Linguistics in Amsterdam 5-1 (January 2012)Vadim Kimmelman: Word order in Russian Sign Language
4 Word order in RSL

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4.1 Subject position

In the corpus data, the subject preceded the predicate in the absolute majority of the cases (95%, 170 out of 179 clauses). In the experimental data, the subject always preceded the predicate. In the nominal and adjectival clauses, the only argument always appears before the predicate. Therefore, it is possible to immediately conclude that the position of the subject is pre-verbal.

In some languages, the position of the subject depends on the transitivity of the verb (Dryer 2007). For example, in Spanish subjects of intransitive verbs can appear in the postverbal position, but subjects of transitive verbs cannot. Therefore, it might be worth investigating whether in RSL subjects of transitive and intransitive verbs also behave differently. However, there is no research on transitivity in RSL, and there is no reliable methodology to decide which of the verbs in the corpus are transitive and which are intransitive. Nevertheless, it is still possible to assess the hypothesis that transitivity influences the position of the subject. There are some clauses in the corpus in which the object and the subject are overt, so the verbs are obviously transitive. There are also many clauses in which only the subject is overt; in these cases, the object is either covert (in the case of transitive verbs) or there is no object in the argument structure (in the case of intransitive verbs). Thus the latter group of clauses should contain clauses with both transitive and intransitive verbs, while the former group contains only transitive verbs. If transitivity influenced the position of the subject, we would expect these two groups to show different distribution of the subject position, because clauses in the two groups differ with respect to transitivity. In reality, however, in both groups the percentage of the VS order is only 5%. We can therefore conclude that the position of the subject in both transitive and intransitive clauses is pre-verbal.

Prosodic properties of subjects support this analysis. In most cases of the SV order, the subject does not constitute a separate prosodic unit (EDU). As shown in Table 3, in 65% of the cases the subject and the verb are within one prosodic unit.

Table 3: Prosody with SV order












There are several types of situations in which the subject constitutes a separate EDU. First, at the beginning of a narrative, subjects are quite often (10 cases) introduced in a separate EDU, in fact, following the subject there is often a boundary of a super-discoursive unit (20)[11].


Situations in which the subject constitutes a separate super-discoursive unit occur only at the beginning of narratives (with one exception, [X3-41], which is, however, at the beginning of a new episode in the narrative). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that this is a discourse-related strategy, specifically used to introduce the main participants of the narrative.

Second, in some cases non-manual marking accompanies a subject which appears in its own EDU, which may be indicative of topicalization (but, of course, I have no proof yet that this is in fact topicalization). The non-manual marking consists of lowered eye brows and a head nod or only raised eye brows, and is used to introduce information known to the addressee (21). For instance, in 21 the subject lady fat is marked with this non-manual marker, which might be a sign of a movement.


If in the examples of this sort subjects are indeed topicalized, then the prosodic boundary between the subject and the rest of the clause is expected, because topics are often intonationally separated in SLs (Aarons 1994).

Thirdly, in some cases the signer hesitated between the subject and the verb, thus creating a prosodic boundary between them (22).


If we discard these three types of situation, then we are left with only 15% of clauses in which the subject is separated from the verb by a prosodic boundary. Therefore, I conclude that in the default case, the subject and the verb constitute one prosodic unit.

In the nine clauses with VS order, the prosodic facts are different. In four cases out of nine, there is a prosodic boundary between the verb and the subject. Therefore, the more marked word order (VS) is also more marked prosodically, which is in line with the hypothesis formulated in Section 3.

Considering my position that prosodic boundaries must not be equated with clause boundaries, the sequence of clauses in (23) is of interest.


These two clauses are almost identical, but in the second one the subject son is separated into its own EDU. In other words: the same syntactic structure is mapped onto two different prosodic structures.

In the following section, the position of the object is discussed, including the factors that can influence it. I have checked whether these factors also influence the position of the subject, but none of them appeared to do so. I will therefore not discuss these factors for the subjects. The subject in RSL is clearly pre-verbal, and most likely the 5% cases with VS order can be attributed to afterthoughts or the like.