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Modality and linguistic change in Spanish Sign Language (LSE)

Obligation and epistemic necessity from the Fernández Villabrille dictionary (1851) to the DNLSE (2008)
Carmen Cabeza-Pereiro


Le propos de cet article est d'examiner le processus historique de grammaticalisation des signifiés modaux de necessité (déontique et épistémique) dans la langue des signes espagnole (lengua de signos española, abrégé LSE). Notre source d’information est le Diccionario usual de mímica y dactilología (‘Dictionnaire d’usage de mimique et dactylologie’), publié par Francisco Fernández Villabrille en 1851. À partir de cet ouvrage, nous identifions les signes qui exprimaient les signifiés qui nous intéressent et nous recherchons les motivations des formes qui les portaient, ainsi que leur rapports avec d'autres signes semblables. Ensuite, nous comparons ces données avec quelques signes actuels provenant du Diccionario normativo de la lengua de signos española (DNLSE, ‘Dictionnaire stardardisé de la langue des signes espagnole’, cf. Fundación CNSE 2008).

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0. Introduction

1Taking for granted the cognitivist approach, according to which linguistic change must be studied simultaneously in the phonological pole and in the semantic pole, we will adopt the definition of grammaticalization as the process whereby a lexical item assumes a grammatical function or a morpheme develops into more grammatical uses (see Heine, Claudi & Hünnemeyer 1991; Hopper & Traugott 1993; Bybee et al. 1994). In the case of signed languages, a gesture can be the first step of grammaticalization (Janzen & Shaffer 2002), which constitutes a ‘modality-specific’ pathway of grammaticalization (Pfau & Steinbach 2006). Wilcox (2004) has proposed two types of processes (two routes, in his terminology) that can originate in a not conventionalized gesture, used by hearing people accompanying verbal discourse. This gesture does not belong to any natural language but, going through a “gesture-language interface”, it acquires the status of a lexical item in a signed language and, then, becomes a grammatical morpheme. This is, briefly expressed, what he calls “the first route from gesture to signed languages” (Wilcox 2004: 48). He describes a second route which starts not from a “free-standing gesture”, but rather from “a particular manner of movement of a manual gesture or sign, and various facial, mouth, and eye gestures” (ibid.). In this paper, we will identify gestural units that have their origin in co-verbal articulations.

2We will focus on the explanation of the causes for the routinization of specific configurations, movements and hand positions in the articulation of signs. The status of these units has been the object of controversy in the literature. Stokoe is a good example of this assertion. In his first analysis (Stokoe 1960), these components were considered ‘cheremes’, that is, the manual counterpart of ‘phonemes’, minimal units without meaning. But in the 90’s, he argued that signed languages articulators could be analyzed as agents carrying out actions (Stokoe 1991; Armstrong, Stokoe & Wilcox 1995). So, despite the distinctive function which has constituted the basis for their claim to linguistic status, these units are not meaningless. On the contrary, some of them can act as classifier predicates and they are a very rich source of lexical innovation.

3Grammaticalization and linguistic change are the result of innovation on the part of the speakers and of the routinization of forms which is inherent to the conventionalized use of a language. Metaphor is often the resource that speakers use to make their language more efficient, and for this reason it is to be expected that it might be behind the processes of linguistic change and grammaticalization (Heine, Claudi & Hünnemeyer 1991; Hopper & Traugott 1993; Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994).

4We will focus on the manual component of the signs, without totally excluding facial articulators. The data contained in the dictionary regarding this component are scarce and unsystematic, but for a small group of signs the intervention of nonmanual components will be crucial.

1. Description of the Fernández Villabrille dictionary (1851)

  • 1 A previous work (Hervás y Panduro: 1795) contained a brief sign glossary, with 115 entries. Neverth (...)

5The Fernández Villabrille dictionary (1851) is the first lexicographic work about Spanish Sign Language (LSE), conceived as a true sign language dictionary. It contains 1,152 entries, which in fact describe a much higher number of signs, since some of them refer to more than one sign.1 It is currently available online thanks to the effort of a research team from the University of Alicante, which has launched the Proyecto Diccionario Histórico (Historic Dictionary Project) (Herrero-Blanco, Nogueira & Peidro 2001).

6We are (still) lacking a description of LSE at the time of Fernández Villabrille. However, this does not mean his work cannot be used as a source for partial studies such as the one concerning us now. Some signs are identical to current signs (DELGADO [‘thin’], IGUAL [‘same’]), others are clearly related to their present-day articulation (CONOCER [‘know’], DULCE [‘sweet’]), and yet others give us clues about a way of signing at the time that was different from today’s (DÉBIL [‘weak’], PADRE [‘father’]).

2. Prior definitions. The status of modality in LSE

7The traditional definition of modality refers to the speaker’s attitude or opinion (Palmer 1986: 2, 14; Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994: 176), which means it is a category that acts in the discourse. As a grammatical category, it takes different forms in languages, from the suffixal and more grammaticized appearance of mood to the lexical and less fixed means of modal lexemes, whether they are verbs (can, must), adjectives (possible, necessary) or modal adverbs (possibly, necessarily) (cf. Palmer 1986; Bybee et al. 1994). In oral languages, intonation can also acquire modal functions, as it is the case with facial expression in signed languages. Using the specific terminology of Cognitive Grammar, we could say that modality profiles that relationship between the speaker and the discourse (Shaffer 2004: 175), mainly between two notions, the possible and the necessary, which may be understood not as discrete notions, but rather as a continuum in which the probable constitutes an intermediate degree.

