- American Sign Language grammar
The grammar of
American Sign Language(ASL) is the best studied of any sign language, though research is still in its infancy, dating back only to William Stokoein the 1960s. Stokoe was the first linguist to approach any sign language as a full natural language with its own grammar, an approach which is now accepted practice for all Deaf sign languages. Stokoe's phonological model, for example, has been successfully applied to several other sign languages, such as British Sign Language, which is unrelated to ASL.
Stokoe concentrated primarily on establishing the
phonologyof ASL, calling the building blocks of signs 'cheremes', from the Greek "cheir-" 'hand', by analogy with the phonemes and tonemes of oral languages. However, it has since been recognized that these are cognitively equivalent, and linguists since Stokoe's time have used the terms 'phoneme' and 'phonology' have for all languages, oral and sign. All of these linguists divided ASL signs into several phonemic features: hand shape, palm orientation, hand movement, hand location, as well as non-manual features such as facial expression, posture, and mouthing. In early theoretical approaches, movement was treated as simultaneous or sequential motions of the hand, on par with other features; while in many more recent approaches, movement is treated as the tempo of the language rather than as a feature "per se:" Signs are divided into segments of "movement" and "hold," each of which consists of a set of the other features of hand shape, orientation, location, plus any non-manual features.
Non-manual phonemes and prosody
prosodythrough facial expression and upper-body position. Part of a good "accent" is the use of a greater degree of emotive facial expression than an English speaker would use. In addition, mouthing(use of the lips, tongue, jaws, cheeks, and breath), the eyes, and movement of the head are used phonemically for lexical distinctions. For example, the sign translated 'not yet' requires that the tongue touch the lower lip and that the head rotate slowly from side to side, in addition to the manual part of the sign. Without these features it is ill formed, and may not be understood. In addition, head movement, directed eye gaze, and eyebrow position are used for grammatical processes such as signaling referents, topics, questions, and negation. The use of similar facial changes such as eyebrow height to convey both prosody and grammatical distinctions is similar to the overlap of prosodic pitch and lexical or grammatical tone in a tone language. [Traci Weast, 2008. PhD dissertation: "Questions in American Sign Language: A quantitative analysis of raised and lowered eyebrows"]
Hand orientation, movement, and hold
In addition to linear movement in the six fundamental palm directions of up, down, in (toward the signer), out (away from the signer), center, facing opposite your dominant hand is (contralateral), and the same side as your dominant hand (ipsilateral), of which diagonal movement is considered to be comprised, phonologically distinctive sign movements include twisting of the wrist, bending of the wrist or fingers, touching a location, crossing hands or fingers, grasping, entering (inserting the hand or fingers between the fingers of the other hand), opening the hand, closing the hand, approaching a location (or the hands to each other), separating from a location (or the hands from each other), brushing a location, wriggling the fingers, exchanging hands, and circling motion of the hand or arm. These may involve 'salient' forearms, so that crossing the hands is realized as crossing extended arms. Palm "orientations" are, by the simple fact of being static, necessarily a subset of these.
When both hands are actively used for motion (as opposed to the 'weak' hand acting as a passive location for the 'dominant' hand), their motions may be parallel (both to the left or right), mirror images (approaching or separating), or alternating (180° out of phase, like legs pedaling a bicycle).
Stokoe "et al." (1965) describe motion as a sequence, each segment of which is composed of one or more of the movement phonemes listed above, such as a fist moving outward while opening and then moving downward while closing again. Orientation is conflated with handshape, the combination being called a "designator" or "dez." However, since that time there has been a variety of other approaches. Orientation is now generally considered a feature in its own right, separate from handshape. Liddell (1982) divides signs into phonological "segments," which may be either "movements" or "holds." Liddell likens this to the division of spoken language into consonants and vowels, with the Stokoe approach likened to the division of speech into syllables. For Liddell and those who follow him, each movement or hold consists of a set of the other features: Shape, orientation, location, and non-manual. A sign may consist of just a hold (that is, it may be without movement), or of movement plus a hold, or a hold plus movement, or more complex sequences. This simplifies the description of ASL morphology considerably.
