Presidential Scholars Theses (1990 – 2006)


Open Access Presidential Scholars Thesis

First Advisor

Dr. Cynthia Dunn


American Sign Language; Sapir-Whorf hypothesis;


My study sought to combine two topics that have recently generated much interest among anthropologists. One of these topics is American Sign Language, the other is linguistic relativity. Although both topics have been a part of the literature for some time, neither has been studied extensively until the recent past. Both present exciting new horizons for understanding culture, particularly language and culture.

The first of these two topics is the study of American Sign Language. The reason for its previous absence from the literature has to do with unfortunate prejudice which, for a long time, kept ASL from being recognized as a legitimate language. The second has to do with a specific case of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This famous anthropological idea postulates that one's language guides the pattern of one's thought. Although proposed decades ago, little work has been done to validate or contradict the hypothesis, and that work which has been done has been plagued with methodological troubles. However, many scholars have recently begun looking into the hypothesis in the specific domain of space and made some exciting discoveries.

Contrary to previous beliefs, not all languages use a relative system of describing space. Relative systems establish location relative to other objects, generally the ego. Absolute systems, in contrast, use cardinal directions. While both exist in many languages, speakers often heavily prefer one over the other (Levinson 1996). Comparing relative and absolute systems and how they affect cognition, researchers have obtained results showing affects on both memory and thinking (Lucy 1997).

In particular, a cross cultural study of several languages revealed striking differences in thinking between languages using relative and absolute coordinate systems. Participants were shown objects or movements on one table, rotated 180 degrees, and then asked to pick the same object, movement, or arrangement. Speakers of relative languages chose based on left and right, speakers of absolute languages chose based on cardinal directions (Majid et al 2004).

With all of the work that has been done in these two areas, it seems that the next logical step would be to combine these two areas. The study of how language shapes cognition seems particularly well suited for combination with the study of ASL. After all, signed languages have the unique trait that they utilize space in order to describe space. One cannot help but ask how this is affecting how the signer might internalize his or her concept of spatial reality differently than his or her speaking counterpart.

I asked questions of six users of American Sign Language in order to ascertain whether their language describes location relatively or absolutely. These participants were recruited from a local Deaf club that I have been attending for over a year. I then replicated the study done by Majid, et. al. (2004) with users of ASL to see if the pattern discovered in this study carries over to manual languages. I predicted that ASL uses relative descriptions, and that the results for phase II would be similar to those found with speakers of relative languages in Majid, et al. (2004 ). While these predictions for the most part were verified, the more interesting result was that ASL turned out to use a special case of relative descriptions that will need to be the topic of further investigation.

Date of Award



Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Presidential Scholar Designation

A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation Presidential Scholar


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1 PDF file (47 pages)

Date Digital



©2005 - Cindee Calton





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