Course: Semiotic diversity in sign and spoken languages

 Times: 1:30 - 5pm

Dates: Monday and Tuesday, 2-3 December 2019

Instructor:  Adjunct Professor Trevor Johnston, Macquarie University

Registration: Please register here for Summer School 2019



Most linguists with no direct experience or knowledge of signed languages appear to take the lexical and grammatical descriptions of these languages, as well as statements as to their relevance to particular theoretical debates and theories of language, at face value. However, when encountering other spoken languages they have no personal experience of, they actively critically evaluate the accounts they read, especially when they represent first descriptions of previously undocumented languages.

A major aim of this course is to encourage linguists to adopt a more critical stance towards the mainstream view of the structure of signed languages that they regularly find in linguistics textbooks or in the introduction to papers on psycholinguistic, neurolinguistic and typological studies comparing signed languages with each other, or with spoken languages.

To this end, in this short course Professor Johnston will examine the claims made in the literature about the characteristics of sign languages that show them to be "just like spoken languages”, but then argue that the types of spoken languages and the theoretical models of (spoken) language that lie at the basis of this conclusion have led to a number of misconceptions among otherwise well-informed linguists. He will look at the type of semiotic diversity that neo-Peircean semiotics, and the study of co-speech gesture and multi-modality in language, are revealing about all face-to-face language communication. This will be used to re-frame what is shared between both signed and spoken language, and thus what it is we mean by what is language and what is linguistic.

Assumed knowledge

It is assumed students have done several years of linguistic study and are familiar with the basic concepts of modern language study and descriptive linguistics. It also assumes students have read something about the grammar of sign languages. That is the first lecture topic ('The mainstream view') is really just a brief overview, and is not intended as a first ever introduction to a signed language-naïve audience, even one with a linguistic background. (See Background knowledge).

Background knowledge

The course does not assume you know any signed language, not even Auslan (Australian Sign Language). However, it is expected that students will have read a general introduction to sign language linguistics before the course. A very basic and easy to read background for this course is Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An introduction to sign language linguistics, by Johnston & Schembri (Cambridge University Press, 2007) .

Professor Trevor Johnston

Trevor Johnston presenting at CoEDLFest 2019.


Three case studies on Auslan grammar will be presented to highlight issues with the mainstream normalized view of signed languages. This will be followed by a sketch of a framework that unifies signed and spoken languages in a different way (‘semiotic diversity’). The first part of the last session will present some important caveats about signed languages when compared to most spoken languages drawing on Trudgill’s notion of sociolinguistic typology. The second half will be set aside for final questions and discussion.

Students would greatly benefit by reading the papers that directly inform the topics that will be discussed, even if it is not necessary:

  • Regarding negation: Johnston, T. (2018). The role of headshake in negation in Auslan (Australian Sign Language): implications for signed language typology. Linguistic Typology, 22(2), 185-231. 
  • Regarding perfective aspect marker: Johnston, T., Cresdee, D., Schembri, A., & Woll, B. (2015). FINISH variation in and grammaticalization in a signed language: how far down this well-trodden pathway is Auslan (Australian sign language)? Language Variation and Change, 27, 117-155. doi:10.1017/S0954394514000209 
  • Regarding grammatical relations: Johnston, T. (in press for 2019). Clause constituents, arguments and the question of grammatical relations in Auslan (Australian sign language): a corpus-based study. Studies in Language. (Pre-publication manuscript downloadable from this link.)
  • Regarding semiotic diversity: Johnston, T. (2013). Towards a comparative semiotics of pointing actions in signed and spoken languages. Gesture, 13(2), 109-142. doi:10.1075/gest.13.2.01joh
  • Regarding sociolinguistic typology: Schembri, A., Fenlon, J., Cormier, K., & Johnston, T. (2018). Sociolinguistic Typology and Sign Languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(Feb). doi:org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00200 


Five of the six one-hour slots will have the format of a 45-minute lecture, with up to 10 minutes for discussion/questions, followed by a short break. Half of the sixth and final slot will be devoted to questions and discussion.

Day 1

  1. The mainstream view of signed languages
  2. Auslan case study (1) Negation
  3. Auslan case study (2) Perfective aspect marker

Day 2

  1. Auslan case study (3) Grammatical relations
  2. Semiotic diversity & composite utterances
  3. Sociolinguistic diversity & signed languages
  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University