Johanna Mesch

Johanna Mesch


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Works at Department of Linguistics
Visiting address Universitetsvägen 10 C, plan 2-3
Room C 351
Postal address Institutionen för lingvistik 106 91 Stockholm

About me

Scientific head of the Sign Language Section
Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University

Johanna Mesch
Presentation in International Sign Language.




I served as a visiting professor at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil, in August-October 2018.

My research activities:
One of my areas of expertise is tactile sign language communication. Tactile sign language is used by people with deafblindness, whose primary language is sign. The interlocutors receive signs in tactile-kinaesthetic mode through the hands.

The second area of expertise is sign language corpora. In 2003, I was involved in sign language corpora for the first time, I carried out a pilot project in digital humanities that established an online sign language archive for an initiative called European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO) at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. The large national project “Korpus för det svenska teckenspråket”, the Swedish Sign Language Corpus, funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (2009-2011), has been completed, but work on the corpus data will continue for several years. In addition to the L1 corpus in Swedish Sign Language, we have also been building a learner corpus in STS with Krister Schönström since 2013 and during the RJ financed research project 2017–2019.

I am also involved in the following research networks:
Nordic Signed Language Corpus Network

We will organize a series of three workshops which will bring together a network of Nordic signed language researchers, who all work with multimodal SL corpora using a cognitive-functional linguistic approach. The workshops will develop empirical corpus methods for SLs and contribute to the planning of a corpus-exploiting international research project that will focus on similarities and differences between Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian SL.


A selection from Stockholm University publication database
  • 2021. Johanna Mesch, Krister Schönström. Sign Language and Linguistics 4 (1)

    This article deals with L2 acquisition of a sign language, examining in particular the use and acquisition of non-manual mouth actions performed by L2 learners of Swedish Sign Language. Based on longitudinal data from an L2 learner corpus, we describe the distribution, frequency, and spreading patterns of mouth actions in sixteen L2 learners at two time points. The data are compared with nine signers of an L1 control group.

    The results reveal some differences in the use of mouth actions between the groups. The results are specifically related to the category of mouthing borrowed from spoken Swedish. L2 signers show an increased use of mouthing compared to L1 signers. Conversely, L1 signers exhibit an increased use of reduced mouthing compared with L2 signers. We also observe an increase of adverbial mouth gestures within the L2 group. The results are discussed in relation to previous findings, and within the framework of cross-linguistic influence.

  • 2020. Sílvia Gabarró-López, Johanna Mesch. Frontiers in Education 5, 1-12

    Many deafblind people use tactile sign language and interpreters in their daily lives. Because of their hearing and sight status, the role of interpreters does not only involve translating the content expressed by other deaf or hearing people, but it also involves conveying environmental information (i.e., multimodal communication regarding what is happening at a given moment to be able to understand the context). This paper aims to contribute to the field of tactile sign language interpreting by describing how two Tactile Swedish Sign Language interpreters convey environmental information to two deafblind women in a particular situation, that is, a guided visit to a cathedral by a hearing Norwegian speaker. We expect to find various strategies including the use of haptic signs (i.e., a system of signs articulated on the body of the deafblind person aimed to provide environmental and interactional information). After summarizing the small amount of existing research on the issue to date, we present our data and how they were annotated. Our analysis shows that a variety of strategies are used, including Tactile Swedish Sign Language, using locative points to show locations with some type of contact with the body of deafblind individuals, depicting shapes on the palm of the hand of deafblind individuals, using objects to depict shapes, touching elements of the cathedral with the hands or with the feet such as surfaces, and walking around. Some of these strategies are more frequent than others and some strategies are also used in combination, whereas others are used in isolation. We did not observe any use of haptic signs to convey environmental information in our data, which calls for further research on which criteria apply to use this strategy in a particular situation.

  • 2020. Lindsay Ferrara (et al.).

    Do deaf signers of different signed languages do reference the same way? Here we compare how signers of five signed languages coordinate fully conventionalised forms (such as lexical manual signs, fingerspelling and/or spoken language mouthings) with more richly improvised semiotics (such as indicating verbs, pointing signs, depicting signs, visible surrogates and/or invisible surrogates) to identify and talk about referents of varying agency. The five languages are Auslan, Norwegian Sign Language, Finnish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language and Irish Sign Language. Using 10 retellings of Frog, Where Are You? (Mayer, 1969) from each language, we analyse tokens of referring expressions with respect to: (a) activation status (new vs. maintained vs. re-introduced); (b) semiotic strategy (e.g. pointing sign, fingerspelling, enactment, etc); and (c) animacy (human vs. animals vs. inanimate objects), and assess how they are similar or different with regard to these parameters.

