Rebecca Orton

Field Methods Paper

Bob Johnson

Spring 2000


Grammatical Sketch of Italian Sign Language (LIS)




For our field methods class with Robert E. Johnson as our teacher, we interviewed our informant, Danielle Le Rose from Caristi, Italy in order to discover the grammatical structure of Italian Sign Language, otherwise known as LIS.Danielle is from a family of deaf parents, brother, and sister.He grew up as a native LIS signer, particular the south Italy dialect, but he knows written Italian, written English, and American Sign Language (ASL).




Handshapes used in LIS include the number handshapes from one through five, the basic handshapes of



the more exotic handshapes of



and the handshapes with internal movements of



Locations used in LIS include locations on the face such as



Other locations include locations such as



Locations include locations out in neutral space by parts of the body such as locations




The heights out in neutral space include a range from over the head to the waistline and for locative verbs, may include locations on the body below the waistline or in the back.Locations include locations such as on the passive hand in various handshapes, such as



Two interesting locations on the passive hand are the thumbnail and the fingernail.


Locations also include both hands located relative to each other in parallel movements, opposite movements, alternating movements, and in movements where both hands are in contact with each other and move as a whole like ALLIGATOR, BABY, CUP, JUNE, or SHELL.The handshapes involved in these kinds of movements are usually the same on both hands except for those meant to be numeral incorporation for numbers higher than five.


These two-handed handshapes used on both hands are




As evident above, the motionless passive hand can only assume a limited number of handshapes when it is being used as a location for the active hand.†† When both hands move relative to each other, the handshapes are more varied.

Basic movements found are holds, straight and arced movements.Combinations of movements found are


Contacts found are


Brushing contacts found are



Sliding or tracing contacts found are



Tapping contacts found are


There was one lexicalized NMS found, a puffing of the cheeks for FROG.


LIS signs can be



The longest permissible sequence for a sign is WHALE, which is a sequence of FISH,

BIG, and a flicked 1 handshape moving upward.


In the phrase, THATíS POINTER, assimilation can occur.THATíS is a one-handed 1-handshape twisting at the wrist from inward to outward with non-manual signal of a puff of air from the side of the cheek.POINTER is a one-handed 1-handshape used to point to a person or thing in the accusative sense.But normally, you canít see the phrase as two separate distinctive signs unless you used a first person accusative reference.The phrase, THATíS POINTER would mean ďThatís herĒ, ďThatís himĒ, ďThatís itĒ, ďThatís meĒ, or ďThatís youĒ depending on where you were pointing.


Another example of assimilation is within the phrase, TOT GROW-UP.TOT is a compound sign composed of the I-handshape located at the mouth that I call the I-morpheme, meaning small young animated being, and the HEIGHT morpheme,

a B handshape bent at the base of fingers with thumb out located off to the lower side of the torso with the palm facing downwards.GROW-UP is the HEIGHT morpheme moving upwards.The phrase TOT GROW-UP assimilates between the two signs because the ending handshape and location of TOT and the handshape and location of GROW-UP are the same.The sideways movement of HEIGHT within the compound TOT can be reduced as well so that there is virtually no way to distinguish between the two signs in the phrase TOT GROW-UP.


In GIVE(1), a two-handed L-handshape sign, weak hand drop can occur.


In DEAF, there is no metathesis, unlike the sign DEAF(ASL) in American Sign Language.The sign DEAF is a 1 handshape with an index fingertip that taps the ear then taps the cheek by the mouth.However, the index fingertip in DEAF(ASL) can tap the mouth first and then the ear or vice versa.


In the signs for HUSBAND and WIFE, only the mouthing of ďsposoĒ for husband and the mouthing of ďsposaĒ for wife in Italian spoken language distinguish between the two signs.The sign looks like a I handshape with a wrist twist downward.




The affix AGENT looks like a hooked baby C handshape moving downwards with the thumbtip and fingertip aiming in the direction of the person.This AGENT is singular, it cannot be used to mean multiple persons, unless it is used with repetition.It can indicate first person.A LIS sentence using this AGENT meaning ďthat person over there is a teacherĒ is shown in A below





The AGENT affix is used for occupations such as



However, the AGENT affix cannot be used for*reader or *worrier.


There is a grouping of occupations that are not allowed to use the AGENT affix because these occupations are considered to be labor class.Instead the sign WORK is used as a derivational morpheme to change an occupational phrase into a phrase meaning a person that does that occupation.The sign WORK is placed before the occupational phrase.