8We will use the classic distinction between deontic and epistemic modality (Palmer 1986). In the case of deontic modality, what allows us to assess the content of the statement in terms of possibility or necessity is a norm or rule of conduct that acts upon the agent. For judgments regarding epistemic modality, however, the perception depends on beliefs or assumptions of a general nature (Palmer 1986: 18).

9In this paper, we shall restrict ourselves to the area of necessity, in both of its dimensions (deontic and epistemic). Palmer himself has pointed out that it is common in languages to express them through the same forms (Palmer 1986: 96).

10In the case of signed languages, the study of modality grammaticalization has focused especially on American Sign Language (ASL), as it is the case with other linguistic phenomena, with an interesting exception in the Pfau & Steinbach (2006) crosslinguistic paper. Researchers have tracked the origin of current ASL modal signs in Old ASL productions and in the French Sign Language (langue des signes française, LSF), proved to be the ancestor of ASL (Wilcox & Wilcox 1995; Janzen & Shaffer 2002; Shaffer 2002, 2004), besides having proposed their gestural source, as we have already mentioned. The conclusions of these works suggest that ASL is taking a first step toward a grammaticalization process, where lexical forms are losing specificity in meaning and, consequently, becoming polysemous. An example is provided by Wilcox & Wilcox (1995: 141) regarding the evolution of ASL CAN from the lexical sign STRONG. It took on several modal meanings as a result of its grammaticalization process, as Shaffer points out:

Evidence from old ASL suggests that the lexical sign strong has grammaticized into can, which is used to indicate physical ability, mental ability, and root possibility, as well as permission and epistemic possibility (Shaffer 2002: 37)

11Moreover, other effects of grammaticalization in discourse are also studied, as it is the case of information ordering, which in ASL becomes more fixed with epistemic modals (Shaffer 2004). A more fixed position is argued to be evidence of a higher degree of grammaticalization.

12This line of research has been extended also to Italian Sign Language (LIS) Wilcox, Rossini & Pizzuto (2010) and to Catalonian Sign Language (llengua de signes catalana, LSC) (Shaffer, Jarque & Wilcox 2011).

3. Description of the present situation: expression of the modal contents of (deontic) obligation and epistemic necessity in LSE

13The expression of modality in LSE has been the subject of a PhD research paper by Silvia Iglesias-Lago (Iglesias-Lago 2006). Her main objective was the analysis of facial expression as a marker of modality in LSE. So, besides the identification of the modal values of lexical entries, Iglesias-Lago makes a contribution by highlighting the relevant role of facial articulators in the expression of modality. Herrero-Blanco & Salazar-García (2010) describe the lexical expression of different modal values in LSE. In oral languages, intonation can also assume the function of indicating the speaker’s attitude, as it is suggested by Ferreira-Brito for the Portuguese language (1990: 230).

14The researcher has worked with a signed language corpus created ad hoc. It consisted in natural LSE discourse elicited by a selection of topics aimed at obtaining samples of the different meanings traditionally linked to modality in the literature: 1) ability / capacity; 2) obligation and permission; 3) probability, possibility and necessity; and 4) wish, intention and advice. The informants were four deaf adults who had LSE as their mother tongue or as their first usual language. The result was four hours of video recording, one for each of them.

15What follows is a summary of the data provided by Iglesias-Lago (2006) regarding the semantic areas of deontic necessity and epistemic necessity. According to the classification she offers, in LSE deontic obligation is expressed through the following signs:

  • DEBER (‘must’): monomanual; the dominant hand, in a handshape with the thumb and index fingers joined and the rest separated, palm facing up, describes a straight, diagonal path downward and toward the signer’s body. In its canonical form, the movement is performed twice.


Vidéo 1 – Deber Vimeo distant
  • HACE-FALTA or FALTAR (‘it is needed’): monomanual; the extended index finger of the dominant hand (with the remaining fingers making a closed fist) is bent up and down. It is usually accompanied by an oral gesture (or oralization) that imitates, totally or partially, the mouth movement for one of the following Spanish words: falta (‘lack’) or necesito (‘need’).


Vidéo 2 – Hace-falta Viméo distant
  • OBLIGACIÓN (‘obligation’): bimanual; the nondominant forearm is located in front of the signer with a closed fist oriented downward.  It supports the dominant hand in a 1 handshape. It is a directional sign. It is usually accompanied by the oralizations obligación (‘obligation’), manda (‘he/she orders’)or debe (‘should’).


Vidéo 3 – Obligacion Vimeo distant

19Furthermore, the modal meaning of obligation may be conveyed solely through facial expression, without any accompanying manual signs. This non-manual component consists in frowned brows.

20For epistemic necessity, the data provided by Iglesias-Lago (2006) identify the manual sign DEBER:

DEBER, with the same manual articulation described for obligation. It is usually accompanied by an oral gesture similar to the mouth movement in the Spanish pronunciation of fijo (‘definite’), seguro (‘sure’) or debe (‘must’).

