American Sign Language/Grammar 1

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American Sign Language or ASL (aka Ameslan) is a natural language that is used by many Deaf (being a part of the Deaf culture) and deaf (being physically deaf without necessarily adapting to the Deaf culture) people not only in the United States of America, but some parts of Canada as well. Other people who may use ASL may include people with speech disorders such as people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, people with hearing difficulties, people with mental illness that prohibit their ability to communicate with speech etc. One may think that British Sign Language(BSL) is very similar to ASL, but this is an incorrect assumption. In fact, ASL was derived from langue des signes française {Language of French of Signs, LFS, aka French Sign Language FSL.} Over the many years since LSF was brought to America and taught by Laurent Clerc, ASL has transformed into a natural language capable of communicating complex ideas as well as simplistic ones. Also, it has a very distinct grammatical structure, which contrary to popular belief is not similar to the English syntax, but is more similar to spoken Japanese.

Nouns, Pronouns, and Usage[edit]

Nouns and pronouns allow a signer to talk about things and ideas. They are a key building block to proficiency in ASL and other languages.

Nouns and Pluralization[edit]

Nouns are a common concept to all languages. However, unlike many other languages, American Sign Language does not alter the form of nouns to express plurality ( for example: a 'noun' denotes is a single thing. But, if I use the word 'nouns', you know just by looking at the word that I am talking about more than one thing). In ASL, the noun is understood to be plural or not, depending on what the context suggests it should be.

Pronouns[edit]

Pronouns in ASL are fairly simple, because ASL is a visual language. Simply pointing using the index finger or a 1 handshape is a normal pronoun. See the section about contrastive structure for what to do if the subject is not present. To form a possessive pronoun such as my, your, his, or our one uses an extended B handshape with an outward palm orientation. Once again with possessive pronouns you may merely point to what you wish to speak about, however it's not really pointing in this case. Finally, reflexive pronouns are made using an extended A handshape. As one can see pronouns in ASL are fairly simplistic. All you do is point and identify the object.

Contrastive Structure[edit]

Suppose you want to talk to someone about a person who is not physically nearby, you should use contrastive structure. The rules of contrastive structure are easy. First, identify the person by fingerspelling his or her name; describing a few key features such as hair color or height also helps. Second, just point to the right of one's body. That's all there is to it. Once a person has been established using contrastive structure, you simply point back to that spot to refer back to them. This works with multiple people as well, but try to refrain from using more than two people at a time, as it may confuse the other signer.

Verbs and Usage[edit]

Verbs are another common concept in all natural languages. They allow us to explain what it is we are doing. In fact, without verbs, language would cease to exist. Verbs in ASL come in three types: plain, inflecting, and spatial.

Plain Verbs[edit]

A plain verb is a normal verb in ASL. When using plain verbs the signer must designate the subject and the object. Examples of plain verbs in ASL are PLAY, RUN, JUMP, and SING.

Inflecting/Indicating Verbs[edit]

Inflecting/Indicating verbs allow the signer to incorporate the subject and object into the verb in one fluid motion. Examples of inflecting verbs in ASL are GIVE, INFORM, TELL, PICK-ON, SEND, and PAY. The sign PAY can have two different meanings as in I pay to you or you pay me, depending on the starting and ending locations of the sign.

Spatial Verbs[edit]

The last type of verb is a spatial verb. These just allow the signer to specify where things are or how he or she moved them around. Examples of spatial verbs in ASL are PUT-UP and PUT-BELOW.

Adjectives and Adverbs[edit]

Descriptive words are adjectives and adverbs. They help us describe things in detail. They also add imagery to our writing, speech, and signing.

Placement of Adjectives[edit]

Typically, ASL puts an adjective after the noun it modifies, but one may place the adjective before the noun for stylistic purposes. This is similar to the word order of many Romance languages, but differs from English, which requires that an adjective precede the noun it modifies.

English: I have a brown dog.
ASL: DOG BROWN I HAVE

Placement of Adverbs[edit]

In English the adverb is placed after the verb, whereas in ASL it is placed before the verbs. Most of the time adverbs are simple the same sign as an adjective, only it is distinguished by the context of the sentence.

English: I enter the house quietly.
ASL: HOUSE I QUIET ENTER

Adding -LY to the end of the adjective to form an adverb is improper and is considered Signing Exact English. One should avoid slipping into other portions of the sign continuum at all costs.

Usage of Conjunctions, Interjections, and Prepositions[edit]

These three concepts are probably the least used in ASL, because it is a high contextual language. Despite this fact, they are still used in signing to an extent.

Conjunction[edit]

The combining of two sentences in ASL is different based on the conjunction needed. For example, the concept of the word and does not exist in ASL. Simply, sign a sentence, take a short pause and then sign the next sentence. Similar conjunctions such as or and but have signs.

English: I have two cats and they are named Billy and Bob.
ASL: TWO CATS I HAVE. NAME #BILLY #BOB.
English: I like to swim, but I don't like to run.
ASL: SWIM I LIKE, BUT RUN I LIKE-NOT

Interjections[edit]

Interjections such as WOW! or OH! can be fingerspelled or they may have a sign like WOW. They are usually made into a separate statement such as: WOW. YOUR BIKE RED I LIKE.

