by social and linguistic factors. We then introduce relevant concepts of construction grammar and show how they may be applied to sign structure to illuminate what is meant by lexicalization in signed languages, and, by extension, how this relates to potential grammaticalization pathways in these languages. We conclude that while there is always variation in language, and variation may function as an index of social variables, some variation may actually reflect on-going language change, in particular lexicalization and grammaticalization.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)19-35
    Number of pages17
    JournalLangage et Societe
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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