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Research Projects of the University of Cologne‘s Faculty of Arts and Humanities

How words meet signs


A Corpus Study of Mouthing and Fingerspelling in Russian Sign Language: Description and Implications for Cross-modal Contact

Dr. Anastasia Bauer | Department of Slavic Studies

Post-Doc-Project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)


The vast majority of sign language users are multilingual. They communicate through sign language and have very good know- ledge of the surrounding spoken and written language, since they are exposed to it on a daily basis. In other words, they sign in one language and read and write in the other one. Spoken and sign languages are thus constantly in close contact. As a result of this bimodal bilingualism, spoken language closely intertwines with and influences sign language on different levels of linguistic organization. Our project deals with the effects of this specific cross-modal language contact.
One of the most visible products of contact between a signed and a spoken/written language is mouthing. Mouthings are mouth movements that resemble the articulation of a spoken word while producing signs. The prevalence of mouthings in deaf native signing is striking. In German Sign Language, more than 80% of all utterances entail a least one mouthing. Mouthings can help distinguish between minimal pairs of signs. For example, a phonetically identical sign in German Sign Language can be distinguished by means of an accompanying mouthing i.e. ‘Technik’, ‘Politik’, ‘Methode’. The phenomenon of mouthing in other sign languages has received a lot of attention; however, mouthings in RSL have not been studied up until this point.
RSL was specifically chosen for this project as it is under-documented in comparison to other European sign languages. RSL was not officially recognized as a language until 2012. For this project, we are using the online RSL Corpus (, which was collected and annotated in Novosibirsk and Moscow from 2012-2014, and contains more than 100,000 signs in 180 video clips presented by 59 native RSL signers.
A sign language linguist and a RSL native signer are annotating the corpus using the video annotation software ELAN to gain more insight into how spoken and written Russian can be combined with and/or affects RSL. Our project thus represents the first systematic, empirical investigation of cross-modal language contact phenomena in RSL. In addition, it aims to contribute to answering highly debated questions in sign language research concerning the status of the contact phenomena in sign languages and to discuss the implications of the findings for the development of comprehensive sign language grammars and recent theories on bimodal bilingualism.

Text: Anastasia Bauer


Department of Slavic Studies
Dr. Anastasia Bauer

Researchers: Roman Poryadin

E-mail anastasia.bauer(at)