Grammaticalization is not the full story: a non-grammaticalization account of the emergence of sign language agreement morphemes

Irit Meir


Many studies show that grammatical morphemes and categories emerge by means of grammaticalization. Here I argue that grammaticalization cannot account for all cases of the emergence of grammatical elements. Drawing on the development of agreement verbs in Israeli Sign Language, I suggest another morphological mechanism for morpheme emergence that supplements grammaticalization: carving morphemes from monomorphemic words. Sign language agreement verbs constitute a class of verbs with a shared semantic component – verbs denoting transfer, and a shared morphological structure - marking agreement with their subject and object arguments by copying the arguments' R-loci onto their initial and final locations. A diachronic study of verbs of transfer in ISL (Meir 2012) reveals that agreement verbs were initially monomorphemic, and eventually developed morphological complexity, by means of reanalyzing the initial and final locations of the signs as morphemic. I suggest that the key property underlying this process is that verbs of transfer in the manual modality share both a meaning component and a physical formational component. By acknowledging meaning-form resemblance across words and reanalyzing the shared phonological segments as morphemic, a morpheme is extracted from a formerly monomorphemic word. While processes along these lines have been attested in spoken languages as well, sign language agreement verbs show that such a process can create not only new morphemes but also a new grammatical category.


grammaticalization; sign language agreement verbs; grammatical categories

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