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.
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.
- Stamp, Rose & Sandler, Wendy. (2021). The emergence of referential shift in three young sign languages. Lingua 257. 1-19.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2018). The body as evidence for the nature of language. Frontiers in Psychology. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01782
- Sandler, Wendy. (2017). The challenge of sign language phonology. Annual review of Linguistics, 43-63
- Sandler, Wendy. (2016). What Comes First in Language Emergence? In N. Enfield (Ed.). Dependencies in Language: On the Casual Ontology of Linguistic Systems. Language Science Press, Studies in Diversity Linguistics Series. 67-86.
- Sandler, Wendy, Aronoff, Mark, Padden, Carol & Meir, Irit. (2014). Language emergence. In J. Sindell, P. Kockelman & N. Enfield (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of linguistic anthropology (pp. 250-284). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2012). Dedicated gestures in the emergence of sign language. Gesture 12/3, 265-307.
- Sandler, Wendy, Aronoff, Mark, Meir, Irit, Padden, Carol. (2011). The Gradual Emergence of Phonological Form in a New Language. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29, 503-543.
- Sandler,Wendy. (2010). The phonology of movement in sign language. In Blackwell companion to phonology, Marc van Oostendorp, Colin Ewen, Keren Rice, and Elizabeth Hume (Eds.), Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. 577–603.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2010). The uniformity and diversity of language: Evidence from sign language. Response to Evans and Levinson. Lingua, 120(12), 2727-2732.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2010). Prosody and syntax in sign languages. Transactions of the Philological Society 108:3. 298-328.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2009). Symbiotic symbolization by hand and mouth in sign language. Semiotica 174 (1/4), 241-275
- Sandler, Wendy (2006). Phonology, phonetics, and the nondominant hand. In Papers in Laboratory Phonology: Varieties of Phonological Competence, Louis Goldstein, D.H. Whalen, and Catherine Best (Eds.), 185-212. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter.
- Nespor, Marina, and Sandler, Wendy (1999). Prosodic Phonology in Israeli Sign Language. Language and Speech, 42 (2&3), 143-176.
- Sandler, Wendy. (1996). Phonological features and feature classes: The case of movements in sign language. Lingua 98: 197-220.
- Sandler, Wendy. (2017). What Sign Languages Can Tell us About Human Language. Talk at Israel Academy of Sciences conference on Languages. (in English)
Press, media, and popular science:
- Landau Prize Ceremony. (2017).
- Language and What It Means to be Human: Wendy Sandler’s Research. (University of Haifa, 2018).
- Meisel, Rosie. (2017). Signs of how a language grows. Knowable Science from Annual Reviews.
- דה מרקר. המקרה המשונה של החתול – בשפת הסימנים. (אוקטובר 11, 2016). לוי, רותי.
- Rubin, Shira. (August 30, 2016). The race to study a dying sign language before it disappears. Science of Us, New York Magazine.
- Matacic, Catherine. (April 22, 2016). New sign languages hint at how all languages evolve. Brain & Behavior, Science.
- Sedivy, Julie. (September 22, 2014). The unusual language that linguists thought couldn’t exist. Nautilus.
- Fox, Margalit. (July, 2007). Village of the deaf. Discover Magazine.
- Sa’ar, Tsafi. (February 22, 2005). Born to sign. Ha’aretz. Translated from Hebrew by Donna Bossin.
- הארץ. סימן שנולדים עם זה. (פברואר 22, 2005). סער, צפי
- Wade, Nicholas. (February 1, 2005). A new language arises, and scientists watch it evolve. Science, The New York Times.
Book about our work on an emerging sign language:
- Fox, Margalit. Talking Hands. (2007). The story of language, told through our work on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. http://www.talkinghandsbook.com/
Documentary film about our work and sign languages in Israel:
- Signer/ To Sign / לסמן. Nurith Aviv, director. Premiering in Paris March 7, 2018.