    Statistical analysis reveals expected similarities across the five languages. For example, signers of each language typically used conventionalised forms to identify new referents, and less conventional strategies to maintain and reintroduce referents. Signers also preferred to enact animate referents, and manually depict or index inanimate referents. These patterns mirror observations from a larger corpus-based investigation of Auslan using the same method (Hodge, Ferrara & Anible, 2019). However, there are also some differences across languages. While Auslan and ISL signers frequently use fingerspelling to identify referents across all activation contexts, signers of Scandinavian signed languages chose to use other semiotic strategies. We also observed that patterns for specific semiotic strategies are more widespread in some languages than others. For example, Auslan signers prefer using depicting signs in maintained contexts; FinSL signers prefer using depicting signs in reintroduced contexts; while ISL, NTS, and STS signers tend to use depicting signs more equally across activation status. We suggest that doing reference in a signed language involves both cross-linguistic and ecology-specific strategies. The latter may be attributed to the different social and historical trajectories of each language, including possible language contact effects.


    Hodge, G., Ferrara, L. & B. Anible. (2019). The semiotic diversity of doing reference in a deaf signed language. Journal of Pragmatics, 143: 33-53.

    Mayer, M. (1969). Frog, where are you? New York: Dial Press. 

  • Conference STS-korpus
    2020. Zrajm Öqvist, Nikolaus Riemer Kankkonen, Johanna Mesch. Proceedings of the 9th Workshop on the Representation and Processing of Sign Languages, 177-180

    In this paper we describe STS-korpus, a web corpus tool for Swedish Sign Language (STS) which we have built during the past year, and which is now publicly available on the internet. STS-korpus uses the data of Swedish Sign Language Corpus (SSLC) and is primarily intended for teachers and students of sign language. As such it is created to be simple and user-friendly with no download or setup required. The user interface allows for searching – with search results displayed as a simple concordance – and viewing of videos with annotations. Each annotation also provides additional data and links to the corresponding entry in the online Swedish Sign Language Dictionary. We describe the corpus, its appearance and search syntax, as well as more advanced features like access control and dynamic content. Finally we say a word or two about the role we hope it will play in the classroom, and something about the development process and the software used. STS-korpus is available here:

  • 2019. Carl Börstell (et al.). Open Linguistics 5 (1), 666-689

    We investigate transitivity prominence of verbs across signed and spoken languages, based on data from both valency dictionaries and corpora. Our methodology relies on the assumption that dictionary data and corpus-based measures of transitivity are comparable, and we find evidence in support of this through the direct comparison of these two types of data across several spoken languages. For the signed modality, we measure the transitivity prominence of verbs in five sign languages based on corpus data and compare the results to the transitivity prominence hierarchy for spoken languages reported in Haspelmath (2015). For each sign language, we create a hierarchy for 12 verb meanings based on the proportion of overt direct objects per verb meaning. We use these hierarchies to calculate correlations between languages – both signed and spoken – and find positive correlations between transitivity hierarchies. Additional findings of this study include the observation that locative arguments seem to behave differently than direct objects judging by our measures of transitivity, and that relatedness among sign languages does not straightforwardly imply similarityin transitivity hierarchies. We conclude that our findings provide support for a modality-independent, semantic basis of transitivity.

  • 2019. Pia Simper-Allen, Johanna Mesch. Lidil (60)

    Cet article étudie l’utilisation des tokens dans deux types de journaux télévisés, l’un pour un public sourd adulte et l’autre pour un public sourd jeune, en langue des signes suédoise. Un token est un point vide et non topographique dans l’espace de signation qui se situe devant le présentateur. Notre échantillon contient 1084 tokens qui ont été placés à un point précis de cet espace de signation pour faire référence au concept introduit par chaque token au cours du discours. Les présentateurs exploitent ce mécanisme de référence fréquemment et les types de signes les plus utilisés à ce propos sont des signes lexicaux, des pointages et des verbes directionnels. La plupart des tokens sont placés dans l’espace de signation gauche ou droit du présentateur, tandis que l’espace de signation frontal est moins utilisé. Le nombre de tokens est plus réduit dans l’introduction et la conclusion des informations télévisées. Nous pensons que ces résultats pourraient être des spécificités des programmes d’information en langue des signes. Dans notre analyse, nous avons aussi tenu compte de l’utilisation des images à l’écran et de l’effet de celles-ci sur la création des tokens.

  • 2019. Lorraine Leeson (et al.). The Routledge Handbook of Sign Language Pedagogy, 339-352

    This chapter explores the use of sign language corpora in L1 and L2/Ln sign language classes. We discuss how corpora have been developed and used by linguists working on spoken and, more recently, signed languages. The corpora can be leveraged for pedagogic purposes. Examples from corpora-based pedagogical practice in Sweden, Ireland, and Australia are offered. We outline some possible future pedagogical applications of sign language corpora and propose some research pathways that presently remain unexplored.

  • 2018. Ingela Holmström, Johanna Mesch.

