Wendy Sandler, Director



Education: PhD in linguistics, University of Texas – Austin (1987)

Wendy Sandler is Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at the University of Haifa and Founding Director of the Sign Language Research Lab there. She has developed models of sign language phonology and prosody that exploit general linguistic principles to reveal both the similarities and the differences in natural languages in two modalities. More recently, her work has turned to the emergence of new sign languages and ways in which the body is recruited to manifest increasingly complex linguistic form within a community of signers. In her multi-disciplinary research project, The Grammar of the Body, supported by the European Research Council, she studied how actions of the body illuminate the evolution and emergence of linguistic structure in human language and its precursors. As part of that project, she founded, with director Atay Citron, a unique sign language theatre company named ‘Ebisu’. Sandler has authored or co-authored three books on sign language: Phonological Representation of the Sign (Foris); A Language in Space: The Story of Israeli Sign Language co-authored with Irit Meir (Hebrew version: University of Haifa Press; English version: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates/Taylor Francis); and Sign Language and Linguistic Universals, coauthored with Diane Lillo-Martin (Cambridge University Press). She is a member of the Linguistic Society of America, the Israel Association for Theoretical Linguistics, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Research Statement

Humans are the only species with language, and we have two kinds: spoken and signed. Scientists have much to learn from this embarrassment of riches. The question it poses propelled me into a career of research, and has sustained my interest ever since: How can humans ‘do’ language in the visual modality?

My work has focused primarily on the aspects of language that seem the most remote from one another in sign and speech: phonology and prosody. Phonology is the study of the meaningless sounds that make words, while prosody organizes and connects parts of utterances, interpreting their meaning through intonation and rhythm. Are the building blocks of words in sign language equivalent to sounds? Can facial expression, which accompanies all language, be recruited to perform the specific linguistic functions in sign language that intonation does in speech?

Through linguistic analyses of these systems, I have been able to identify surprising similarities but also particular differences. The similarities confirm that certain properties of language are universal, while the differences, attributed to physical modality, challenge the universal status of others.

In recent years I have had the opportunity to study a newly emerging sign language in the Bedouin village of Al-Sayyid, with my colleagues Mark Aronoff, Irit Meir, and Carol Padden. Through this research, we have been able to watch as the use of the hands, face, and body for language gradually leads to conventionalization, systematicity, and complexity of linguistic form. Inspired by the use of the body in manifesting the linguistic structure of sign languages, my current wide-ranging research project is exploring The Grammar of the Body as a reflection of the property of compositionality in language and its emergence.

Selected articles:


Grammar of the Body website

Press, media, and popular science:

Book about our work on an emerging sign language:

Documentary film about our work and sign languages in Israel:



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