Ronnie Wilbur, PhD

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. She provided the first and most extensive evidence that knowledge of sign language in deaf children does not interfere with their acquisition of English and that their literacy difficulties can be traced to other causes (insufficient input and interaction, teaching approaches). She recently documented that the single best predictor of ultimate educational outcomes in English and math is a child's fluency in American Sign Language (ASL) [Hrastinski & Wilbur 2016].
  2. She demonstrated that, like spoken languages, sign languages have syllables and standard types of stress patterns [Wilbur & Malaia 2018] (NSF funding).
  3. She contributed syntactic analysis of various complex structures in ASL. For example, what looks like a question-answer pair, aka ‘rhetorical question structure’, is syntactically and prosodically a complex single sentence with an information focus function. Other structures include relative clauses [Wilbur 2017] and sentences with complex adverbial clauses. Recent work focuses on more formal semantics (operators, modality, comparatives) and situation/event structures: she formulated and experimentally tested the Event Visibility Hypothesis as an explanation for so-called iconicity of signs, and is now considering its evolutionary implications.
  4. Beyond the signs themselves, she has tackled the unusual grammatical markings in sign languages that are represented by the face, head, and body (non-manual marking, NMM) (NIH funding). It turns out that these perform many of the same functions as spoken language morphemes, but instead are simultaneously produced rather than sequentially ordered.
  5. Cross-linguistically, she has contributed internationally to constructing grammars of other sign languages, and showing, for example, that Croatian Sign Language has the same word order as ASL, whereas Austrian Sign Language uses subject-object-verb instead (NSF funding).
  6. With colleagues, she has developed animated ASL math software for K-2 deaf children (NSF); conducted motion capture analysis of several sign languages [Wilbur & Malaia 2018]; been involved with neuroimaging (fMRI) and neurophysiology (EEG) of several sign languages [Krebs et al 2018]; and focused on understanding the information in the signal [Malaia & Wilbur 2019].

Purdue awards include Focus Award (service), Seed for Success (funding in excess of million dollars), and member Purdue Book of Great Teachers. She was recently designated a Fulbright Specialist (2020-2023). Her teaching includes general linguistics (syntax, semantics), linguistic structure of ASL compared to spoken languages, and evolution of language.

Recent Publications:

  • Malaia, E, Wilbur, R.B. 2019. Syllable as a unit of information transfer in linguistic communication: the Entropy Syllable Parsing model. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs)Cognitive Science e1518.

  • Wilbur, R. B., Malaia, E. 2018. A new technique for analyzing narrative prosodic effects in sign languages using motion capture technology. In A. Hübel & M. Steinbach (eds.), Linguistic foundations of narration in spoken and sign languages, 15-40. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Krebs, J, Malaia, E., Wilbur, R. B., Roehm, D. 2018. Subject preference emerges as cross-modal strategy for linguistic processing. Brain Research 1691:105-117.

  • Wilbur, R. B. 2017. Internally-headed relative clauses in sign languages. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 2(1):1-34.

  • Hrastinski, I., Wilbur, R. B. 2016. Academic achievement of deaf and hard of hearing children in an ASL/English bilingual program. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 21: 156-170.


Ronnie Wilbur
Professor, SLHS, and Professor, Linguistics

Lyles-Porter Hall, Room 3150
Phone: 765-494-3822

Wilbur CV

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

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