Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
2 files

Folk Definitions as a Model for Sign Language Dictionary Definitions: A User-Focused Study of the Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language

posted on 2024-06-14, 03:34 authored by Mireille ValeMireille Vale

This thesis addresses the question whether signed definitions, made possible by advances in electronic lexicography, should be introduced to sign language dictionaries. The thesis comprises four interrelated studies investigating different aspects of this question through a user-focused case study of the Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language (ODNZSL).  A preliminary study investigated current use of the ODNZSL in order to identify what user needs signed definitions might fulfil. The study drew on two data sets: website log data for the ODNZSL, and a think-aloud protocol and interview with representatives of user groups. Results showed that in addition to a large volume of casual browsers, the most frequent and intensive users of the dictionary are beginner and intermediate students of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). These (hearing) language learners mostly search for frequent vocabulary with the aims of language production and vocabulary learning. Findings also identified reasons for unsuccessful dictionary consultations that may impact on the effectiveness of definitions.  In the second study, a review of ODNZSL entries highlighted categories of lexical items for which the current description through English glosses, examples, and usage notes is inadequate. A test was developed to assess whether these categories of signs were problematic for the user group identified in the first study: hearing intermediate learners of NZSL. Twenty-one participants took a computer-based error correction test with both comprehension and production sections comprising fifty items in six different categories: culture-bound; idiomatic; polysemous; metaphoric/metonymic; vocabulary type / word class; and other. Quantitative results indicated that a small number of test items were problematic, but that none of the test categories were good predictors of the difficulties learners experienced. A qualitative examination identified linguistic factors and issues with the current dictionary information that may be improved by the addition of signed definitions.  The central proposition tested in the third study was that folk definitions—informal explanations of sign meaning by Deaf sign language users—can be applied as a template for dictionary definitions. This study took fifteen of the signs that were identified as problematic for learners in the previous study, and asked thirteen Deaf NZSL users to explain the meaning of these signs. A qualitative analysis found that the folk definitions by different NZSL users shared common semantic categories and embedded information about situational and sociolinguistic variation as well as grammatical structures. Some semantic relationships that occur frequently in spoken language folk definitions, such as exemplification and synonymy, were also common in signed folk definitions. Other semantic relationships such as attribution, function, operation, and spatial relationships occurred less frequently because they were inherent in the sign construction. Due to the bilingual status of the participants, many folk definitions included reference to English words in the form of mouth patterns and fingerspelling.  In the fourth study, twelve pilot dictionary definitions were created on the basis of common features found in the folk definitions and an evaluation of definition formats by Deaf NZSL users. The error correction test from the second study was repeated with a new cohort of intermediate NZSL learners. This time twelve test items were accompanied by a pilot definition; for the remaining items participants were shown a video example sentence from the ODNZSL entry. Results showed no significant improvements in scores for the test items with definitions. However, feedback from test participants showed that the definitions were comprehensible and perceived as valuable for language learning.  The overall conclusion of these studies is that a selective approach should be taken to introducing signed definitions in existing multifunctional sign language dictionaries. For hearing learners of sign language, signed definitions do not meet immediate communicative (comprehension and production) needs, but they may contribute to wider vocabulary learning goals.  The main contribution of this thesis is that it suggests a user-focused methodology for creating signed definitions, driven by evidence from the first empirical user study of an online sign language dictionary and therefore taking into account the particular challenges of sign language lexicography. Furthermore, the analysis of features of signed folk definitions contributes to the semantic description of sign languages.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Deaf Studies Research Unit

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


McKee, Rachel; Boers, Frank