Word order is one of the most important aspects of the grammar of any spoken language. Spoken languages are linear in the sense that words follow each other and cannot be uttered simultaneously. Therefore, words are always ordered in a sequence, due to limitations of the speech apparatus, and languages can use this ordering to express grammatical meanings.
Sign languages (SLs) are different from spoken languages in this respect: they are not fully linear. Due to the availability of two identical articulators, the two hands, one sign can be produced simultaneously with another sign, yielding no sequential order of the two. Consequently, in the case of SLs, it is not possible to say a priori whether word order plays a similarly important role in their grammar. This is an important research question. A further question is whether SLs use word order as a grammatical mechanism in a similar way to spoken languages, or if there are modality-specific properties of word order in SLs.
Keeping in mind such ‘big’ questions, my aim in this paper is to investigate the order of main constituents (the subject, the object(s) and the verb) in simple declarative clauses in Russian Sign Language (further RSL) and to discuss the possibility of determining the basic word order in this language. An additional objective of the present study is to pay special attention to reliable methodology.
RSL is the language of the Deaf in Russia and some other former Soviet countries (including Ukraine and Belorussia). The number of signers of RSL cannot be reliably assessed at the current time. The highest estimate of people with hearing disabilities in Russia assumes that 2.000.000 people fall within this group (see Prozorova 2007 for references). RSL has probably emerged in the beginning of the 19th century when the first school for the deaf was set up (1806 in Pavlovsk). It is unclear whether RSL historically related to other SLs is unclear. Until recently, there has been almost no linguistic research on RSL, except for the works of Zajtseva (2006) and her colleagues, and a sketchy outline of RSL grammar by Grenoble (1992). In the last few years, several undergraduate and graduate students of Moscow State University and Russian State University for the Humanities have investigated some aspects of RSL grammar: verbal morphology (Prozorova 2004), aspect (Šamaro 2006), anaphora (Prozorova & Kibrik 2007), negation (Kimmelman 2007), possession (Tsypenko 2008), question-words (Viktorova 2007), the noun-verb distinction (Kimmelman 2009a), reflexive pronouns (Kimmelman 2009b), and prosody (Prozorova 2009). Word order in RSL has not been systematically studied yet, but Zajtseva (2006) claimed that it was free.
Word order is a phenomenon that is relatively easy to observe. However, the question what the term “basic word order” means and whether a language has a word order which can be considered basic is much more complex. Before turning to RSL, I will therefore first discuss in Section 2 the issue of (basic) word order in spoken and signed languages. In Section 3 I sketch the methodology used to elicit and analyze the RSL data. In Section 4 the results of the research are presented. The question of whether there is a basic word order in RSL is addressed in Section 5; Section 6 concludes the paper.