Prepositions[edit]

Now, most prepositions are not used in ASL at all, because it is reserved more for Signing Exact English. It is a good idea to avoid prepositions when signing in ASL, because they are shown in context.

Syntax[edit]

With background on how parts of speech are used in ASL, we can now evaluate the syntax, or word order, of ASL. As stated previously in the article, the word order of ASL is different from that of English. English follows a SVO, Subject-Verb-Object sentence pattern, whereas ASL uses a Topic-Comment pattern.

English: I go to the store.
ASL: STORE I GO

Signing is a heavily visual language and does not require as many words as spoken English. In the above example one can see that the words to and the are deemed unnecessary for an ASL sentence. However, the inclusion of these words is called Signing Exact English and is therefore not ASL.

Placement of Time Words[edit]

Time words are the only thing that comes before the topic of the sentence in ASL. So, adding time words makes our ASL word order now Time-Topic-Comment. Also, the concept of AM and PM does not exist in ASL. They simply sign MORNING or AFTERNOON to denote AM or PM.

English: I'm going to the store at 9:00AM.
ASL: 9:00 MORNING STORE I GO

Word Order of Questions[edit]

In other natural languages such as English, French or German, statements are given in a particular word order. Then for questions they either invert the word order or add in a few words such as: do or est-ce que. ASL does not invert its word order nor does it add in any helping words, it uses non-manual signals to display a question asked. These non-manuals can consist of body movements, facial expressions, or eyebrow movements. Let's examine a simple YES/NO question in ASL and English.

English: Did you go to the store?
ASL: STORE YOU GO?

English added our helping verb to do, but ASL didn't change or add anything. This is because in a YES/NO question the eyebrows are raised and the body leaned forward slightly. These non-manuals show the receptive signer that the statement is actually a question.

Another type of question is a WH-question. These types of question require more of a response than yes or no. They always include signs like WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, HOW, or WHY? These WH-words always come at the end of the question, unlike in English where it is the first word in the question.

English: What are you eating?
ASL: YOU EAT WHAT?

Similar to a YES/NO question, WH-word questions also have non-manual markers, however this time instead of raising your eyebrows, you must lower your eyebrows. In addition to lowering your eyebrows the signer must lean the body in slightly and extend the last sign for a couple seconds. This allows the receptive signer to understand they are being asked a question that requires more of a response.

The final type of question is called an RH-question. The use of an RH-question is like an English speaker using the word because. There is no sign for the word because in ASL, therefore they sign a question and answer it themselves. The non-manual markers for an RH-question are the same as a YES/NO question.

English: I like to play tennis, because it is fun.
ASL: TENNIS I LIKE PLAY WHY? #FUN

Negation in ASL[edit]

The role of negation in ASL is a fairly easy concept to grasp. There are only two signs one needs to know to be able to negate a sentence. These two signs are NOT and NONE. The non-manual marker for a negated sentence is simply a shake of the head when signing the word NOT or NONE. Also, one must remember that in ASL syntax negation words always come at the end. The only exception to this rule is a WH-word.

NONE is typically used when talking about possession of a noun. It functions similar to the English words none or any.

English: I don't have any dogs.
ASL: #DOG I HAVE NONE

NOT functions the exact way it does in English. Except that in English it is typically found in contractions like don't.

English: I shouldn't eat candy.
ASL: CANDY I SHOULD EAT NOT

Modal Verbs[edit]

The concept of modal verbs is essentially the same in ASL and English. In ASL the modal can come after the other verbs in the sentence. However, in English it is the very first verb.

English: I can go to the store for you.
ASL: FOR YOU, STORE I GO CAN

Fingerspelling and Numbers[edit]

The English alphabet has 26 letters and ASL uses a manual alphabet the mimics that of English. Signing numbers is different than the hand-signs that most English speakers use.

The Role of Fingerspelling[edit]

Fingerspelling is used for proper nouns. They may include, but are not limited to movie titles, books, names, and street names. When glossing ASL or writing it down, we denote fingerspelled words like this: #DOG. Fingerspelling should not be used in place of a sign. If you do not know what a sign is do not immediately fingerspell. First, one should gesture or attempt to describe the object. If that does not work, then you can fingerspell.

The Role of Numbers[edit]

All numbers under one thousand are signed using a single hand, and the second hand is only used to designate that a number is in the thousands or millions. There are separate signs that need to be learned in order to talk about age, time, money, and other concepts. Numbers are used the same way that they are in English.

Further Reading[edit]

  • Signing Naturally Level 1 by Ken Mikos
  • Signing Naturally Level 2 by Ken Mikos
  • Signing Naturally Level 3 by Ken Mikos
  • The Syntax of American Sign Language: Functional Categories and Hierarchical Structure by Carol Jan Neidle
  • Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language by Scott K. Liddell
  • Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction, 4th Ed. by Clayton Valli