Focus in spoken languages can be expressed syntactically, prosodically and morphologically. Not surprisingly, the same markers are used in sign languages, including Sign Language of the Netherlands (van der Kooij & Crasborn 2013). However, the formal side of the markers is determined by the modality (visual or auditory). In the case of sign languages focus is primarily expressed by changing manual prosody (modifying movement and location of signs) and non-manual markers, such as eyebrow raise and head and body movements.
In this talk I will describe the first study of focus marking in Russian Sign Language (RSL) and compare it to focus marking in Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) as described in previous research. I have looked at focus marking in simple sentences with different types of focus: information, selective and corrective focus, and with different focus domains: subject, object, VP, V and sentence focus. Focus in RSL has been elicited using the traditional question-answer pairs’ method, and I will discuss methodological difficulties that arise when studying manual prosody in relation to focus.
It turns out that in RSL, as in NGT, focus can be marked by modification of movement characteristics of signs, but, unlike NGT, non-manual markers are not used to mark focus systematically in this language. Both sign languages use the modality-specific means to express contrast (both for contrastive topics and foci), namely contrastive spatial assignment of referents. Finally, it appears that focus projection is present in both languages: for instance, in the context of VP focus only the object is marked prosodically and/or non-manually. This observation is exciting because one could expect that at least non-manual markers would spread across the focus domain (presenting another modality-specific feature of focus marking), but this is not the case.
Van der Kooij, E. & O. Crasborn. 2013. The phonology of focus in Sign Language of the Netherlands. Journal of Linguistics: 1-51.