21As in the case of obligation, epistemic necessity may also be expressed only by the non-manual component, in this case, a facial expression consisting in frowned brows and pursed lips.

4. Analysis of the data in the Fernández Villabrille dictionary

22As in every study of a historical nature, we are faced with the limitations imposed by the text itself. In this case, the dictionary does not include some entries that could prove very useful to us. That is the case of DEBER, which does not appear in any of its meanings, neither deontic nor epistemic. We do not have access either to the use signers made of these signs in the discourse at the time. We can only rely on the contrast with current data.

23Regarding deontic modality, with the meaning of obligation we find a description of the sign OBLIGAR (‘to oblige’). Its articulation is similar to the current one. In Fernández Villabrille’s description, it is associated with the sign MANDO (‘order’), which undoubtedly refers to its deontic meaning:

OBLIGAR (‘to oblige’)

  • 2 We have maintained the original spelling.

“Se hace la señal de mando repetidas veces y con energia,2 inclinando bien la punta del dedo hácia abajo.” (p. 109)

‘The sign mando is made vigorously several times, tilting the tip of the finger downward’

24If we look up MANDO, we will find the following description:

MANDO (‘order’)

“La mano derecha cerrada y el índice bien estendido, da un golpe en el aire de arriba abajo.” (p. 98)

‘The closed right hand, with the index finger extended, slaps the air downward’

  • 3 MANDAR (‘to order’) is monomanual and OBLIGAR (‘to oblige’) is bimanual, just as it is described he (...)

25The articulation is quite similar to the current one,3 with two main differences: In the first place, the use of the non-dominant hand, which we do not consider relevant, since it simply introduces a background for the performance of the sign.  In the second place, the repetition of the movement in the 19th-century sign. In general, the repetition of the gesture, or what could be described as greater dramatization in comparison with current articulations, is a characteristic of the way of signing described by Fernández Villabrille, and its simplification can be explained as a process of phonological reduction due to grammaticalization.

  • 4 We are aware of the cultural restrictions which affect gesture use (that is, of the fact that the m (...)

26The articulation described by Fernandez Villabrille for MANDO (explained as the source for OBLIGAR) is also used in co-verbal gesture articulation in ordinary conversation among hearing people in Spain.4 The extended index finger, the most general expression of deixis, acquires a meaning of ‘acting over other people’ when produced with an up-down movement of the forearm. So, the deontic sense ‘you have to’, ‘you must’ is easily deduced. It can even take on a meaning of warning (Payrató 1993: 211).

27Searching for any other entries that might lead us to the expression of deontic obligation, we have found the following two entries:

FALTA (‘lack of something’)

“La mano derecha estendida, con los dedos abiertos y el pulgar apoyado bajo la barba. En esta postura y quieto el pulgar, se mueven los otros dedos.” (61)

‘The right hand is extended, with the fingers open and the thumb resting under the chin. In this position, the thumb remains still and the other fingers move.’

NECESARIO, PRECISO – INDISPENSABLE (‘necessary, essential-indispensable’)

“Se juntan el índice y el pulgar como para la O de la dactilología y se dan repetidos golpecitos de arriba abajo en el aire.” (p. 105)

‘The index and the thumb come together as for a fingerspelled O and repeatedly tap each other up and down in the air.’

28The first entry describes a completely different articulation from the sign that currently expresses deontic necessity, which is usually glossed as HACE-FALTA or FALTAR. Since Fernández Villabrille does not usually include meanings, we do not know whether this sign refers to the meaning of lack or to the meaning of error or defect. We do not have any evidence either to assess whether or not it had a modal use at the time. We reproduce here the first two meanings given for the entry FALTA in the 1843 edition of the dictionary of the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy): 1. “Defecto ó privacion de alguna cosa necesaria ó útil; como FALTA de medios, de llubias, etc.”(‘Lack or deprivation of a necessary or useful thing; such as LACK of means, of rains, etc.’) 2. “El defeto en el obrar contra la obligación de cada uno” (‘The defect in behaving against each one’s obligation’). The text is identical in the following edition, dating from 1852, with spelling adaptations (Real Academia Española, 2001, online edition).

  • 5 But the term agent-oriented is not equivalent to deontic in Bybee’s approach.

29Regarding NECESARIO, PRECISO-INDISPENSABLE (which we will abbreviate as ‘NECESARIO’ when the reference to the three entry words is not relevant), its articulation is almost identical, with slight variations in the movement, to the one identified in current LSE with the gloss DEBER. The latter now has two meanings, deontic necessity and epistemic necessity, as can be gathered from the data in section 3. Once again, we have to refer to the absence of meanings in the dictionary we are using as our source and, therefore, to the impossibility of verifying, without further clues, the deontic use of the sign in question. Nonetheless, we are going to put forward the hypothesis that it did have this use. In general, deontic meanings precede epistemic meanings, and the latter derive from the former, as indicated in the following citation from Shaffer, who uses the term agent-oriented instead of deontic:5

It is generally accepted that agent-oriented modality is in some sense more basic than epistemic modality. A number of researchers (Bybee et al. 1994; Coates 1983; Gee 1985; Traugott 1989) suggest that epistemic modals (such as English could) develop out of agent-oriented modals (i.e., canfor English). Bybee (1985) in her cross-linguistic study of morphology suggests that verbal inflections in languages with morphologically marked moods may have grammaticized from lexemes previously used to mark agent-oriented modality. (Shaffer 2004: 177)

30Also Heini, Claudi & Hünnemeyer (1991: 176): “The evidence available suggests that there is a unidirectional process leading from deontic to epistemic modality and that this process is linked to grammaticalization.” Refering to LSE modals, Herrero-Blanco & Salazar-García (2010: 32) state that “deontic contents are more basic than epistemic ones, a fact which usually goes hand in hand with several formal consequences.”

