Referential and spatial loci

A characteristic of sign languages studied to date, including DGS, is that in discourse referents are associated with specific locations in the sign space. This process is referred to as “establishing a referent” or “nominal establishment” in the literature (Lillo-Martin 2002: 246; cf. also Bellugi et al. 1990). The locations selected are called loci (also: referential or R-loci, cf. Bellugi et al. 1990: 16; Lillo-Martin 2002: 245). Various linguistic means can be used to establish referential and spatial loci (cf. section and Table 3.6 below for an overview). Once referential loci have been established, the loci can be used to mark verbal agreement (see section Further, picking out the same loci in a particular discourse indicates referential identity (co-reference) (cf. section


The grammatical information encoded in verbal morphology of sign languages like DGS (Happ & Vorkoper 2006) or ASL (Lillo-Martin 1999: 536) includes agreement with the object, or the subject and the object, aspect, and location. For example in (29) (cf. Gluck & Pfau 1998: 8) the DGS verb give agrees with the subject and the indirect object (via beginning/final points of the path movement), with the direct object (via handshape), and is modified for aspect (via multiple reduplication). In DGS, verbs are not overtly marked for tense. Temporal adver- bials like future, yesterday, and now are used to express the time of an event or activity (Happ & Vorkoper 2006: 117f.). As illustrated in (29) these adverbials always appear sentence-initially and are not repeated in the course of the narrative or dialogue so long as the information remains the same.

One issue that has been subject to debate in sign language research concerns the distinction of verb classes in relation to the grammatical information encoded. One basic criterion that is used to distinguish verb types concerns lexical specification of the beginning and end points of the movement component in the phonological structure of verb forms (compare Table 3.1). While the lexical entries for some verbs (so-called plain verbs) contain the information about their modulation in space, the forms of other verbs are determined by referential or spatial features of the arguments they encode (so-called agreement and spatial verbs respectively). The main characteristics of these verb types are described in the following sections.

Table 3.1: Verb types in DGS.

Verb type


Plain verbs

- lexically specified for initial/final locations

Agreement verbs

  • - initial/final locations change in relation to
  • - the object or
  • - the subject and the object

Spatial verbs

  • - initial/final locations change in relation to spatial locations
  • - handshape changes in relation to subject features
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