About my doctoral dissertation

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You can download (chapter by chapter) a slightly modified version of volume one of my dissertation by clicking here. The original dissertation used a modified Stokoe font which I created using Fontographer. My modified Stokoe font was corrupted when the document was opened and then saved in a later version of Word on a Mac computer which had a new operating system that did not have the font installed. There was no back up and the original digital version of the dissertation with the uncorrupted font no longer existed from that date. I have since inserted an alternative notation into the dissertation using a standard font and character set. I have also added illustrations for most signs to make it possible to read the dissertation without having volumes two and three at hand. The illustrations were not needed in the original volume one of the dissertation since readers could refer to volumes two and three which consisted of a fully illustrated Auslan dictionary. Don’t ask me why some illustrations display as a negative image (a white line on black background). This is a complete mystery to me. It is unintended and signifies nothing about the sign. Apart from pagination and the correction of a few typographical errors, the dissertation available for download is exactly the same as the original.



My doctoral dissertation, completed in 1989, was titled Auslan: the Sign Language of the Australian Deaf Community. My supervisor was Barbara Horvath of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney.


The purpose of my dissertation on Auslan was to show how its lexicon was unique, how its grammar was independent of its majority community spoken and written language, English, and how Auslan was comparable in complexity to other sign languages that had been described by the mid-1980s. At that time, all these points were contested by learned opinion in Australia, and especially by professionals engaged in the education of deaf children.


Using methods of participant observation, I collected an inventory of Auslan signs from members of the Australian deaf community and presented this in a dictionary, organized on principles internal to the structure of the language. The dictionary constituted Volumes Two and Three of my dissertation. The dictionary was published in 1989.


In Volume One of the dissertation, I presented a sketch grammar of Auslan over five chapters, concluding with a sixth chapter which discussed issues in sign language lexis and grammar.


The introductory chapter dealt with the need for sign language research in Australia and described my research methodology. In particular, it described how the signs and text examples were collected. These were referred to or cited throughout the dissertation (including the dictionary). This chapter also explained what class or type of signs were included in the dictionary (namely, lexical signs) and which were not (namely so-called classifier signs, and what I called at the time ‘sign-mimes’ and ‘mimes’).


In chapter two, I described the sociolinguistic structure of the deaf community in Australia and dealt with the historical association between Auslan and British Sign Language (BSL).


In the following chapters, a descriptive account (sketch grammar) was given of Auslan focusing on phonology (chapter three), morpho-syntax (chapter four) and syntax (chapter five).


Throughout the sketch grammar numerous comparisons were made between Auslan and a variety of European and non-European sign languages, with particular reference being given to BSL and American Sign Language (ASL).


In the final (sixth) chapter of my dissertation, I noted that significant overall resemblance between signed languages had already been reported in the literature. I suggested that this phenomenon required some explanation and that the lack of mutual intelligibility between individual sign languages was due primarily to lexical diversity, rather than grammatical divergence.


I argued that the remarkable similarity in the grammars of sign languages could be explained by four major factors: modality, literacy, acquisition, and language status. I argued that the sign languages which had thus far been described shared similar characteristics along these dimensions and that this contributed to a similarity of outcomes (‘convergence’) in grammar, but not lexicon. In particular, I showed that iconicity, a feature especially important to languages in the visual-gestural modality, encouraged grammatical ‘convergence’ (in the biological and evolutionary sense) on the one hand and lexical divergence on the other.


Considering the structure of signing communities (as described in my dissertation) and paying due attention to the relationship between signed and spoken languages (and their written forms), I concluded that little, if any, genuine divergence in sign language grammars appeared to exist. For these very reasons, I also suggested that it was likely that only minor grammatical divergence would be found in yet-to-be identified and described signed languages. Most, if not all, divergence in grammatical patterning and coding that could be identified would likely be able to be attributed to the influence or impact of various majority spoken languages and/or their written forms on any given signed language.


Last updated: 27 October 2003

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