31This explanation is simpler than assuming that the deontic meaning stems from the epistemic meaning, which we can easily surmise from the series of words that introduce the sign in question (necesario, preciso, indispensable, ‘necessary, essential-indispensable’). Considering the way it is stated, by means of three adjectives with an epistemic meaning, we believe it was used to express a type of necessity that does not arise from conditions that are external or internal to the agent, nor from the authority of a speaker that imposes some conditions, but that “[it] indicates the extent to which the speaker is committed to the truth of the proposition” (Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca, 1994: 179).

32In the article cited above, Shaffer relates the fact that the marks of epistemic modality are less basic with their greater grammaticalization and with a more subjective function in the discourse. Thus, following the previous citation, we read:

The question of the origin of markers of modality is germaine to the investigation here, because it is claimed that more grammaticized forms are also more subjective (Traugott 1989) and thus serve different discourse functions than less grammaticized modals. (ibid.)

33In our case, Shaffer’s hypothesis would lead us to defend a greater degree of grammaticalization of the current uses of the sign derived from that introduced by Fernández Villabrille with the words necesario, preciso and indispensable, that is, of the sign DEBER. According to the data of Iglesias-Lago, the epistemic modality content is conveyed only through that manual sign in present day LSE, in contrast with deontic obligation, which is expressed through three alternating signs, as described in section 3. The use of a single lexeme would suggest a greater degree of generalization of the meaning than the use of several alternative lexemes, since in this case the synonyms allow at least part of the different shades of meaning of the three lexical items involved to be maintained.

  • 6 Kendon is referring to the Italian context, but his words can be applied also to the Spanish one.

34Used as a co-verbal gesture, this articulation is commonly linked to a meaning of precision or specificity, as it is described by Kendon (1995), who refers to it as ‘the Ring’:6

In our corpus of recorded conversations there are many instances of the Ring and a review of these suggests that it has several different, though related, usages. These may be summed up by saying that the Ring occurs in association with a segment of speech that provides precise information, makes a specific reference to something, makes something specific in contrast to other possibilities or in contrast to something more general, or which gives a specific example of something. (Kendon 1995: 268)

35As an emblem it could be ‘translated’ as ‘all right’ and it expresses agreement (Payrató 1993: 211).

36It is worth asking how we arrive at this epistemic, speaker-oriented meaning, for which Fernández Villabrille uses no less than three Spanish words that refer to a judgment of a general nature. To answer this question, we have looked in the Fernández Villabrille dictionary itself  for another sign or signs that may give us a clue regarding the possible changes in meaning that might have led to the one in which we are interested. To make the search easier, we can formulate some hypotheses:


First hypothesis: the migration towards the epistemic meaning takes place through certainty in judgment

37In order to verify whether this is the case for LSE, we have examined the signs PENSAR, REFLEXIONAR, SABER, and RAZÓN-DISCERNIMIENTO, to see if the sign in question might have been derived from them. The four signs use metaphors that have been widely explained for SL:

PENSAR (‘to think’)

“Se ponen los dedos en la figura de la letra Q, y se estan rozando un poco en la frente.” (116)

‘The fingers in the shape of a fingerspelled Q touch the forehead lightly’

REFLEXIONAR (‘to reflect’)

“Inclinada la cabeza, se trazan circulitos muy despacio en la frente con los dedos de la mano derecha, unidos por las puntas.” (127)

‘With the head tilted, small circles are drawn very slowly on the forehead with the fingers of the right hand, joined at the tips.’

SABER (‘to know’)

“Se pone el dedo índice derecho sobre la frente y se tiene un rato quieto en ella, manifestando reflexion.” (131)

‘The index finger is placed on the forehead and it is kept there for a moment, showing reflection.’

RAZON, DISCERNIMIENTO (‘reason, discernment’)

“Con ademan reflexivo se fija el índice en la frente y alli se dan suaves y repetidos golpecitos, acompañados de un movimiento afirmativo.” (126)

‘With a thoughtful gesture, the index finger is placed on the forehead and knocks on it softly and repeatedly, with an affirmative movement.’

38As Phyllis Wilcox said (2000: 95), “The forehead is a metonym for the brain, which can serve as an ontological metaphor for a container of thought processes.” The four signs whose articulatory descriptions we have just mentioned match the metonym according to which the forehead stands for the brain, as well as the metaphor that sees the brain as a material domain (container) profiling an abstract domain (the ideas or thoughts, which constitute the content).

39None of these articulations allows us to establish a link with the sign glossed by Fernández Villabrille as NECESARIO, PRECISO-INDISPENSABLE.


Second hypothesis: the epistemic content stems from certainty in speech

40We have examined VERDADERO-CIERTO, AFIRMAR, and even INGENUO.

