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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, such as whether one or both hands move, where they start moving from, and which direction they move in .  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 syntax 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'm co-teaching a course on innovations in dance in the past century with comparisons to innovations in sign literature in the same period (see below) and 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.

Very odd detail: In 2019, then-SWAT-student Alex Kingsley asked me to play a part in Episode One of her 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 her.  Here's the first episode:

As of fall, 2018, I changed from being Professor of Linguistics to Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice.

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 around 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.

Public activities in 2020-2021

On Thursday 4 June 2021, as part of the Connecting Liberal Arts Linguists Conference, hosted by the Center for Learning and Teaching at Denison University,  I will be in a panel discussion from 11am-12:30pm EST.  Then I will offer the workshop "Designing courses that span disciplines" from 1-2 pm EST. More information is here. 
On Tuesday 9 February 2021 the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted a symposium I organized: "Language development and health: Focus on deaf children during a quarantine." More information is here.  All presenters, as well as the moderator and the discussant, used American Sign Language.  Interpreting and captioning were included.  This was the first 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.)
Between September 2020 and into the present I am 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.
In July 2020 I organized and moderated a panel session on Sign Languages and Linguistics presented by Abralin, the Brazilian Linguistics Association.  The panelists were Ronice Quadros, Rachel Sutton-Spence, and Erin Wilkinson.  You can see the panel session here.
In July 2020 I was on a panel at the Fairytale and Folklore Festival of the Waseca Le-Sueur Regional Library System of Minnesota.   The other panelist was Adam Gidwitz.  You can see the panel session here.

Publications in 2020 -2021

(forthcoming) (with Ronice Quadros and Christian Rathmann). Alignment mouth demonstrations in sign languages.  Sign Language Studies.
(forthcoming) (with Cornelia Loos). Expanding Echo: Coordinated head articulations as nonmanual enhancements in sign language phonology.  Cognitive Science.
(forthcoming) (with Casey Ferrara). Correlations between handshape and movement in sign languages.  Cognitive Science.
(forthcoming) (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.  London: Bloomsbury.
2020. (with Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, and Christian Rathmann) Global regulatory review needed for cochlear implants: A call for FDA leadership. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 24(11), 1345-1359.  DOI: 10.1007/s10995-020-03002-5You can read it online here (but this cannot be printed or downloaded):
2020. (with Cornelia Loos and Jens Michael Cramer). The linguistic sources of offense of taboo terms in German Sign Language. Cognitive Linguistics, 31 (1). Editor's choice article, so it's published open access:
2020. (with Lorraine Leeson). Visuo-spatial construals that aid in understanding activity in visual-centred narrative.  Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 35(4), 440-465. DOI: 10.1080/23273798.2020.1744672

Courses I am scheduled to teach:

Spring 2021:
Linguistics/ Interpretation Theory 091/ Dance 023A (co-taught with Prof. Olivia Sabee): Defying categorization: Contemporary dance and sign language performance.This course interrogates issues surrounding late twentieth and twenty-first century movement-based performance focusing on dance, storytelling, and sign poetry, including cultural hybridity and the relationship between movement and text. Jumping off from the history of aesthetics and methodologies developed by performance studies and dance studies, as well as sociological distinctions of in-group/out-group, we will ask what gets performed, where and why. (This is the IntTh capstone seminar, but we are happy to include others with a strong interest in the cross-disciplinary issues we face.) 
Fall 2021:
Linguistics 002 (FYS): Taboo. (This is a W course.) Taboo terms vary in topic across language communities: disease and death, religion, sex and sexuality, bodily effluents, these are typical topics, but others appear, often depending on cultural/societal factors, including race, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status, body attributes.  Taboo terms also vary in how they are used: exclamations, name-calling, and maledictions are common, but other uses can appear, such as modifiers and predicates.  Often taboo terms will test the margins of grammaticality of a language, both with respect to word formation (morphology) and with respect to sentence structure (syntax). Over time common uses tend to semantically bleach, so that historical taboo terms can be used without hint of vulgarity or rudeness.  We explore these topics and uses, with each student choosing a language other than English to investigate. [no prerequisites]
Linguistics/Comparative Literature 029: Sign Language Literature.  (This is a W course.) We look at literature created and performed in a sign language, comparing to spoken language literature with respect to many factors, including storytelling methods, definitions of rhyme, notions of closure, role of paralinguistic features, relationship of storyteller to audience, roles stories play in their communities.  We examine linguistic creativity across modalities in storytelling, poetry, humor, and taboo language. [no prerequisites]
Linguistics 054/ Education 054: How children talk to each other: Oral and written language.  (This is a W course.) We look at how children talk to each other and how writers for children represent them talking to each other, and we try to make a mapping from real to rendered speech that rings true to the child's ear.  So we read to children, interview children, and write for children.  The focus in fall 2021 will be on voices that have been underrepresented in American children's literature. [no prerequisites]
Spring 2021:
Linguistics/Interpretation Theory 091/ Art (where the art number is to be determined)  (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.