Examples are



Some occupational signs donít use any affixes at all.These occupations signs are




The signer WORKER(2) includes such occupations such as digger, mover, driver, assembler, etc.It looks like a bunched handshape tapping into the weak palm.In addition, the sign DOCTOR is used to mean doctors in general.There are medical specialties that can be represented by compound signs.These compound signs are



The sign DOCTOR alone has two taps of a hooked 2 handshape with the fingertips tapping on top of the back of the hand at the base.†† For DOCTOR in the compounds listed above, there is only one tap.In addition, the sign TEETH normally has two taps of the hooked 1 handshape fingertip against the bare teeth.For TEETH in the compound TEETH-DOCTOR, there is only one tap.The compound sign TEETH-DOCTOR starts at the teeth and ends at the back of the hand in one smooth motion with weak hand anticipation.


The sign DOCTOR is used to represent a category in general and then compounds using DOCTOR as part of the compound in reduced form are used to specify members within that category.†† There are other combinations that work together like compounds but do not seem to be reduced as far as repeated movement are concerned.However, it is clear that these combinations are using iconic semantic/phonological categories.The signs are:




However, when the informant was asked to give some examples of compounds that he knew of, he gave examples of fully reduced compounds as far as repeated movement was concerned.The sign for FATHER is a double snap with the index finger against the thumb by the mouth with the mouthing ďpapaĒ.The sign for MOTHER is an A handshape with the thumb out tapping twice on the cheek by the mouth. The compound sign PARENTS is composed of FATHER with only a single snap plus MOTHER with only a single tap.The sign PARENTS is signed with a swift movement toward the cheek between the snap and the tap.The tap could be considered a hold as well.


Another example is the compound WEEKEND/S-D.In Italian spoken language, Saturday is ďSabatoĒ and Sunday is ďDomenicaĒ.SABATO is signed with an A handshape with the thumb out, moving twice toward the contra-lateral side of the body.The handshape conforms to the fingerspelled letter ďSď in LIS.DOMENICA is signed with a D handshape with a circling up and down movement.As is clear, the D handshape conforms to the fingerspelled letter D in LIS.The compound sign WEEKEND/S-D is composed of SABATO with a single truncated movement to the side plus DOMENICA with the circling movement eliminated completely and either a short truncated movement to the side or a hold is used instead.


There are perhaps some compounding processes involved when dealing with days of the week, months, years, etc.However, there is also numeral incorporation involved as well.

In the sign TOMORROW/ONE-DAY-AHEAD, the 1 handshape moves in an arc with a twist from horizontal palm up to horizontal palm down from ipsi-lateral to the contra-lateral side of the body.For TWO-DAYS-AHEAD, there is no numeral incorporation, but rather a form suggestive of a compound.The 1 handshape in TWO-DAYS-AHEAD moves in a spiral with a small loop downwards and then blends upward into the normal arc used in TOMORROW/ONE-DAY-AHEAD.This form is highly marked compared to the subsequent forms in the incomplete paradigm.The sign THREE-DAYS-AHEAD looks like TOMORROW/ONE-DAY-AHEAD except a 3 handshape is used instead.The sign FOUR-DAYS-AHEAD, and FIVE-DAYS-AHEAD looks like TOMORROW/ONE-DAY-AHEAD as well, except for the 4 handshape and the 5 handshape, respectively.†† The paradigm stops here and there may well be a new paradigm starting at number 6 consisting of two-handed opposite arcs, but my data is incomplete.The sign SIX-DAYS-AHEAD looks like a strong A handshape with the thumb out and a weak 5 handshape arcing upwards from outside of the body on both sides and twisting inwards towards each other in front of the body.The handshapes in SIX-DAYS-AHEAD conform to number SIX.


The sign for month could be used to mean a month or one month depending on context.The sign A-MONTH/ONE-MONTH looks like a strong 1 handshape tracing a path down the palm of an upright B handshape with relaxed thumb and then the strong hand arcs upward sharply outward from the bottom of the weak hand palm with a wrist twist.TWO-MONTHS through FIVE-MONTHS looks like A-MONTH/ONE-MONTH except the handshape is the 2 through 5 handshapes respectively.This paradigm is complete.A new paradigm starts at SIX-MONTHS through TEN-MONTHS.In SIX-MONTHS, a strong A handshape with the thumb out and a weak 5 handshape both facing outward from the body, move downward, twist around, and move upward in parallel, ending up facing inward toward the body.In SEVEN-MONTHS, a strong A handshape with the thumb out and a weak L handshape moves like SIX-MONTHS.The handshapes in SIX-MONTHS and in SEVEN-MONTHS conform to number SIX and SEVEN respectively.†† The signs EIGHT- MONTHS with strong 3 handshape and weak 5 handshape, NINE-MONTHS with strong 4 handshape and weak 5 handshape, TEN-MONTHS with two 5 handshapes all move like SIX-MONTHS.This paradigm is also complete.ELEVEN-MONTHS is a compound/combination sign composed of TEN with a A handshape with thumb out with an oscillating twist, plus A-MONTH/ONE-MONTH with unreduced movement.TWELVE-MONTHS looks like ELEVEN-MONTHS except with a 2 handshape.This is not a complete paradigm for pragmatic reasons.Normally if there are more than twelve months involved, then years are used.


