The variation of morphological processes

ASL Morphology


Morphology is defined as the study of the formation and inflection of words. Morphology describes how the smallest units derive meaning. It addresses the regular, minimal, meaning-bearing units in a language called morphemes, which are words or parts of words. Morphemes can transform in meaning by signaling the creation of new words or changes in the derivation of world-class or signalinggrammatical information such as case, number, tense, person, or case (Lieber, 2015). The use of individual signs in a signed language is considered as the basic equivalent of words in a spoken language. Each signed language has an associated vocabulary of conventional lexical signs that are mostly monomorphic. The variation of morphological processes that are commonly found in sign languages is influenced by the fact that most lexical styles are monosyllable, other times bi-syllabic. The research in ASL morphology brings sign language much closer to spoken languages in terms of their morphological structure. Additionally, it demonstrates a medium of communication that plays a critical role in contributing to language structure.


Morphology has been regarded as the branch of linguistics that examines the structure and formation of words, and the key components of morphology include derivation, inflection, and composition. The early days of linguistic research on sign language focused on the complex morphology. Research indicates that morphological structure is simultaneous, implying that different morphemes of words are simultaneously superimposed on one another rather than being looped together similar to those of looped language (Mayberry &Kluender, 2018). Sign language research has incorporated more linguisticstructures and more sign languages, and this has led to the emergence of several generalizations. From the outset, all the sign languages examined were established to bear a distinct type of morphology. On the other hand, the grammaticalcategories are encoded by most of these morphological structures together with the forms they take have been established to have distinct sign languages. It, therefore, follows that sign languages depictstrong cross-linguistic similarities within theircorresponding morphological structures.

Fundamentally, sign languages have two strikingly different kinds of morphological structures: sequential and simultaneous. The early sign languages that were first-ever adopted depicted many similar properties with developing Creole languages, even though they differed in terms of their complex simultaneous morphology (Mayberry &Kluender, 2018).

ASL Morphological Structures

One of the most typical aspects that have gone unnoticed about sign languages is that they are not confined to simultaneous morphological structures. The structures are distinct from the simultaneous type. Some sign languages also incorporate sequential affixation, and the linear structures are unique from the simultaneoustype in the way the morphemes are connected as well as the occurrence, grammatical function, and form of sequential morphological foundations that are mostly specific to a given language (Padden, 2016). Another area of distinction is that the sequential morphological constructs are variable among signers, whereas these constructions are usually of limited productivity.

The morphological structure presents two puzzles, which are regarded as the young language puzzle and the typology puzzle. Notably, the young language puzzle aligns language depicts aspects of young creole languages, and this is mostly attributed to the similarity in approach is the way language is acquired. Nonetheless, sign language is unique from the young spoken creole language in the sense that young creole language bears little inflection and minimal derivation. Following the little morphology present in young creole languages, they have mainly comprised affixation with no simultaneous morphology. As affirmed by Jafari and Amini (2017), Bickerton’s bio-program hypothesis advances the position that creole languages are similar to each other as they are derived from universal grammar. On the contrary, sign language has a rich morphological structure which is both derivational and inflectional.

Further, the morphological typology puzzle is evident in cases whereby sign language exhibits two radically different morphological types in their grammars. Their morphological structure is complex as evident in verb agreement, classifier constructions and verbal aspects. These elements of complex morphological structures have been established in the context of one of the well-studied sign languages, such as the American Sign Language (ASL). The affixed element in ASL are related to content free content words, from which the evolution of sign language has taken place.

ASL morphology seems to be comprised of two different types, whereby one is rich, complex and simultaneous, whereas the other is sparse, relatively simple and sequential. Sign language is indeed comprised of a dichotomy built on a typological puzzle. ASL seems to possess the dichotomy in its morphology and the dichotomy appears mostly in a previouslyundescribedlanguage, that is examined in detail, an element that lacks with the property (Jafari&Amini, 2017). The difference in modalities observed in sign language is noted in sign language, as the transmission takes place by the hands, face, and body. On the other hand, sign language is perceived by the eyes and can represent some concepts that need expression more directly compared to spoken language.

Sign language has a complex set of inflection systems as its structures are not entirely arbitrary compared to young creoles. ASL is mostly motivated by the representation of some vision-spatial concepts such as source, goal, theme, and other attributes of an object. Thenon-arbitrary system conforms to a quicker course of action compared to spoken languages. Sign languages can develop the motivational associations inherent between form and meaning and this significantly differ from young spoken languages. The nature of spoken language is such that they have within their disposal similar mechanisms to facilitate the development of complex internal structures within words as it is with spoken language such as grammaticalization of free words (Lieber, 2015). Sign languages are comprised of two different routes to morphological complexity, which are distinct from each other both in terms of the duration of time needed to develop a bound morpheme and the resulting types of morphology. The process finally leading to grammaticalization occurs over time.

One of the most important aspects of examining the paradox of ASL morphology is the young language puzzle, whereby sign language is considered as a young language. Young languages in their spoken forms mostly arise from contact between groups of individuals whose languages lack mutual comprehensively. For example, pidgin language starts as a simplified contact language with restricted vocabulary, minimal grammatical categories, and simple grammatical structure. A creole develops as a pidgin language, as a native speaker adopts it as a primary language. Children, for instance, acquire creole language at a relatively young age in the home setting even without a need to develop fully-fledged native language.

