Ronnie Wilbur

Research Interests / Training Areas:

  •  Linguistic theory (syntax, semantics, pragmatics)
  •  Sign language linguistics (theoretical and experimental)
  • Deafness, language and literacy


Dr. Ronnie Wilbur is a theoretical and experimental linguist who investigates language structure and learning problems. Over her career, she has been responsible for several research breakthroughs.

  1. From a major multi-school study, she provided the evidence that knowledge of sign language in deaf children does not interfere with acquisition of English and that their literacy difficulties can be traced to other causes (insufficient input and interaction, teaching approaches).
  2. She demonstrated that sign languages have syllables with functions like those in spoken language (NSF funding).
  3. She uncovered the stress system of ASL and showed how sentence level stress differs dramatically from English, but is similar to well-studied languages like Catalan. This difference makes it clear that ASL is not merely a manual form of English.
  4. She discovered that what looks like a question-answer pair, often called ‘rhetorical question structure’, is syntactically and prosodically a complex single sentence with an information focus function.
  5. She has shown that sign language grammatical facial expressions (blinks, brows, headshakes) are controlled by the same semantic operators that appear in spoken language syntactic structures (NIH). 
  6. From cross-linguistic sign language research,  she showed that Croatian Sign Language has the same word order as ASL, whereas Austrian Sign Language uses subject-object-verb instead (NSF).
  7. With Nicoletta Adamo-Villani, she developed MathsignerTM, animated ASL math software for K-2 deaf children (NSF).
  8. She has formulated and experimentally tested the Event Visibility Hypothesis as an explanation for so-called iconicity of signs, and is now considering its evolutionary implications.

Awards include Focus Award (service), Seed for Success (funding in excess of million dollars), and member Purdue Book of Great Teachers. She served as editor-in-chief of Sign Language & Linguistics 1998-2006. Her teaching responsibilities include courses in general linguistics (syntax, semantics), linguistic structure of ASL, deafness, and bilingualism.

Recent Publications:

Benitez-Quiroz, C. F., K. Gökgöz, R. B. Wilbur, A. M. Martínez.(2014). A linguistic–computational approach to uncover diagnostic features in non-manuals of American Sign Language. PlosOne.

Malaia, E., R. B. Wilbur, M. Milković. (2013). Kinematic parameters of signed verbs at the morpho-phonology interface. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 56: 1677-1688.

Wilbur, R. B., Malaia, E., Shay, R. A. (2012). Degree modification and intensification in ASL adjectives. In M. Aloni, V. Kimmelman, F. Roelofsen, G. Sassoon, K. Schulz & M. Westera (eds.), Logic, Language and Meaning, 92-101. Berlin: Springer.

Wilbur, R. B.  (2012). Information structure. In Pfau, Roland, Markus Steinbach & Bencie Woll (eds.), Sign language. An international handbook (HSK - Handbooks of linguistics and communication science), 462-489. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wilbur, R. B. (2011). Nonmanuals, semantic operators, domain marking, and the solution to two outstanding puzzles in ASL. Sign Language & Linguistics 14: 148-178.

Wilbur, R. B. (2011). Modality and the structure of language: Sign languages versus signed systems. In M. Marschark & P. Spencer (eds.), The handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, 332-346. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ronnie Wilbur
Professor, SLHS, and Professor, Linguistics
Lyles-Porter Hall, Room 3150
Phone: 765-494-3822

Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, Lyles-Porter Hall, 715 Clinic Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2122, PH: (765) 494-3789

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