Again, the sign for year could be used to mean a year or one year depending on context.A-YEAR/ONE-YEAR looks like a A handshape with thumb out with the thumbtip aiming upward and the horizontally positioned hand moving sideways in a clockwise direction.The signs TWO-YEARS through FIVE-YEARS look like A-YEAR/ONE-YEAR except for the 2 through 5 handshapes respectively.This numeral incorporation paradigm is complete.In the two-handed paradigm, SIX-YEARS through TEN-YEARS, there is some compounding processes evident. The two-handed sign SIX-YEARS starts another paradigm.In the compound SIX-YEARS, first SIX is signed and then the strong hand circles clockwise and the weak hand circles counterclockwise with both hands in the A handshape with thumb out.The two-handed compound signs SEVEN-YEARS through TEN-YEARS work the same way, with the respective number being signed first.The compound sign ELEVEN-YEARS splits the consecutive sequencing of the first paradigm because it is a one-handed sign composing of ELEVEN plus A-YEAR/ONE-YEAR.ELEVEN-YEARS is considered to be a compound because if it werenít, the hand would have an oscillating twist throughout the entire circle.What occurs instead is the oscillating twist occurs first, and then the circling movement is started.


Another example of numeral incorporation is in the signs for one-lane highways (one lane for each direction), two-lane highways, three lane highways, and four lane highways.In ASL, there is only the sign for HWY(ASL), however, in LIS, there are 1 through 4 handshapes bent at the base of the fingers incorporated in the root morpheme HWY.It is possible that the ASL sign HWY was borrowed into LIS and then functionally expanded to include numeral incorporation.


There is a interesting numeral incorporation of a verb MAKE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT to derive nouns indicating how many goal shots were made, ONE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT, TWO-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOTS, THREE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOTS, and FOUR-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOTS.†† The verb MAKE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT and the noun ONE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT looks the same and is distinguished by context.They look like a 1 handshape with palm facing upward and the arm in horizontal position.The hand moves from ipsi-lateral to contra-lateral side of the chest, iconically simulating the motion of a soccer ball on its way to the goal.The nouns TWO-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOTS through FOUR-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOTS look like MAKE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT/ONE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT except for the 2 through 4 handshapes, respectively.


The verb MAKE-SOCCER-GOAL-SHOT can be used with the punctual aspect to indicate repeated goal shots being made over a time.†† The punctual aspect is indicated by repeated straight movements.Verbs that can take on the punctual aspect are



The durative aspect is indicated by a circling movement or a repeated sideways head movement if the sign cannot move in a circular fashion for some phonological reason.Verbs that can take on the durative aspect are



Manner can be indicated within a verb as well.For example, in the verb, SWIM, faster circling indicates faster speed in competitive swimming, and slower circling indicates leisurely swimming.The sign with a similar aspect RAIN-FAST-&-STRONG uses a fast oscillating movement.


A completive tense is indicated with a verb plus FINISH.The sign FINISH means the same thing as the model Ďdidí in declarative sentence usage such as for example, ďI already didĒ.In example B below, the phrase means that it stopped raining.Another example is in C below meaning ďI have already eatenĒ.


B.RAIN(++) FINISH - it stopped raining.

C.POINTER(1ST person) EAT FINISH - I have already eaten.


Plain verbs include many of the verbs already listed above but will be repeated again here below.



The legend below is used to indicate by number which person to person reference was observed in the more complex verbs discussed below.


Legend of person reference:

  1. first person to third person
  2. third person to first person
  3. third person to third person
  4. first person to second person (normally subsumed by 1)
  5. second person to first person (normally subsumed by 2)
  6. first person to multiple third person
  7. first person to everyone
  8. multiple third person to first person
  9. third person to third person to third person
  10. first person to everyone, with hands initially crossed over each other

Indicating verbs are



Most of the indicating verbs listed are in a full paradigm except for INSULT/EMBARRASS-SOMEONE, KIDNAP, and perhaps KILL.For INSULT/EMBARRASS-SOMEONE, the verb ends at the face (iconically similar to placing a pie in your face, so to speak) so it may not be acceptable to reverse the sign and have it start at the face and move out from there.For KIDNAP, the informant indicated that this verb is not used directly when addressing the kidnappee.For KILL, as the informant has indicated, you cannot be killed by someone and survive to tell about it in this fashion so the third person to first person reference wasnít observed.Perhaps second person to first person reference in KILL was observed as being a joke or misunderstood.(All misunderstandings are solely my responsibility.)


