Signs are Single Segments: Phonological Representations and Temporal Sequencing in ASL and Other Sign Languages

Rachel Channon

A single segment representation with dynamic features (Oneseg) explains differences between the phonologies of spoken words and signs better than current multiple segments phonological representations of signs (Multiseg). A segment is defined as the largest phonological unit where combinations of features are contrastive, but permutations and repetitions aren’t. Hayes (1993) distinguishes between static features (place, handshape) which don't reference motion, and dynamic features (direction, repetition) which do. Dynamic features are the only way that a single segment representation can sequence motion. Oneseg correctly predicts that number of repetitions is not contrastive in signs, because repetition is the result of a dynamic feature [repeat]. Multiseg incorrectly predicts that number of repetitions should be contrastive. About 50% of all spoken words repeat irregularly (unintended, hiphop); less than 1% repeat rhythmically (tutu, murmur). Non-compound signs never repeat irregularly; about 50% repeat rhythmically. Oneseg correctly predicts repetition in signs based on the probability of combinations including the feature [repeat]; Multiseg correctly predicts repetition in words based on combinations, permutations and repetition of segments. Oneseg correctly predicts that signs never have more than two underlying places. Multiseg predicts signs with any number of places. Some signs with two places allow places to occur in either order; some are ordered by constraints. Oneseg represents both without underlying sequence or redundancy, but Multiseg’s obligatory segmental sequence overgenerates or is redundant. Chapter 5 shows that inflected verbs and classifier predicates aren’t problems for Oneseg because they are predictably iconic. Predictable iconicity is the same across all sign languages, is produced by non-signers, and doesn’t always obey the phonological rules of the language. Lexically iconic elements have the reverse characteristics. Lexically iconic, but not predictably iconic, elements are part of the phonological representation. Chapter 6 proposes possible additional features and hierarchy for Oneseg and shows that the representations produced can be economically sparse by omitting redundant material. I examine the historical assimilation processes in compounds and show that Oneseg explains them.