How would you express negation in a sign language? Even if you know nothing about sign languages (SLs), you would probably guess ‘by shaking my head’ – and you would be right: in all SLs investigated to date, headshakes are employed in the expression of negation. In addition, manual negative signs can be used. But headshakes are also commonly used by speakers as co-speech gesture, aren’t they? So maybe in SLs, they are just that: gestural elements, and thus linguistics need not really bother about them. Well, as the title suggests, I think that such a purely gestural approach cannot be maintained. Rather, given intriguing cross-linguistic variation, as well as language-specific syntactic properties, I will argue that the headshake, as used in SLs, is a grammatical element – that is, a grammaticalized gesture. Moreover, I will offer some speculations on the applicability of a famous scenario proposed for the grammaticalization of negation in spoken languages, Jespersen’s Cycle, to SLs.
Roland Pfau studied German Literature & Language, Psychology, and French at the University of Frankfurt. His interest in sign language linguistics developed while doing his PhD. It started as a sort of hobby, but since moving to the University of Amsterdam in 2001, he devotes most of his time to investigating the structure of natural sign languages – often from a typological perspective. He is now associate professor in sign language linguistics at the University of Amsterdam.