University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


Like many other spoken and signed languages, German Sign Language (Deutsche Gebärdensprache, DGS) displays variation in surface form of the plural marker. This allomorphy is phonologically conditioned, triggered by particular phonological properties of the lexical sign to which the plural marker attaches (Pfau and Steinbach 2005, 2006). Since the overt realization of this marker is licensed to a small set of nouns in the language with the proper phonological properties, the majority of lexical signs are left bare, or zero-marked, when the simple plural is formed (2005, 2006).

According to Pfau and Steinbach (2005), there are a number of what they call “alternative pluralization strategies” available in DGS as a repair for this underspecification in the simple plural, including classifier constructions, spatial localization, and number phrases. These constructions are available for use with any lexical sign, regardless of whether the canonical plural marker can be overtly realized with that noun. When used in conjunction with a zero-marked plural, they argue, these constructions serve as alternative means for expressing a plurality of referents.

I propose that a new morpheme for plural marking is entering into the language and that it is drawn from the classifier system already available in DGS. This new morpheme attaches only to nouns with phonological features blocking the realization of the canonical plural in some way. For this reason, I conclude signers are beginning to use the classifier-based morpheme as a repair for this underspecification.



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