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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).  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 worked on all components of the grammar, in synchronic and diachronic perspectives.  Currently, I'm working with a team on a series of studies  in the prosody of American newscaster speech.

Much of my 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 the Swarthmore; the latest is in COGNITIVE SCIENCE and it's on using one hand or two in drawing shapes: 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.  In spring 2019, I finished up a study of the semantics of predicate-initial sentences in sign languages and then began a study on how hand configuration  and movement relate across sign languages within the frozen and productive lexicons.  I'm also grappling with what's called 'echo phonology' in German Sign Language and delving into neurological matters.  And I'm feeling my way through a comparative study of mouth articulations in narratives in American Sign Language, Libras (the sign language of Brazil), and German Sign Language.

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 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 analyzing  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.   Prof. Stephanie Liapis and I have just published work that compares effort reduction methods in sign languages and dance (, and I hope soon to be able to offer my course Movement and Cognition again (a course cross-listed by Dance, Mathematics, and Linguistics).

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'm  co-editing an issue of the Italian online journal Altre Modernità devoted to disrespected literatures.  I've done some papers on sign language literature and have a forthcoming paper in Cognitive Linguistics on taboo in German Sign Language.  I hope to be able to offer a course on sign language literature from a cognitive linguistics perspective soon.

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

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 ebooks, in fourteen sign languages with the print of the ambient spoken language.  We hope to add more languages soon.

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