Language and Gesture in Brazilian Sign Language Narrative

Posted: 21 Nov 2008

See all articles by Leland McCleary

Leland McCleary

University of São Paulo (USP)

Evani Viotti

University of São Paulo (USP)

Date Written: October 19, 2008


This study investigates the question of how, in Brazilian sign language (Libras) narrative, the conceptualizer (speaker or addressee) differentiates multiple narrative voices and points of view. In sign language linguistics, the tendency to maintain a categorical distinction between the gestural and the verbal has made it difficult to solve persistent problems in the description of sign language discourse. Discourse coherence appears to be at least as much a result of gestural contributions as of purely verbal structures, such that no analysis of the strictly verbal elements can account for the construction of text. Specifically in narrative, one consequence of the verbal bias is that analyses of narrative voices and points of view seem to restrict the range of possibilities for multiple layerings and perspectives. Since there seems to be no clear syntactic mechanism for the representation of indirect speech in sign languages, the literature has focused on the description of markings of what is taken to be direct speech, principally through the use of body positioning and direction of eye gaze to represent the source of utterance. This is coupled with the assumption that the source of utterance necessarily embodies its own voice and point of view. This is the phenomenon that our study intends to investigate. Liddell (2003) broke with tradition by adopting the blending theory of Fauconnier and Turner (2002) and the concept of gesture and language as a unitary semiotic system of Kendon (1980) and McNeill (1992). Our study builds on these insights by specifically applying Liddell's (2003) and Dudis' (2004) concept of body partitioning to allow for complex overlays of narrative structure. "Pear story" narratives (Chafe 1980) of deaf adult signers were analyzed with particular attention to narrative sequences that correspond to shifts in point of view and constructed thought and action that occur from narrator to character and character to character. Our conclusions to date point in three promising directions. First, is the need to elaborate Liddell's model of real-space blends to more adequately reflect narrative structure, with the possibility of distinguishing among narrator blends and character blends. Second, it is clear from our data that body shifts do not necessarily correlate with voice or point of view of the character represented. Body positioning may reflect the constructed thought or constructed action of a character from the point of view of the narrator, of the character himself, or of another character. Thirdly, it appears that the failure of verbal analyses to account for sign language discourse is at least in part due to the fact that the verbal contributions rely for their interpretations on a much richer gestural context than is required for oral languages. In other words, more of the burden of conceptualization of events and of discourse coherence in narrative is carried by the expressive possibilities of the bodily presence of the speaker. On this view, verbal and syntactic elements can be understood as mere cues to referential categories within an enacted scene.

Keywords: language, gesture, Brazilian sign language

Suggested Citation

McCleary, Leland Emerson and Viotti, Evani, Language and Gesture in Brazilian Sign Language Narrative (October 19, 2008). 9th Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, & Language (CSDL9), Available at SSRN:

Leland Emerson McCleary (Contact Author)

University of São Paulo (USP) ( email )

Rua Luciano Gualberto, 403
Cidade Universitária
São Paulo, São Paulo 14800-900


Evani Viotti

University of São Paulo (USP) ( email )

Rua Luciano Gualberto, 315
São Paulo, São Paulo 14800-901

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