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Donna Jo Napoli

Department Overview

[The photo above is from May 2016.  I was in a boat 25 miles offshore from the Florida keys, and an American Redstart landed on my hand.  If you know my book ALBERT, you can imagine how thrilled I was.]



I am a linguist down to my toes, and I am honored and grateful to be a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America (inducted in 2015) and the recipient of the LSA's Mentoring Award (in 2020) and of the LSA's Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award (in 2014).  I haven't met an area of linguistics yet that doesn't fascinate me. 

For years I analyzed the syntax of Italian, with happy detours into other components of the grammar  and sometimes other spoken languages (one of the most delightful on Chinese tonal poetry).  But when I came to Swarthmore to set up a curriculum in linguistics, I needed to teach across the board.  That wide responsibility plus student interest led me down new paths.  Now I work on whatever languages present an intriguing phenomenon I think I have the tools to grapple with.  I have published on all components of grammar, in synchronic and diachronic perspectives. 

Much of my recent work is on sign languages and more broadly cognitive issues that arise from their analysis.  There are hundreds of sign languages, some indicated on this map:

Often I work with collaborators (some are alums of  Swarthmore). My focus is largely on modality effects, such as how iconicity is pertinent to  the syntax/semantics  interface and how biomechanics affects the lexicon and enlightens us about diachronic change.  I'm presently studying how considerations of visual perception affect movement choices within the frozen and productive lexicon across sign languages .  In April a team I work with finished a comparative study of mouth articulations in narratives in American Sign Language, Libras (the sign language of Brazil), and German Sign Language (this was part of my work as an international scholar participant in a CNPQ grant from Brazil), and we immediately began a follow up study on new questions that arose from that work.  I hope to do a study of the timing of breaths and its relationship to syntactic boundaries in Swiss German Sign Language (three collaborators and I are discussing this, though COVID-19 has put a halt on data gathering).  In other words, it's all beautiful to me.

I'm on a team that works to protect deaf children's right to language.  We publish mostly in medical journals. You can access our articles here.  This work has taught me about first language acquisition and honed my advocacy skills.

And I am engaged in developing materials to encourage shared reading between deaf children and their parents (see below).  This is part of a larger effort to promote literacy skills via convincing parents to give their deaf children a rich and firm first language foundation and convincing teachers (through journal articles aimed at them) of the efficacy of fun and humor in the inclusive classroom.  

Beyond mainstream linguistics, I'm interested in how linguistic theories and methodologies can be applied to analyze  body articulations in yoga and dance.   This work is part of  SUPERLINGUISTICS:  I gave the first presentation in a series on SUPERLINGUISTICS at the University of Oslo in January 2019. In spring 2021, I co-taught a course on innovations in dance in the past century with comparisons to innovations in sign literature in the same period and I'll be co-teaching that again in spring 2024.  In spring 2022, I'm co-teaching a course on creating narratives in clay and in language (see below).

I also analyze linguistic innovations in poetry, story-telling, jokes, and taboo language.  I organized a conference on Disrespected Literatures at the college in spring 2017; you can see a short (3 minute) video about it here.  I co-edited an issue of the Italian online journal Altre Modernità (published by the University of Milano) devoted to disrespected literatures (December 2019, here).  I've published work on what sign language literature can tell us about sign language structure, I integrate analysis of sign language literature into Linguistics 63/Theater 33, and I am teaching a new course on sign language literature from a linguistics perspective in fall 2021 (Linguistics 29/Comparative Literature 29). 

The LSA did a spotlight interview with me in April 2017.

In fall 2021, Shepherd "best books" asked me to recommend five books on a topic of my choice in exchange for promoting one of my fiction books.  Deaf culture was my choice of topics; In a Flash was my fiction book.

Very odd detail: In 2019, then-SWAT-student Alex Kingsley asked me to play a part in Episode One of their film series Restless Writers' Retreat.  I never acted before -- know nothing about acting.  But the part made me laugh, so I did it.  The series came out in September 2020.  Alex is a wickedly good writer -- keep your eye on them.  Here's the first episode.  And here's a podcast of their new sci-fi comedy podcast called The Stench of Adventure.