There are verbs that are used with an auxiliary AUX-1, which looks like a 1 handshape with the index fingertip used to point first to the subject, then to the object of the verb.

These verbs phrases are



On the surface, placing the AUX-1 after the verb seems restricted to 3rd person to 3rd person, but this finding could be because of incomplete data.


There is another auxiliary verb that is normally used with money transactions.This auxiliary is actually an existing verb GIVE(2).The verb phrases with the GIVE(2)auxiliary are



All of these verb phrases are in a full paradigm.The verb phrase TAKE + GIVE(2)is not restricted to money transactions only and could be treated as a serial verb.In D below is an phrase with an interspersed THREE-DOLLARS (3 handshape lying horizontally) that gives evidence that LOAN-MONEY + GIVE(2) is not a compound.This suggest that none of the other verb phrases listed above with LOAN-MONEY + GIVE(2) are compounds either.††





Locative verbs are



Most of these locative verbs can be used on your own body except for SEE, THROW, and WHIP.For SEE, this may be due to incomplete data.For THROW, you cannot throw a body part away unless it was somehow segmented from the body.For WHIP, the informant was not aware of the potential for the action of the verb to be used on oneís self.No further comment need be said.


The most interesting classifier was the one used for bikes and motorcycles only.This two-wheeled vehicle classifier is a horizontal 3 handshape, similar to the more general vehicle classifier in ASL.For other vehicles like cars, trucks, etc. the B handshape with relaxed thumb classifier is used instead.The up-side-down 2 handshape is used to represent humans.The clawed 5 handshape classifier for animals is used in the lexicalized sign ANIMAL.Lines are traced out using the 1 handshape classifier even when describing plaids.Thicker lines are described with the G handshape or baby C handshape classifier.Solid or opaque planes are represented in B handshape with relaxed thumb classifier while transparent or see-through planes are represented in the 5 handshape classifier.Baby C handshape classifier indicates round relatively flat things.Full C handshape classifier indicates round cylindrical or spherical things.The F handshape classifier is used to represent small round things either flat or three-dimensional.


Makeup is described below using complex combinations of classifiers.They are


         MASCARA - bent 1 handshape moves up and down by the eye





There are existential sentences using THATíS as show below in examples E through L.


E.THATíS POINTER(3RD person) STUDENT - Thatís a student.

F.THATíS TEACH AGENT - Thatís a teacher.

G.THATíS AGENT- Thatís a person.

H.THATíS POINTER(3RD person) AGENT - That person over there is a person.

I.THATíS POINTER(1ST person) - Thatís me.

J.THATíS POINTER(3RD person) MAN - That person over there is a man.

K.WOMAN THATíS POINTER(3RD person) - Thatís the woman over there.

L.THATíS POINTER(3RD person) HAPPY - That person over there is happy.


There is a sign NOT-HAVE/THERE ISNĒT that means the opposite of existential meaning.This NOT-HAVE/THERE ISNĒT looks like a L handshape twisting outward twice in horizontal position.The verb HAVE is used as the opposite of NOT-HAVE/THERE ISNíT instead of a sign that looks like a 1 handshape contacting the chest on the radial side of hand as in other sign languages related to Italian Sign Language.Example M below uses NOT-HAVE/THERE ISNíT and example N below uses HAVE.





Simple sentences with SVO word order are listed below in examples O through S.


O.†† MAN LOVE(1) POINTER(3RD person) - A man loves him/her/it.

P.POINTER(3RD person) LOVE(1) MAN - He/she/it loves a man.

Q.MAN LOVE(1) WOMAN - A man loves a woman.

R.MOTHER MY LOVE(1) POINTER(3RD person) - My mother loves him/her/it.

S.MOTHER MY LOVE(1) B-O-B POINTER(3RD person) - My mother loves Bob over there.


Negation sentences are shown in examples T and U below with headshake (hs) non-manual signals.The sign NEG is an upright F handshape shaking side to side from the wrist.NEGATION is a upright 1 handshape shaking side to side from the wrist.A sentence using NEGATION is shown in example V below.


††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††---hs

T.BROTHER DRINK OJ NEG - My brother didnít drink orange juice.


