Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Biological differences between signed and spoken languages may be most evident in the expression of spatial information. PET was used to investigate the neural substrates supporting the production of spatial language in American Sign Language as expressed by classifier constructions, in which handshape indicates object type and the location/motion of the hand iconically depicts the location/motion of a referent object. Deaf native signers performed a picture description task in which they overtly named objects or produced classifier constructions that varied in location, motion, or object type. In contrast to the expression of location and motion, the production of both lexical signs and object type classifier morphemes engaged left inferior frontal cortex and left inferior temporal cortex, supporting the hypothesis that unlike the location and motion components of a classifier construction, classifier handshapes are categorical morphemes that are retrieved via left hemisphere language regions. In addition, lexical signs engaged the anterior temporal lobes to a greater extent than classifier constructions, which we suggest reflects increased semantic processing required to name individual objects compared with simply indicating the type of object. Both location and motion classifier constructions engaged bilateral superior parietal cortex, with some evidence that the expression of static locations differentially engaged the left intraparietal sulcus. We argue that bilateral parietal activation reflects the biological underpinnings of sign language. To express spatial information, signers must transform visual–spatial representations into a body-centered reference frame and reach toward target locations within signing space.