VERDADERO – CIERTO (‘true, certain’)

  • 7 In this text, Q could be a typing error for O.

“Se hace el signo de hablar, y colocando la mano en la postura de la Q7 de la dactilología, se baja con viveza hacia abajo.” (148)

‘The sign for speak is made and, placing the hand in the fingerspelled Q handshape, it moves downward firmly.’

AFIRMAR (‘to assert’)

“Afirmación etc. Signo de cierto, y además se mueve la cabeza una ó dos veces de arriba á bajo, como para decir que sí.” (p. 16)

‘Sign for certain, and the head also moves up and down once or twice, as if saying yes.’

  • 8 In the 1843 edition of the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, the first meaning of INGENUO, (...)

INGENUO8 (‘sincere’, at the time of Fernández Villabrille)

“Se pone el dedo cerca de la boca, moviéndola al mismo tiempo que la lengua, dando un golpe en el aire con el dedo pulgar e indice unidos que es el signo de cierto.” (p. 86)

‘The finger is located near the mouth, which moves at the same time as the tongue. Then the air is slapped with the thumb and index fingers joined, which is the sign for certain.’

  • 9 But see footnote 7.

41This last sign is associated by Fernández Villabrille himself with certainty in speech. The first (VERDADERO-CIERTO) contains a downward movement that may seem similar to that of NECESARIO, but the handshape is not the same.9 Interestingly, in the description of the sign INGENUO, the sign CIERTO is not related to a Q handshape, but precisely to the configuration we are looking for: thumb and index fingers joined.

42Once again, we find another case of metonym: the mouth for the action of saying or speaking.

43However, there is one entry that holds the key to the metaphorical relationship that gives rise to the meaning we are examining: CABAL. Fernández Villabrille introduces as synonyms the terms justo and exacto, which refer to a value judgment in the area of the epistemic.

  • 10 We have selected two of the meanings of the word cabal included by the RAE in the 22nd edition of i (...)

CABAL.10 Justo, Exacto. etc. (‘upright, just, exact’)

“Las dos manos en la postura de la O de la dactilologia, imitan horizontalmente el balance de un peso y luego se paran y se fijan de repente.” (28)

‘Both hands in the fingerspelled O handshape imitate horizontally the balancing of a weight, and then suddenly stop and remain fixed.’

  • 11 The Latin word pensare contains in its meaning a reference to the weights of a scale. The same sema (...)

44Here we find the metaphor of the scale, which allows us to easily profile an abstract domain (what is said is exact or certain, and it is therefore judged as such) through a more concrete one (the balancing of weights, in this case).11

BALANZA, Peso, etc. (‘scale, weight’)

“Se imita con las dos manos vueltas hácia arriba y un poco encorvadas, la natural oscilacion de una balanza.” (24)

‘With both hands turned up and slightly bended, the natural oscillation of a scale is imitated.’

45Just like the scale allows a measurement to be determined exactly by balancing the two weights that it compares, it can also serve as a vehicle to express metaphorically what is considered exact in judgment. From this meaning, a metonymy turns what is exact in a particular situation into something paradigmatically exact and, therefore, necessary in general terms.

46Some present-day signs in LSE confirm our hypotheses, since they contain the same handshape identified in the sign NECESARIO, and they share with this sign the meaning of something precise, that can be measured exactly. That is the case of IGUAL (‘same’, in the sense of “constant, invariable”), FIJO (‘sure’), ASEGURAR (‘to assure’) and AUTÉNTICO (‘genuine’). Herrero-Blanco (1998) includes these LSE signs among others that he considers examples of an archetypal handshape, revealing an associated iconicity. According to this author, what these signs have in common is that “they refer to a field that we could call binding assessment or judgment” (1998: 217). See also Cabeza-Pereiro (2012).

47In the next section we will present the result of a short exploration of current lexicographic data related to these articulations bearing modal meanings.

5. Current situation: a short survey of the DNLSE

48It is relevant to remark that the DNLSE is the result of a project monitored by the CNSE Foundation with the aim of providing the Spanish deaf community with a dictionary of standardized forms of LSE. We consider this standardizing objective a very important one, as it is the fact that the dictionary was cross-referenced with the entries of the Diccionario de la lengua española (Dictionary of Spanish language), by the Royal Spanish Academy of Language, which is also a reference for standard Spanish language.

49The current articulation related to Fernández Villabrille’s OBLIGAR is very similar to the one discussed above. As described in the previous section, two main differences have taken place: the use of the non-dominant hand as a symbolic background and the reduction of the repetition to just one movement. The resulting simplification can be interpreted in terms of phonological reduction, as commonly described in grammaticalization processes, in which movement simplification is concerned.

  • 12 It is important to notice that ‘entry’ cannot be equated with ‘sign’, because the DNLSE entries are (...)

50However, the evolution of the sign NECESARIO shows greater complexity, because the DNLSE presents several entries12 which can be related to it. Besides the expression of modal meanings of necessity (as we have argued, in both the deontic and epistemic domains), we have seen this articulation associated to certainty in speech, and we have identified an interesting formal similarity between this sign and another one meaning exactness in judgment (CABAL), through the metaphor of exactness in weights. These associations, and also the changes in the movement with respect to the original sign, will give us the opportunity to evaluate the current signs supposed to derive from the one referred to by Fernández Villabrille as NECESARIO, PRECISO-INDISPENSABLE.