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ---hs

U.BROTHER MY DRINK NEG - My brother didnít drink.


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ------------hs

V.†† POINTER LIE NEGATION - He/she/it is not lying.



The negative is always placed last in a sentence.There are no such things as negative questions.The difference between the sign NEG and the sign NEGATION is shown below to a yes/no question in W and the replies in examples X and Y.


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ----head-forward

W.POINTER(2RD person) EAT FINISH?†††††††††††††† - Have you already eaten?


†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ---hs

X.POINTER(1ST person) EAT NEG - No, I havenít eaten yet.


†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ------------hs

Y.POINTER(1ST person) EAT NEGATION - No, I donít want to eat.

A sentence with a tag question is listed below in example Z.TRUE looks like 2 handshape facing inwards toward the body and moving side to side.There is a non-manual signal of head-forward marking tag-questions as well as question sentences.Tag questions can only be placed last as shown by the ungrammatical AA example below.


†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ----head-forward

Z.POINTER(3RD person) LIE, TRUE?†††††††††††††††††† - He/she/it is lying, right?


†† ----head-forward

AA.*TRUE?†††††††††††††††† POINTER(3RD person) LIE - *Right? He/she/it is lying.


A gapped subject is possible in a negative sentence as shown in example BB below.


†††††††††††††††††††† -----------hs††††††††† -----------hs

BB.LIE NEGATION, LIE NEGATION - He/she/it is not lying. (repeated again)


A gapped subject is possible in an assertive sentence with pronoun copy headnod (hn) non-manual signals as shown in example CC below.


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Ö---hn††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Ö---hn

CC.LIE POINTER(3RD person),††††††††††††††††† LIE POINTER(3RD person)††††††††

- Yes, he/she/it is lying (repeated again)


Word order in yes/no questions are limited to one possible word order without any spatial indexing and using third person references only.The word orders in examples DD through HH are ungrammatical.Only the SVO word order in example II is grammatical.









It is not certain whether the possessive MY should be before or after the noun BROTHER in examples DD through II above.It should be after the noun BROTHER as is consistent with spoken Italian.However, the arrangement of MY and BROTHER in examples DD through II does not invalidate the data with regard to subject and object orders.


With a first person reference replacing the noun phrase MY BROTHER, then example HH above is transformed into a grammatical sentence below in example JJ.†† Grammatical example II above is transformed into grammatical example KK below.





There is also evidence of spatial placement of SISTER and BROTHER in a declarative sentence in example LL below, but not in yes/no questions in examples MM through OO below.







Wh-question signs are



Wh question signs are placed always last.See grammatical examples PP and RR and ungrammatical examples QQ and SS below.







††††††††††††† --head-forward



Some Wh-question signs can be placed first for emphasis.The normal word order is shown in examples TT and VV, and the word order with emphasis is shown in examples UU and WW below.




†††††††††††††† ---body forward

UU.WHEN?†††††††††††††† ITALY FLY(there) WHEN?




†††††††††††††††† -----------------------------frown & body forward

WW.†† WHO? WHO? WHO? POINTER(3RD person)?



Some Wh-questions can be placed first in a question containing the sign THATíS.Example XX below is the normal Wh-question word order.Example YY below is the Wh-question word order with THATíS included.






Conditional sentences using non-manual signals are shown below in examples ZZ through BBB.


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† head-forward††† -----------------hn



††††††††††††††††† head-forward & to one side, eyebrows up†††††

AAA.IF RAIN,††† †††††


†††††††† †† head back & to other side, eyebrows relaxed

†††††††† †† PICNIC CANCEL


†††††††††††††††† head-forward†† ---------------hs



A complex monologue example is shown in below in Table 1.


Table 1.Monologue with role indicators.

POINTER(1ST person) ASK(2ND person) LIE POINTER(3RD person)?

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ----------------hs


††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ---hn

POINTER(1ST person), OIC



The pointers at the beginning of the last two sentences in Table 1 above is a role indicator for who the informant is talking about when he tells how each person reacted.


Another monologue is shown below without the role indicating pointers in Table 2.


Table 2.Monologue without role indicators.

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† --head-forward

POINTER(1ST person) ASK(2ND person)POINTER(3RD person) LIE?










In conclusion, Italian Sign Language is very different from American Sign Language in many respects, but there are also many similarities.†† I will close by saying that there is evidence that Italian spoken language does influence Italian Sign Language.We should take that into consideration in the debate whether American Sign Language is influenced by English or not.To me, it would seem logical to say that spoken language in the environment does influence sign language to some degree, and knowledge of the spoken language can be critical to understanding and attaining knowledge of the sign language.