Event structure in American Sign Language

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Rathmann, Christian Georg

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This dissertation investigates the event structure of ASL. Every sentence has a temporal schema that is associated with a particular situation type and a viewpoint. Situation type concerns the internal temporal structure of an event and is composed from the temporal features of dynamism, duration and telicity. ASL shows linguistic correlates for five situation types: states, activities, semelfactives, achievements and accomplishments. These are the same situation types that are manifested in other languages. Moreover, ASL exhibits four morphemes that relate to situation type: continuative, iterative, habitual and hold. Viewpoint determines whether part or all of the event is viewed. All three viewpoints – perfective, imperfective, and neutral – are attested in ASL. Perfective viewpoint is encoded by clause-final FINISH. This viewpoint is distinct from the past, which is not overtly marked but implied through pragmatic defaults, and from the perfect, which is marked by pre-verbal FINISH. A special form of the imperfective viewpoint is encoded by the conative morpheme, which focuses on the stages prior to an event. Otherwise, there is no morpheme for the general imperfective viewpoint. Both FINISH and the conative morpheme are optional. In case neither morpheme is present, the sentence is zero-marked and receives neutral viewpoint, meaning that it allows either an open or closed interpretation. In the absence of these morphemes or overt temporal adverbs or other similar elements, the temporal schema of a sentence determines its temporal interpretation based on a number of pragmatic defaults. Thus, while ASL does not have a rich tense system, it presents a rich and complex aspectual system that plays a role even in temporal interpretation.