¤1.5 million for research on sign language

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Photo: Eva Steentjes  Hope Morgan
Photo: Eva Steentjes Hope Morgan

Words in sign language represent objects and actions symbolically. Dr. Hope Morgan studies how the users of different sign languages store these symbols in their mental lexicons. Starting on 1 February 2024, she will strengthen research at the Institute of German Sign Language at Universität Hamburg. She will now receive a Starting Grant in the amount of roughly €1.5 million from the European Research Council for one of her research projects.

Words in sign languages are replete with visual meaning because they symbolically represent objects and actions using form and movement. For example, in one sign language, the gesture of pulling words out of one-s head means -to think about something.- In contrast to spoken language, sign languages do not have sequences of consonants and vowels for terms but rather simultaneous combinations of hand shapes, mouth gestures, or facial expressions.

How exactly sign language users store these combinations in their mental lexicons is a topic that remains little known in the research when it comes to behavioral and neural phenomena or linguistic analysis. There are many questions, for example: How are words actually created in sign language if even the smallest components of form such as a crooked finger or a location on the neck could bear meaning? How do these components vary from sign language to sign language and where do the iconic roots of the form-meaning nexus recognizably occur in sign languages?

Dr. Morgan, who has been doing research at Leiden University in The Netherlands, would like her project, Naming the World: Semantic Associations and Form-Meaning Mappings in the Mental Lexicon across Sign Languages (SemaSign), to create better sign language resources for teaching and learning and further develop language technology. In the project, computational analyses will help researchers trace form-meaning correspondences in sign languages and generate new empirically valid data to show how signs are organized in mental lexicons.

For sign languages in Germany, Kenya, and Guinea-Bissau, semantic networks will be created on the basis of word associations. To do so, a signing person will see a sign from their language and respond with the first 3 signs they think of. This should create an objective measure for semantic connections so that, using computational analyses, researchers can identify sign groups that correspond very closely in both form and meaning. Because sign language in Guinea-Bissau emerged only 15 years ago, Dr. Morgan and her team want to find out how lexica emerge and grow at a very early stage.

The European Research Council awards ERC Starting Grants to outstanding early career researchers who completed their doctorates in the last 2 to 7 years. The Starting Grant for SemaSign is roughly €1.5 million and is being awarded for a duration of 60 months.