Language Variation and Change

Research Article

Variable “subject” presence in Australian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language

Rachel McKeea1, Adam Schembria2, David McKeea3 and Trevor Johnstona4

a1 Victoria University of Wellington

a2 La Trobe University

a3 Victoria University of Wellington

a4 Macquarie University


This article reports the findings of parallel studies of variable subject presence in two closely related sign language varieties, Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). The studies expand upon research in American Sign Language (ASL) (Wulf, Dudis, Bayley, & Lucas, 2002) that found subject pronouns with noninflecting verbs to be more frequently unexpressed than expressed. The ASL study reported that null subject use correlates with both social and linguistic factors, the strongest of which is referential congruence with an antecedent in a preceding clause. Findings from the Auslan and NZSL studies also indicated that chains of reference play a stronger role in subject presence than either morphological factors (e.g., verb type), or social factors of age, gender, ethnicity, and language background. Overall results are consistent with the view that this feature of syntactic variation may be better accounted for in terms of information structure than sociolinguistic effects.

We would like to thank our deaf and hearing native signer research assistants, without whom this work would not have been possible: Julia Allen, Patti Levitzke-Gray, Kevin Cresdee, Stephanie Linder, Kim Pickering, Della Goswell, and Darlene Thornton in Australia; and Sonia Pivac, Margaret Bailey, Linda Allen, Ripeka Morgan, Pam Witko, Annette Scott, Rachel McMillian, Darryl Alexander, Joyce Ferguson, and Patty Still in New Zealand. Special thanks to Sara Pivac Alexander (New Zealand) and Della Goswell (Australia) for their many hours of data transcription and coding. We are also grateful to Ceil Lucas, Robert Bayley, Barbara Horvath, and Miriam Meyerhoff for invaluable advice and suggestions. Thanks, too, to Leonie Matthews for assistance with data entry for the Auslan study. This work was supported by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, by the Australian Research Council grant LP0346973 to The University of Newcastle/Macquarie University and The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, and, because the second author was based at University College London, by the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain grants RES-620-28-6001 and RES-062-23-0825. Adam Schembri and Rachel McKee are equally contributing lead authors of this article.