Morphology: sign formation in Japanese Sign Language

A set of morphologically related Japanese signed words fascinates me when I stayed in Tokyo Japan for three months in 2008.

Observe how words below are developed for the terms of people in Japanese Sign Language (Japaneslan). I find these people-related words very interesting and beautifully organized of how these words are constructed, such as female, male, daughter, son, etc.

Further, these words are inflected for other terms such as father, mother, grandmother, marriage, divorce, etc.

This is a JSL word for male. Use the thumb which refers to male.

This is a JSL word for female. Use the pinkie which refers to female.

The movement and the handshape is a combination of daughter and "birth" or "born". This "compound word" became assimilated into a single word.

Likewise, the movement and the handshape is a combination of son and "birth" or "born". This "compound word" became assimilated into a single word.

This is mother in JSL.

This JSL sign means father.

The JSL sign above means marriage or to marry, depending on its place in a sentence.

Can you guess? A change of the movement (parameter) results in a different meaning. That is divorce or to divorce[right].

That is fascinating. In the second part of the sign, two handshapes (female and male) are compounded into the "Y" handshape which becomes parents.

Using the "Y" handshape that includes both male and female components, the two-handed movement of the word people indicates plural (see "pluralization" for more information). So, it's "people".

Now we know the two parts of the sign for "mother". Modifying the third part to this sign becomes grandmother. Bending the pinkie along with the mouth morpheme "oo" indicates old age.

You can guess that one. It's grandfather (with the thumb bent down).

These signs in Japanese Sign Language are beautifully formed. In ASL, many of the male and female signs are identified by the upper half and lower half of the head respectively. In JSL, the handshapes "I" and "10" can be identified as female and male respectively.

Related posts

Also see Phonology: minimal pairs.