Things I have learnt about proforms

Posted on Feb 18, 2011

So* BSL makes frequent use of proforms: elements that refer to terms previously defined in a given discourse context. Pronouns, which refer specifically to previously defined nouns, are a category of proform common in English. Pronouns make up a proportion of the proforms found in BSL, but BSL makes greater use of a range of proforms because of is spatially and temporally marked grammatical constructions.

Much grammatical information in BSL is indicated in the use of space and movement, and as many full signs are anchored to certain locations on the body or use both hands at once, they cannot not freely accommodate the kinds of movement necessary for grammatical inflection. Temporarily transferring significance onto a simpler and more versatile handshape makes this inflection possible.

The full sign for “car”, for instance, is two-handed and is positioned symmetrically in front of the chest, like holding a steering wheel. But indicating a car’s location, movement, relation to other objects etc. means moving the sign in space and time and in relation to other signs that might be going on simultaneously. The BSL proform for a car, a flat handshape with the palm facing down, is a form sufficiently versatile to carry¬† these grammatical inflections.

The sculpture to be constructed during the Doing Words with Things performance will incorporate several components, each of which will need to be manipulated by the sculptor whose movements will in turn be instructed/described by the signer. As many of the components will be fragments rather than distinct and identifiable objects in their own right, it might be that the inevitable proforms will be defined in the first place with ad hoc signs created one by one for each scrap of material: “the-bit-with-the-curled-up-end”, “the-red-one”, “that-one-over-at-the-edge”, and so on.

I want to develop the sculptural fragments and the overall sculpture itself with a similar degree of abstraction as the language consequently needed to describe it. Inevitably, they’ll be causing one another (MATTER again…). The language and the sculpture need to be planned in parallel.

*I’ve been reading The Linguistics of British Sign Language by Rachel Sutton-Spence and Bencie Woll, Cambridge University Press, 2010.