Vadim Kimmelman





I am a linguist working primarily on the grammar of sign languages, primarily using corpus-based and quantitative methods. I am most interested in the question to what extent sign languages are similar to and different from spoken languages, that is, in the effects of modality.

Currently I am a Professor at the University of Bergen. Before 2019 I was a PhD student and later postdoc at the University of Amsterdam. Below I list my main research directions, with links to published results.

NONMANUAL: Fundamentals of formal properties of nonmanuals: A quantitative approach

I am the PI of the ERC-funded project NONMANUAL. It will run from January 2023 to December 2027.

The project will study facial expressions and body and head movements in five different sign languages, using large datasets, Computer Vision and advanced statistical analysis. Read more about this project on the project page, where you can also find the publications related to the project:

Computational approaches to sign languages

Since 2019 I have been collaborating with a group of researchers at Nazarabayev University (Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan), led by dr. Anara Sandygulova, on various projects involving computational approaches to sign languages.

For instance, we have done research on automatic recognition of handshapes in Russian Sign Language (read it here) and how this method can be used to answer linguistic questions, and on how automatic recognition of signs can be aided by taking non-manuals into account (read it here). In addition, we published a paper showing that eyebrow position in Kazakh-Russian Sign Language is affected by both emotions and grammar using computational approaches to quantitatively analyze the data (here, open access).

Argument structure in three sign languages

In 2015-2018, I was a postdoctoral researcher in the project “Argument structure in three sign languages: typological and theoretical aspects”. This was a 4-year project, funded by the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO 360-70-520), and headed by dr. Roland Pfau and prof. dr. Enoch O. Aboh; two PhD students (Marloes Oomen and Vanja de Lint) also work on this project.

We are investigating argument structure of verbs in three different sign languages to compare them to argument structure described for spoken languages. For instance, we found that transitivity of verbs in the corpus of Russian Sign Language reflects the cross-linguistically based transitivity hierarchy rather well (read it here); the same is true for German Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands. Furthermore, Russian Sign Language uses a number of argument structure alternations, including impersonal alternation, in a way similar to spoken languages (read it here) On the other hand, we also discovered that classifier predicates, which is a very common construction in various sign languages, have complex event and argument structures, probably extending beyond what is found in lexical verbs in spoken languages (read it here).

Quotation in Russian Sign Language

As a part of a larger project funded by the Russian Science Foundation, I am investigating quotation in Russian Sign Language, in collaboration with Evgeniia Khristoforova. It has been claimed that when a signer wants quote someone else, they would lean or turn to take the role of the other person, which is known as role shift. We looked at quotations in the corpus and found that this is also the case for Russian Sign Language, but also that role shift is far from obligatory in marking quotation (read about it here). Using elicitation (that is, asking native signers for judgments) we also discussed how role shift is related to the notions of direct vs. indirect speech, and found again that the relation is not straightforward (read it here).

Information structure in sign languages

For my PhD project, I analysed how information structure is expressed in two sign languages: RSL and NGT. Specifically, I argued that topic is marked in a variety of ways in both sign languages, but that they still cannot be considered topic-prominent, and that focus in these languages is expressed primarily by manual prosody (see my dissertation for details). For a general overview of information structure in sign languages, see this chapter written in collaboration with Roland Pfau.

In addition to the basic notions of information structure, I explored a number of constructions related to expressing information structure. In particular, I looked at doubling (when a constituent appears twice within one clause) and its functions (read here or in my dissertation). Together with Anna Sáfár and Onno Crasborn, I investigated how the second hand is used in discourse and whether it is related to information structure (read this and this papers, and also this one if you are interested in formal syntax). Finally, together with Lianne Vink, I studied another construction in NGT common to many sign languages, namely question-answer pairs (when the signer asks a question and then immediately answers it). Is this construction a rhetorical question followed by an answer or something like a wh-cleft? Read this to find out.

Quantification in Russian Sign Language

Another interesting domain of inquiry that has barely been studied is how quantification is expressed in sign languages. Do sign languages use quantifiers (like all and some)? Is there a difference between distributive and collective universal quantification (e.g. each vs all)? I described basic quantificational strategies in RSL in this chapter, as well as in this paper.

Metaphor and iconicity in sign languages

Sign languages use a lot of signs that can be considered metaphoric. Together with Maria Kyuseva, Yana Lomakina, and Daria Perova, I analyzed verbs of cognition and emotions in Russian Sign Language to describe metaphoric mechanism found in these signs. We claim that these mechanisms have direct parallels in spoken languages. Read a pre-final version of our paper here.

With Anna Klezovich and George Moroz, we created a database and website of iconic patterns in nineteen sign languages and seven semantic fields in order to systematically study iconicity. The website can be found here, and read our paper about it here.

Formal approaches to sign language grammar

Although this is not a topic per se, I am intersted in applying a formal analysis (both syntactic and semantic) to sign language data. Several of the papers mentioned above include such analysis, but here I make a seprarte list of these papers and slides:

  • A formal syntactic analysis of weak hand holds in RSL: read here
  • Formal approaches to quantifiers in RSL: read here and here
  • An overview of information structure in signed languages, including formal approaches: read here
  • A sort-of-formal account of null arguments in RSL: read here
Academic chapter/article/Conference paper
Academic article
Academic lecture
Academic literature review
Academic monograph

See a complete overview of publications in Cristin.