    Det finns i Sverige runt 2000 personer under 65 år med dövblindhet. En andel av dem är döva sedan barndomen och har förvärvat sin synnedsättning senare i livet. De har då vanligen svenskt teckenspråk som sitt förstaspråk och har i takt med att synen blivit sämre övergått till att använda sig av taktilt teckenspråk som är en del av det svenska teckenspråket, men som inte i samma utsträckning grundar sig i vad som kan uppfattas visuellt. I den här forskningsrapporten studeras taktil teckenspråkskommunikation och hur de personer med dövblindhet som först lärt sig det visuella svenska teckenspråket innan de övergår till att använda taktilt svenskt teckenspråk använder sig av teckenrummet i dialoger med varandra. Till grund för analysen ligger en korpus som består av åtta informanter i varierande åldrar från olika delar av Sverige. Denna korpus har kunnat skapas tack vare medel från Mo Gårds forskningsfond och arbetet med att annotera dialogerna har pågått allt sedan inspelningarna genomfördes år 2013. Idag har strax under hälften av korpusen annoterats och det är den annoterade delen som ligger till grund för analysen som redovisas i denna rapport. Bland annat beskrivs hur informanterna skapar gemensam mening och förståelse när de inte ser varandra och hur de ger återkopplingar på ett sätt som skiljer sig från hur man gör i det visuella svenska teckenspråket. Dessutom visas skillnader mellan det visuella och taktila svenska teckenspråket avseende andelen bokstaveringar, som är högre i det taktila, liksom förekomsten av pekningar som istället är mindre vanliga där.

  • 2019. Rachel Sutton-Spence, Johanna Mesch.

    This research uses recent developments in online, digital collections and anthologies of sign language poetry to describe the poetic norms that govern the expectations of sign language poets and their audiences. We follow Toury’s idea of norms, as “the general values or ideas shared by a community […] appropriate for and applicable to particular situations, specifying what is prescribed and forbidden as well as what is tolerated and permitted in a certain behavioural dimension.” (1995: 55). Norms are particularly important to avoid prescriptivism, enabling researchers of sign language literature and poetry to describe what is currently considered good, and what has been considered good in different times and different communities, without prescribing how sign language poetry should be done. We draw on sign language poetry anthologies from three different sign languages to look at the language, literary and cultural norms underlying the poetry, in search of what may be considered “the best” in each culture. We find similarities and differences across the anthologies and their languages.

    Anthologies of literary productions in sign languages are needed as a resource for research and teaching in sign language literary and linguistics and for translators and poets to develop their work. Early research on sign language poetry focused on the work of a small selection of poets, simply because that was all that was available for research purposes (for example Christie and Wilkins, 2007; Sutton-Spence, 2005, Crasborn 2006; Rose, 2006). Such limited materials enabled researchers to perform in-depth analyses of signed poetry and afforded great insights into the art form but could not give broader overviews of the range of norms existing in the poets’ communities.

    Anthologies pre-suppose that their selected content is “the best” (Hopkins 2008), as considered by the community’s “expectancy norms” (Pym, 2010). Di Leo (2004) has noted that traditional views of anthologies require them to include work that has been published previously and has “stood the test of time”. Sign language anthologies rarely follow this maxim because of the recency of the art-form, and the collections used for this research include new material as well as previously published works. The relationship between canons and anthologies is also well-recognised (Guillory, 1993; Finke 2004), as anthologies reflect and create canons of literature.

    We investigated the poems and literary performances in four online anthologies and collections of sign language literature in three countries (two in Brazilian Sign language, one in British Sign Language, and one in Swedish Sign Language). Although our primary interest was sign language poetry, we note (along with Peters 2000) that there is no watertight definition of a poem in sign language (or possibly in any language). One Brazilian anthology contains 35 poems by 21 poets, and the other contains 20 poems by 19 poets. There is no overlap in the content of poems, although several poets are represented in both. The British anthology contained 100 poems. The majority were by 9 individual poets, although three poems, being Renga poems were composed and performed by an additional 25 people. The Swedish collection contains 25 poems by 14 individual poets and also some collective Renga poems.

    In our study, we find that the accepted and valued forms of sign language poetry are diverse, with a range of genres. Analysis of the poems found that some norms for sign language poems arise from within the wider literary world (for example signed haiku and renga), with varying degrees of adaptations (including duets and lyric poems), but some are specific to sign languages (such as multiple perspective poems, classifier poems and Visual Vernacular pieces). Basic concepts, such as how closely the poetry fits sign language grammar may be seen within the poems in the anthologies.

    As Pym (2010) acknowledges, however, norms have a prescriptive undertone, given that work that does not adhere to the current norms may not be considered “good”. Difficult work (Shetley 1993) may be seen as deviating from the norm and thus risks not being included in anthologies and not being considered as material for research (which promotes poetic work considerably). Anthologies are traditionally seen as conservative phenomena (Gilbert and Guber, 1979). Knowing that norm-breaking leads to innovation and that poetry’s business is innovation, norms are in constant tension with the games that poets play, as new trends emerge. In the anthologies studied, we see evidence of new forms developing, and more established forms being created.

Show all publications by Johanna Mesch at Stockholm University

Last updated: May 5, 2021

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