When referring to non-present entities, speakers and signers can select from a range of different strategies to create expressions that range from extremely concise to highly elaborate. This design of referring expressions is based partly on the availability of contextual information that can aid addressee understanding. In the small signing community of Providence Island, signers' heavy reliance on extra-linguistic information has led to their language being labelled as context-dependent (Washabaugh, de Santis & Woodward 1978). This study investigates the semiotic strategies that deaf signers in Providence Island use for referring, and examines how signers optimise specificity and minimise ambiguity by drawing on shared context. We examined first introductions to non-present people in spontaneous dyadic conversations between deaf signers and analysed the semiotic strategies used. We found that signers built referring expressions using the same strategies found in other sign languages, yet designed expressions that made use of contextual knowledge shared through community membership, such as geography, local spoken languages and traits of fellow islanders. Our signers also used strategies described as unusual or unattested in other sign languages, such as unframed constructed action sequences and stand-alone mouthings. This study deepens our understanding of context dependence by providing examples of how context is drawn upon by communities with high degrees of shared knowledge. Our results call into question the classification of sign languages as context-dependent and highlights the differences in data collection across communities and the resulting limitations of cross-linguistic comparisons.
- Jämförande språkvetenskap och lingvistik