3.1 Different approaches to data collection
Word order in SLs has been investigated using many different methodologies, which in some cases yielded different results, as I have already discussed with reference to ASL (section 2). In several papers, grammaticality judgements and assessment of constructed examples was the main means of data collection (Fischer 1975; de Quadros 1999). This means is very convenient to test complex theories, but the obvious drawback is that the intuition of native signers is not a very objective measure, and assessment of the grammaticality of different word orders is notoriously difficult. As a variant of this methodological strategy, a researcher who is a native signer may use her/his own intuition; see, for example, de Quadros (1999) (the author is a bilingual child of Deaf parents) and Kegl et al. (1996) (one of the authors is a Deaf native signer). One should notice, however, that the intuition of a researcher can be biased by theoretical considerations.
A much more reliable methodology is the use of naturalistic corpus data (e.g. Friedman 1976; Deuchar 1983; Bouchard & Dubuisson 1995; Nadeau & Desouvrey 1994; Quinto 2000; Wilbur 2002; Sze 2008). However, this method has several serious drawbacks, too. First, in a naturalistic set of data, it is not always possible to find the full variety of constructions and test all factors that can influence word order. Second, in naturalistic narratives, sentences in which more than one argument is overtly expressed are very rare. Third, for SLs, it is particularly difficult to create a balanced and sufficiently large corpus that might include different genres.
Quite often researchers use an experimental approach to elicit the data necessary for determining word order, namely, a picture description task (e.g. Volterra et al. 1984; Boyes-Braem et al. 1990; Coerts 1994; Vermeerbergen 1996, 2004; Saeed et al. 2000; Leeson 2001; Sze 2003; Vermeerbergen et al. 2007; Johnston et al. 2007; Milković et al. 2006). This method makes it possible to avoid some of the drawbacks of the other approaches. First, it is possible to specifically test different factors that can influence word order by carefully creating the relevant stimuli. Second, when a situation in the picture is described in one or two sentences, the signers are forced to use sentences with several overt arguments. Third, this method is relatively simple and less time-consuming than collecting a large corpus of natural discourse. Of course, the problem is that data obtained under experimental conditions are less natural than spontaneous data; this approach also favours narrative genre, while for some purposes other genres are necessary.
Some researchers combined different methodologies to study word order in SLs. For example, Massone & Curiel (2004), in their research on word order in LSA, did not only use a sentence interpretation task and an experimental task (describing pictures and films), but also analyzed naturalistic narratives and dialogues. The results of their research were later discussed with a large group of native signers who provided their intuitions on the word orders used. This is an example of a very thorough and reliable methodology.
In order to analyse word order in Russian Sign Language, I decided to combine two methods: an analysis of (semi-)naturalistic corpus data and an experiment (picture-description task). The aim of using the corpus data was to assess some general principles of word order in RSL based on a naturalistic data and to create hypotheses concerning the factors that may have an influence on word order. The aim of the experiment was to test these hypotheses. This approach still has the drawback of being biased toward the narrative genre. This might be a problem since word order in, for instance, conversations might be different; this question remains for the future research. In the following, I describe the corpus (Section 3.2) and the experiment (Section 3.3). In both sections, I provide information about the stimuli, the procedure, the subjects, and the transcription.