51The DNLSE allows for two types of searches: from the basic sublexical components of LSE or from a list of Spanish words. In the first case it is easy to look for signs having a specific handshape, which is the type of research we are interested in. Doing so, we have obtained a large number of the signs which fulfill the condition of being articulated with the O-handshape (56), but not all the expected signs were found by this procedure, so we had to check the dictionary using the other type of search (trying Spanish equivalents of signs supposed to contain the O-handshape) in order to complete the list (up to 60). So we are not completely sure that our examination of the DNLSE has totally covered the O-handshape signs included in it.

52We have used Access to create a database where all these signs were registered with the aspects of their manual and nonmanual articulation which we considered relevant for the research. Moreover, we have incorporated the SEA notation (Sistema de Escritura Alfabética, ‘Alphabetical Writing System’), designed by Herrero-Blanco (Herrero-Blanco 2003), with the aim of having at our disposal a conventionalized transcription of each concrete item. This will provide us with a tool to easily compare the different articulations in their sublexical components.

53Among the 60 O-handshape entries, we have identified 31 which undoubtedly bear a meaning of precision. Of them, 13 are monomanual, and the remaining 18 are articulated with both hands. As Fernández Villabrille’s sign NECESARIO is one-handed, we will search for the most reliable diachronically related ones among the 13 monomanual signs.  But, as the sign CABAL ‒which we have hypothesized as related in meaning‒ is two-handed, the analysis of bimanual signs can be useful in order to check if there is any correlation between the exactness meaning and the situation of both hands in the same horizontal plane, as simulated by the metaphor of the scale (see above, in section 4, on the CABAL sign).

54Observing the articulation of the 13 one-handed signs, it is noticeable that only a reduced number of them have the downward movement described by Fernández Villabrille for NECESARIO:

  • The one glossed as FIJO (‘sure’), which appears in the DNLSE entry luz (see footnote 12), linked to the idiom a toda luz or a todas luces (‘evidently, without any doubt’), and

  • ASEGURAR (‘to assure’), in the dictionary entry asegurar, with two associated signs, the other one formed on the fingerspelled sign SÍ, ‘yes’ (we are not considering this second sign).

55Both articulations are very similar. The SEA notation provided by the DNLSE is ebeämiwup for FIJO and oleämiwu in the case of ASEGURAR. One difference is the place of articulation: in front of the signer’s body in both cases, but in a lateral position for FIJO and in a central location for ASEGURAR. The second difference consists in a slight local movement which, in our perspective, can be recognized for both signs, although it has not been reflected in the transcription of ASEGURAR.

    • 13 We have registered a VERDAD1 sign, also with an O-handshape articulation. It is a very common sign (...)

    VERDAD213 (‘true’), transcribed as olëamipub. This is another candidate to be directly related to Fernández Villabrille’s NECESARIO. A simplified downward movement –so simplified that it has been interpreted as a local movement in the SEA notation– is articulated in front of the signer, in a central location. It is worth mentioning the repetition of this downward movement.

  • AUTÉNTICO (‘genuine’), with exactly the same manual articulation as VERDAD2, but with a different facial expression: frowned brows and oralization (lip movement close to the Spanish word auténtico).

56Other O-handshape signs can be hypothesized as related to Fernández Villabrille’s NECESARIO. That is the case of DEBER and the second part of two compound signs, those glossed as CREER (‘to believe’) and ORIGINAL (‘original’):

    • 14 The DNLSE transcription interprets this movement as a ‘tuning fork’ one (diapasón, in Herrero-Blanc (...)

    DEBER (‘must’) appears in the DNLSE entry haber, associated with a meaning of deber, conveniencia o necesidad (‘duty, convenience or necessity’). It is transcribed as eäaâadoheb. The main difference with respect to Fernández Villabrille’s NECESARIO sign is the orientation and direction of the movement, towards the signer in the current articulation.14 We have already mentioned the simplification with respect to the characteristic repetition of 19th century signs, which we have hypothesized as a consequence of the grammaticalization process.

  • The second part of the compounds CREER (‘to believe’) and ORIGINAL (‘original’) match VERDAD2 in their manual articulation. They are transcribed respectively as fe eämipub and je-eämipub.

57All these signs share a meaning of certainty. It is not easy to decide which of them also have a modal meaning of (deontic or epistemic) necessity, because the definitions do not provide enough information. We can hypothesize that is the case for FIJO and for DEBER. Both articulations are coincident with the data provided by Iglesias-Lago (2006) in her description of current LSE modals.

58From a formal perspective, we can conclude that in current LSE, according to the data from the DNLSE, this meaning of certainty is conveyed through monomanual signs with the O-handshape, as it was also proved for Fernández Villabrille’s signs NECESARIO, VERDADERO, AFIRMAR and INGENUO (see above, section 4). Divergences with respect to the downward movement can be explained as phonological reductions due to the grammaticalization process, but in certain signs the downward movement remains unchanged, which can indicate that this formal feature maintains its association to decisiveness. In fact, we have observed it appears accompanied by a head nod, which is also a downward movement, but produced with another articulator, a nonmanual component. It is the case for FIJO and ASEGURAR, but also for CONFIRMAR, a two-handed sign.