Young creole languages are distinct from more established spoken languages in the sense that their course of development lacks a full chain of the developed linguistic system. Instead, young creole languages typically emerge through a discontinuity in transmission followingcontactbetween a lexifier and substrate language, which takes place following interaction between people speaking different languages (Aronoff et al., 2005). Besides, young creole languages and more established languages in the sense that they possess inflectional morphology.the position arises from the fact that inflectional morphology can be regarded as the morphology of syntax because it incorporates grammatical categories that play a key role in the syntax of the language and are reflected morphologically.

One of the biggest challenges in ASL morphology is that when the emergence of morphosyntactic categories takes time, the establishment of syntactic morphological expression of them only contributes to the challenge. Morphology in the context of spoken language is such that it is typically arbitrary, meaning that there lacks a motivated connection between the sound of a morphological sign and its underlying meaning (Aronoff et al., 2005). The evolution of new languages takes precedence from older languages that adopt the underlying influential systems as well. Creole languages, however, are distinct as they are simple and they are yet to develop in terms ofmorphosyntactic categories as well as the morphology that signifies their use.

Complex Simultaneous and SequentialAffixationMorphologies in ASL

ASL morphology comes in two variations, which include complex simultaneous variation and sequential affixation. The two variations of morphology are distinct concerning the phonemical means that they use, the grammatical categories they encode, diachronic development and outcome.  Complex simultaneous morphology refers to all consequential morphology in ASL. particularly, grammatical features are achieved through alteration of the direction, rhythm, shape of the course of the base sign, which takes into account new phonological segments (Sandler, 2010). Most of the simultaneous morphology is inflectional, meaning that it is productive and pervasive within as well as across sign languages. The sequential type of morphology attaches a prefix or suffix to a base word.

The simultaneous aspect of ASL morphology is that even at the level of the monophonic sign, the words of sign language bear simultaneous appearance. As evident in ASL, the three main phonological categories include hand configuration, location, and movement that issimultaneously instantiated. The canonical structure in ASL spans corresponds to a unit that most researchers consider as a sign syllable.

Most linguistics have established the position that the signs of ASL have a strong tendency to be monosyllabic, implying that they involve a singular movement. The canonical monolithic system is derived by complex signs alongside simple signs. Simultaneous morphology, therefore, incorporates the superimposition of morphological structure on the canonical unit, for instance, in the morphemes of verb agreement, the first and last locations of the verbal sign are superimposed.

On the other hand, sequential morphology in ASL incorporates an identifiable affix that is added to the start or end of a base sign. Even in contexts whereby the derived form further reduces to a monosyllabic structure the derived complex structure is distance compared to those of simultaneous morphology. ‘sequential morphology is distinct in the sense that handconfiguration, as well as place of articulationf each morpheme is retained and the outcome, its structures that possess each of the two categories in place of one (Aronoff et al., 2005). For instance, the suffixed ASL sign TEACH+ AGENTIVE (Teacher) can be considered as comprised of two LML syllables, whereby each one of them, bears its hand configuration and place of articulation that is comparable in the simplified reorientation that accompanies the word (Sandler, 2010).

Specific sign language universal morphological processes explain the existence of two distinct morphologies of sign languages overlooks the prediction of the morphological categories that are most likely to be encoded by simultaneous morphology. Besides, they do not account for the fact that specific categories can be encoded in a specific way across all sign language variations. Universal morphological processes are, therefore, critical in encodingcomplex simultaneous morphologies like the ones that occur simultaneously and their occurrence can be iconically presented (Aronoff et al., 2005). Besides, verb agreement in simultaneous morphology is integral in facilitating the development of morphosyntactic categories as well as specific morphosyntactic categories as well as the specific morphemes that denote these categories. Further, the agreement is obligatory copying that is obligatory in all languages as the syntactic agreement facilitates copying of referentialindices in the context of providing syntacticconditions.


The paper has outlined the paradox of ASL morphology by providing a context to understand both the iconic and arbitrary aspects of sign language structure and language in general. The simultaneous morphological processes and their characteristics reintegrated into sign language to help in depicting spatial cognitive categories and relationships in an iconically motivated manner. Signs in ASL and grammatical systems have been described as largely iconic becausesince they can be both spoken signs of grammatical systems. The arbitrary morphology prevalent in sign language is an aspect that is common in any creole and young language that is developing iconically based morphology is expected to be present in any language.


Aronoff, M., Meir, I., & Sandler, W. (2005).The paradox of sign language morphology.

Cognition, 21(5), 886-905.

creoles and the evolution of language. Euromonitor, 8(4).

insights into an old question from American Sign Language. Bilingualism: Language and

Jafari, N., &Amini, M. (2017). Language bioprogramme hypothesis: emergence of pidgins and

Language, 81(2), 301.

Lieber, R. (2015). Introducing morphology.Cambridge University Press.

Lingua, 120(12), 2727-2732.

Mayberry, R. I., &Kluender, R. (2018). Rethinking the critical period for language: New

Padden, C. A. (2016). Interaction of morphology and syntax in American Sign Language.


Sandler, W. (2010). The uniformity and diversity of language: Evidence from sign language.

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