The eyes don't point: Understanding language universals through person marking in american signed language

Robin L. Thompson*, Karen Emmorey, Robert Kluender, Clifton Langdon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In American Sign Language (ASL), pronouns are directed to locations in space associated with specific referents to refer to them (e.g., BOB on the left, BILL on the right). Despite the relative lack of ambiguity in identifying referents, Meier (1990) argues that second and third person cannot be distinguished in the ASL grammar, and instead proposes a single category "non-first" (an analysis adopted for many signed languages). If true, signed languages stand in stark contrast to spoken languages, for which three-person systems prevail. Alternatively, signed languages could mark a three-way distinction using eye gaze patterns to grammatically distinguish between second/third person referents (Berenz, 2002), just as eye gaze is known to mark verb agreement (Thompson et al., 2006). Using eye-tracking, we measured gaze occurring with pronouns, considering three different ways in which eye gaze could be used to mark pronouns. Results indicate that ASL does not use eye gaze to mark person, thus providing further support for a lack of a second/third person distinction. However, there is evidence for the use of eye gaze to mark locatives, which look like pronouns, but pick out a locative referent. We discuss possible reasons for the difference in person marking systems between signed and spoken languages, providing insight into what is universal across languages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-229
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2013


  • Eye-tracking
  • Language universals
  • Person marking
  • Pronouns
  • Sign language
  • Verb agreement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


Dive into the research topics of 'The eyes don't point: Understanding language universals through person marking in american signed language'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this