59An anonymous reviewer suggests that the downward movement can constitute an expression of the metaphor KNOWN IS DOWN as it was stated by Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 20). It is necessary to say that in the Lakoff and Johnson perspective, this metaphor is strongly related to UNDERSTANDIND IS GRASPING. The embodied experience on which it is based is explained in the following way:

With physical objects, if you can grasp something and hold it in your hands, you can look it over carefully and get a reasonably good understanding of it. It’s easier to grasp something and look at it carefully if it’s on the ground in a fixed location than if it’s floating through the air (like a leaf or a piece of paper). Thus UNKNOWN IS UP; KNOWN IS DOWN is coherent with UNDERSTANDING IS GRASPING. (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 20)

60It is in question whether the grasping action could be the experiential basis for the LSE signs we are interested in, although embodied action is usually at the origin of the signs (in LSE ‘to understand’ is expressed with a grasping movement), but it is possible to relate the downward movement to the enactment of fixing something like a stick to the ground. In this gestural and experiential basis for the downward movement we agree with the reviewer’s point of view. However, the meanings associated with it go beyond deontic and epistemic necessity, expanding to assertion and warning (the latter in co-verbal gesture), as we have seen. Cross-linguistic research is needed in relation to the bodily experience which gives rise to the different uses of the downward movement in signed languages.

61For the 18 two-handed signs we have registered in the DNLSE, it is worth mentioning that some of them coincide in their manual articulation. In fact, those glossed as CONCRETO (‘concrete’), ASÍ (‘like that’), POR-HOY (‘right now’), MISMO (‘same’), UNIFORME (‘uniform’) and JUSTO1 (‘just’) share the same SEA notation (s eämape), and PELO3 (linked to the idiom pelo a pelo, with the sense of Cambiar una cosa por otra sin ningún otro añadido ‘to exchange one thing for another without any modification’) adds a repetition to this manual articulation (s eämapeb). It is just the nonmanual articulation which differentiates these signs. In some cases, it is the lip movements known as oralizations in the literature (Sutton-Spence & Boyes-Braem 2001), as in CONCRETO and UNIFORME (the latter with the oralization of igual, ‘equal’).

62This shared manual articulation is formed by both hands maintaining the O-handshape on the same horizontal plane. This particular feature can also be observed in the other bimanual signs registered with the precision meaning:

  • With a circular onwards movement, as in IGUAL2 (‘constant’) and COTIDIANO (‘daily’), both with the same manual articulation: s eämewraeheb.

  • With a wrist turn (NORMAL, ‘normal’, and CORRIENTE, ‘usual’, also sharing the manual form: s eämégrob).

63Or it can be associated to other specific movements. There is an interesting exception to this arrangement of the hands on a horizontal plane in the sign JUICIO, ‘judgement’ (sl eämewub), similar to Fernández Villabrille’s CABAL sign, in which the hands move up and down alternatively.

64There is a constant semantic nuance in all these bimanual signs with an equal-plane position of the hands: all of them suggest the idea of a comparison between two or more objects, ideas or situations.

65So we can confirm that in bimanual signs with the O-handshape, the position of the hands on a horizontal plane was related in origin to the same exactness meaning, through the scale metaphor we have referred to in section 4. That is, each hand (source domain) stands for a scale pan (target domain) and, consequently, the coincidence of both hands on the same plane would express exactness in measure, the precision meaning shared by all the signs we are studying.

6. Conclusions

66We have examined the Diccionario usual de mímica y dactilología, by Fernández Villabrille (1851), in order to identify the signs that might have expressed, in the LSE of the time, meanings associated with the deontic modality of obligation and with epistemic necessity. The first is, without any doubt, linked to the sign OBLIGAR. We suggest it must also have been expressed through the sign that appears in the dictionary under the entry NECESARIO, PRECISO-INDISPENSABLE, following the reasoning that the deontic meaning is usually more basic than the epistemic meaning, which can also be identified in this sign.

67Both signs, OBLIGAR and NECESARIO, have a gestural source. The fact that a gesture used in the general domain of hearing people enters the lexicon or even the grammar of a signed language is documented in the literature (Janzen & Shaffer 2002, Wilcox 2004), and it is considered a peculiarity of the grammaticalization of signed languages (Pfau & Steinbach 2006).

68We have investigated two hypotheses in order to provide an explanation for the modal meaning of necessity of the sign NECESARIO: first we explored the possibility that the migration towards the epistemic meaning might take place through certainty in judgment, but the examination of some signs related to this domain of thinking does not offer any relation to the Fernández Villabrille NECESARIO sign. However, the second hypothesis, according to which the epistemic content stems from certainty in speech, leads us to an interesting connection between the signs VERDADERO – CIERTO (‘true, certain’), AFIRMAR (‘to assert’) and –particularly- INGENUO (‘sincere’), on the one hand, and the sign in question, NECESARIO, on the other.

