Victoria Nyst and Mariana Sousa da Silva Martins (Universiteit Leiden) will give a talk entitled ‘Exploring and capturing a gesturebund: the case of West Africa’


The gestural environment is found to have an extensive impact on the structure and lexicon of emerging and established SLs (van Loon, Pfau, and Steinbach 2014). Moreover, recent studies have observed that cross-linguistic variation in gesture may correlate with cross-linguistic variation in sign languages (Nyst, 2018; forthcoming). The language-specific influence of emblems or quotable gestures (with a more conventional form and meaning) on the lexicons of sign languages has been established by various scholars (e.g. Mesh & Hou 2018; Safar et al. 2018).

Crucially, sign languages that have emerged in similar gestural environments or gesturebunds are found to share similar features. As such, the typology of sign languages is likely to be influenced at least to some extent by the variation in gestural environment. At present, little is known about the nature of such gesturebunds, such as their size, their consistency, their stability, and etcetera.

In this talk, we will present the results of three studies. The first study concerns the areal spread of emblems across West Africa, using a recognition task to assess the spread of the gestures. The same recognition task was then repeated online with two large groups of participants (one born in West Africa and one in the Netherlands) to evaluate the significance of the attested spread. The second study concerns the spread of emblem knowledge and use within cultural groups.  It uses an innovative method, that hinges on the notion of deaf signers as experts with explicit knowledge on hearing gesture use. The results clearly show gestures are shared widely across West Africa, while others have a much more local spread. Finally, we will discuss the need for systematic, large-scale studies on emblem repertoires in West Africa, together with preliminary results of a third study with that aim.


This seminar will be held online, via Zoom (our e-meeting service). For access to the Zoom meeting, please contact Hatice Zora or Dmitry Nikolaev in advance:

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock