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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. 

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 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.  Maybe (maybe maybe), if I get access to the right technology, I'll do a study of the timing of breaths and syntax in Swiss German Sign Language (a collaborator and I are discussing this now).  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 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.  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 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, and I will offer a course on sign language literature from a linguistics perspective in fall 2020.

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.

Publications in 2019

2019. (coedited with Simona Bertacco and Rachel Sutton-Spence).  Disrespected literatures: Histories and reversal of linguistic oppression.  Issue 22 of Altre Modernità.
2019. Italian-American literature: Respected? In Simona Bertacco, Donna Jo Napoli, and Rachel Sutton-Spence (eds.), Disrespected literatures: Histories and reversal of linguistic oppression.  Issue 22 of Altre Modernità.
2019. (with Cornelia Loos and Jens Michael Cramer).  The linguistic sources of offense of taboo terms in German Sign Language.  Cognitive Linguistics. doi:10.1515/cog-2018-0077.
2019. (with Gene Mirus and Jami Fisher).  (Sub)lexical changes in iconic signs to realign with community sensibilities and experiences.  Language in Society, 1-27. doi:10.1017/S0047404519000745.
2019. (with Casey Ferrara). Manual movement in sign languages: One hand versus two in communicating shapes.  Cognitive Science 43, 9: e12741. Available at:             
2019. (with Stephanie Liapis). Limitations on effort reduction in articulation in sign languages and dance. Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science 3, 1: 31-61. Available at:
2019. Morphological theory and sign languages.  The Oxford handbook of morphological theory, Jenny Audring and Francesca Masini, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press): Chapter 30, 594-613.
2019. (with Jami Fisher and Gene Mirus) Sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities.  The Oxford handbook of taboo words and language, Keith Allen, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press): Chapter 8, 140-159.
2019. (with Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, Christian Rathmann, and Scott Smith) Support for parents of deaf children: Common questions and informed, evidence-based answers. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 118: 134-142.
2019. (with Jack Hoeksema) Degree resultatives as second-order constructions. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 31, 3, 210-282.
2019. Do animals use language?, The 5 minute linguist: Bite-sized essays on language and languages, 3rd edition (revised article). Carolyn Myrick and Walt Wolfram, eds. (London: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2019): 58-64.
2019. (with Emily Gasser, Byron Ahn, and ZL Zhou) Production, perception, and communicative goals of American newscaster speech. Language in Society 48, 2, 233-259.
2019. (with Gene Mirus) Developing language and preliteracy skills in deaf preschoolers through shared reading activities with bimodal-bilingual ebooks. Journal of Multilingual Education Research 8, article 10  Available at:

Courses I am scheduled to teach:

Spring 2020:
English Literature 70K: Directed Creative Writing Project
Linguistics 94: Directed Research
Fall 2020:
Linguistics 2 (FYS): Taboo
Linguistics/ Literature 029: Sign Language Literature.  (Sign language literature is literature created and presented in a sign language.  We'll consider sign literature from a linguistics perspective, comparing to spoken language literature, with attention to creative mechanisms in storytelling, poetry, humor, and taboo.)  (no prereqs, and you do not have to know a sign language)
Linguistics 063/ Theater 033: Supporting Literacy Among Deaf Children (We make ebooks for deaf children.  Students need a rudimentary knowledge of ASL, which can be gained concurrently.)  This course counts toward Interpretation Theory and is a core Global Studies- eligible course.
Spring 2021:
Linguistics/ Interpretation Theory 091 (This will also have an Art number, presently undetermined.) (co-taught with Prof. Syd Carpenter): Interpreting narrative through creation with clay and language (This is the IntTh capstone seminar, but we are happy to include others with a strong interest in the cross-disciplinary issues we face.)