69Moreover, the Fernández Villabrille dictionary allows us to identify the conceptual domain underlying the metaphor that leads us to consolidate the meaning of epistemic necessity associated with the sign NECESARIO. This can be found in the sign CABAL (‘upright’), which is articulated with the same handshape and is also associated to a downward movement. We can claim that in LSE, exactness in judgment (that is, what is necessary) is profiled through exactness in weight, through an association which also includes the sign BALANZA.

70Another surprising observation is that, except for the sign described in Fernández Villabrille under the entry FALTA (of whose modal use we have no evidence), the meanings associated with necessity are always expressed through a downward movement that conveys the energy and decisiveness contained in this meaning. This is also true of the sign used in ASL (MUST/SHOULD) and in LSC, as described by Wilcox and Wilcox (1995). Moreover, the O-handshape (thumb and index fingers joined) is related to a meaning of exactness or specificity.

71In section 5, we have offered a survey of the data provided by the DNLSE in order to corroborate the relation between the O-handshape and the precision nuance which is part of the meaning of necessity. With this objective, we have observed the signs articulated with an O-handshape and selected those whose meaning has a nuance of precision. This constitutes a sort of ‘semantic feature’ or ‘semantic component’ shared by a set of signs among which those expressing modal necessity are a subset.

72On the other hand, we have proposed that the downward movement comes from an embodied action of fixing something firmly, and it expresses a decisiveness nuance which is still recognized in certain signs. We think that is the case with FIJO or ASEGURAR, which also incorporate a head nod reinforcing the manual downward movement. It is noticeable that OBLIGAR, one of the signs identified in the Fernández Villabrille dictionary as responsible for the deontic meaning of necessity, also shares this downward movement.

73Finally, the observation of the bimanual signs articulated with the O-handshape and bearing the precision meaning has shown us that the horizontal position of both hands on the same plane is extensively used in a number of signs. In these cases a semantic nuance of comparison can be observed, which can justify the use of the scale metaphor.

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Documents annexes

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1 A previous work (Hervás y Panduro: 1795) contained a brief sign glossary, with 115 entries. Nevertheless, according to the author’s own testimony, his informant was a young deaf man from Rome, Ignacio Puppi (Hervás y Panduro [2008: 225]).

2 We have maintained the original spelling.

3 MANDAR (‘to order’) is monomanual and OBLIGAR (‘to oblige’) is bimanual, just as it is described here, that is, with the dominant hand in the same handshape and with the same movement and orientation, and the non-dominant hand in a B configuration and oriented downward, serving as background.

4 We are aware of the cultural restrictions which affect gesture use (that is, of the fact that the more a gesture acquires a codified meaning, the more culture-specific its use becomes). The domain of use of the MANDO gesture is probably wider than in the Spanish context, but we have not explored it.

5 But the term agent-oriented is not equivalent to deontic in Bybee’s approach.

6 Kendon is referring to the Italian context, but his words can be applied also to the Spanish one.

7 In this text, Q could be a typing error for O.

8 In the 1843 edition of the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, the first meaning of INGENUO, NUA is “Real, sincero, sin doblez” (‘real, sincere, without deceit’). This definition remains unchanged in the 1852 edition. The 1869 edition introduces the adjective candoroso (naïve): “Real, sincero, candoroso, sin doblez” (‘real, sincere, naïve, without deceit’).

9 But see footnote 7.

10 We have selected two of the meanings of the word cabal included by the RAE in the 22nd edition of its dictionary: “(de cabo, extremo) 1. Ajustado a peso o medida.”; “4. Completo, exacto, perfecto.” [‘(from end, extreme) 1. Adjusted to weight or measure.’; ‘4. Complete, exact, perfect.’]. In the 1843 edition of the dictionary we find the following meanings in the first, second and fourth places, respectively: “Lo ajustado á peso ó medida”; “Perfecto, completo”; “Justamente” [‘Something adjusted to weight or measure’; ‘Perfect, complete’; ‘Justly’].

11 The Latin word pensare contains in its meaning a reference to the weights of a scale. The same semantic path allows us to explain the symbol of the scale as a representation of justice. In current LSE, the concepts BALANZA, JUSTICIA and COMPARAR (‘scale’, ‘justice’, and ‘to compare’) are articulated in the same way (in a bimanual, symmetrical sign, the palms of the hands turned upward, with the fingers in a 5 handshape, perform an alternating up and down movement).  

12 It is important to notice that ‘entry’ cannot be equated with ‘sign’, because the DNLSE entries are in fact Spanish words that have one or several (depending on the cases) LSE equivalents. In some cases, the LSE gloss we use to identify the sign does not match the Spanish word which introduces the dictionary entry. This is the case, for example, of the sign glossed here as FIJO (‘sure’), which appears in a phrasal use of the Spanish word luz (‘light’).

13 We have registered a VERDAD1 sign, also with an O-handshape articulation. It is a very common sign used for expressing agreement with the addressee.

14 The DNLSE transcription interprets this movement as a ‘tuning fork’ one (diapasón, in Herrero-Blanco 2003).

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Carmen Cabeza-Pereiro, « Modality and linguistic change in Spanish Sign Language (LSE) », CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 10 | 2013, mis en ligne le 21 octobre 2013, consulté le 28 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cognitextes.642

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Carmen Cabeza-Pereiro

University of Vigo, Facultade de Filoloxía e Tradución, Campus Universitario, E-36310 Vigo, Spain

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