As of fall, 2018, I changed from being Professor of Linguistics to Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice.  I am also delighted and humbled to have been appointed the Maurice Eldridge Faculty Fellow from fall 2021 through spring 2025, an appointment I am trying my best to merit.

Bimodal-bilingual ebooks

Since 2013, my students and I have been collaborating with Prof. Gene Mirus and his students at Gallaudet University on producing bimodal-bilingual video-books, in 30 sign languages with the print of the ambient spoken language.  We've produced over 100 video-books. 

For a discussion of how and why we do what we do, go here.  For a college article about our project, go here.

In spring and summer 2020 our students (past and present) worked with many countries to make bimodal-bilingual video-books about COVID-19, with the director of technology being Melissa Curran (our past and beloved student, class of '19).  That work led to associations with deaf groups in many countries, groups we continue to work with.

In summer and fall 2021 our students worked on translating texts from English into Spanish and making new productions of some of our ASL video-books so that they now have Spanish text with English subtitles, to meet the needs of deaf children in North America whose family home language is Spanish.  This work is in response to a request from a deaf school in North Carolina. 

Public activities in 2021-2022

In February 2022 the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science will host a symposium I organized: "Sign language data empower new approaches to the study of cognitive architecture." I will post more information when it is online.  All presenters, as well as the moderator, will use American Sign Language.  Interpreting and captioning will be included.  This will be the second AAAS symposium ever to be entirely in sign with all deaf participants, and thus equally accessible to deaf and hearing scientists around the globe. (Note, while there is an International Sign Language, ASL is widely known among deaf scholars globally, just as English is widely known among hearing scholars globally.)
On 20 November 2021 at noon I moderated a panel on International Sign Language.  The panelists were Annelies Kusters, Ronice Quadros, and Christian Rathmann.  You can see it here.
Starting in September 2020, I worked leading writer workshops and giving critiques for the  "Telling Feminist Stories Initiative" of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.  The launch of the first volume of stories -- titled Awake Not Sleeping: Reimagining Fairy Tales for a New Generation --was 18 November 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey.  I gave the keynote address; the link in English is here. 
On Friday 4 June 2021, as part of the Connecting Liberal Arts Linguists Conference, hosted by the Center for Learning and Teaching at Denison University,  I was on a panel discussion from 11am-12:30pm EST.  Then I offered the workshop "Designing courses that span disciplines" from 1-2 pm EST. More information is here. 
On Thursday 3 June 2021 I gave a webinar in Austria on the biomechanical effects of the drive for ease of articulation on sign language lexicons.  It is available here.

Publications in 2021 -2022

(forthcoming) (with Emily Gasser and Shizhe Huang). Senior theses: One way of doing them.  Language.
(forthcoming) (with Ronice Quadros and Christian Rathmann). Alignment mouth demonstrations in sign languages.  Sign Language Studies.
2021 (with Rachel Sutton-Spence). Clause initial Vs in sign languages. In Vera Lee-Schoenfeld and Dennis Ott (eds.) Parameters of predicate fronting, pp. 192-219. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2021. (with Jami Fisher and Gene Mirus). Unveiling sign languages in the linguistic landscape: Representations of sign languages in nonsigning and signing milieu.  In Greg Niedt and Corinne A. Seals (eds), Linguistic landscapes beyond the language classroom, pp. 39-58.  London: Bloomsbury.
2021. (with Cornelia Loos). Expanding Echo: Coordinated head articulations as nonmanual enhancements in sign language phonology.  Cognitive Science 45, 5, e12958
2021. (with Casey Ferrara). Correlations between handshape and movement in sign languages.  Cognitive Science 45, 5, e12944 Available here.

Courses I am scheduled to teach:

Spring 2022:
Linguistics/Interpretation Theory 091/ Art 800  (co-taught with Prof. Syd Carpenter): Interpreting narrative through creation with clay and language.   This is a course using creative arts to bring into focus questions about the fundamental nature of narrative, about the analogies between different types of creative arts, and even about what a creative art is.  Students will create narratives and realize them through the media of clay and language.  Students will learn the basics of constructing with clay to create representations in shape and form in relation to their own linguistic narrations.
And I am always teaching Linguistics 95 as an independent study on making video books for deaf children.