While it can be approximated that there are around 150 handshapes, not all are phonemically distinct in ASL. This is very similar to how there are hundreds of linguistically producible sounds, but only some are considered phonemically distinct in English. Phonemically distinct ASL
handshapes (not considering finger spellingand initialization) are:
*fist with thumb on side (the shape of the ASL letters A, or 10),
*fist with thumb on front (S),
*fist with thumb between index and middle finger (T)
*flat hand with fingers together (B),
*flat hand with fingers apart (4),
*spread (and sometimes clawed) hand (5 or E),
*cupped hand (C),
*thumb touching fingertips (O),
*pointing index finger with fist hand (1 or Z),
*pointing index finger with lotus hand (D),
*hooked index finger (X),
*pointing pinky finger (I or J),
*index and middle fingers together (U or H),
*index and middle fingers apart (V or 2),
*'chopsticks' hand (K or P),
*thumb and index finger apart (L),
*thumb, index, and middle finger extended (3),
*thumb touching pinky (6 or W),
*thumb touching index finger, other fingers extended (F or 9),
*crossed fingers (R),
*fist with pinky and thumb extended (Y),
*flat hand with middle finger bent (open 8),
*fist with pinky and index finger extended (horns),
*fist with pinky, index, and thumb extended (ILY), and
*fist with bent index and middle finger extended (snake classifier).
These handshapes are constrained in their interactions. For example, the 5 and F handshapes usually make contact with another part of the body through the tip of the thumb, whereas the K and Y/8 handshapes usually only make contact through the tip of the middle finger, and the X handshape with the flexed joint of the index finger. The L hand usually makes contact by means of the thumb, though contact with the index finger would be just as easy: when contact is made with the index finger, the position of the thumb is unimportant, so the same signer may sometimes use a handshape closer to a letter G, and sometimes closer to a letter L; the G shape is considered more basic, and therefore these are considered allophones of the G hand.
The movement or shape of certain signs can be modified in such a way as to include information about a referent's type, size, shape, movement, or extent. Those signs which have this ability are "classifiers."It might be more accurate to call them "potential classifiers" since whether or not these "potential classifiers" become actual classifiers depends on how they are used in context.
Of all the possible locations on the body or in space, twelve are used to distinguish signs in ASL:
*the whole face or head,
*the upper face (forehead or brow),
*the mid face (eyes or nose),
*the lower face (chin or mouth),
*the side face (cheek, temple, or ear),
*the trunk (shoulders, chest, and belly),
*the upper arm,
*the forearm (including the elbow),
*the inside of the wrist,
*the back of the wrist, and
*the other (weak) hand: In this case, the weak hand may take one of the simpler handshapes listed above, such as the A, O, B, G, H, V, or L handshapes, but not others such as X or R. In addition, the sign may be made in 'neutral' space in front of the chest (zero location).
For example, a 5 hand tapping the upper face means 'father', tapping the lower face it means 'mother', and tapping the torso (chest) it means 'fine'.
Signs may be made with two active hands, oriented in a specific way both to each other and to the body locations.
Referent locus system
In addition to phonological location, there is also indexic location. For example, the 2nd/3rd-person
pronouns point to their referent, or to a point in space (a ' locus') that's been "set up" to represent that referent. Directional (indexic) verbs [see below] are similar. However, no "words" are distinguished by such divisions of signing space.
A referent locus may be set up by signing a noun and then pointing to a certain spot in sign space. The signer can later refer back to that noun by pointing to its associated location (that is, by using an indexic pronoun), or by incorporating the location into the motion of an indexic verb. For instance, if you point to a spot over your right shoulder when referring to your grandmother in another city, you can then mention her again by pointing over your shoulder instead of repeating 'my out-of-town grandmother'. Perhaps as many as eight loci may be productively used to distinguish pronouns in a conversation, before the speakers become overloaded, whereas English is restricted to three third-person pronouns: "he, she," and "they."
Nouns can be set up without the need for initially pointing by making a sign for them at a salient point in space near the signer. This is often accompanied by the facial expression that indicates a topic. (See below.) For example, when discussing football, you can sign 'college' on your left (most likely by signing 'college' in neutral space and extending the final hold to the locus you're setting up), fingerspell P-R-O at a locus on your right (that is, off to one side rather than in neutral space), and then ask whether one prefers collegiate or professional games by signing 'you like which?', with the indexic pronoun 'which' oscillating between the two loci.
ASL morphology is to a large extent
iconic. This shows up especially well in reduplicationand indexicality.
Many spoken languages have both
inflectional and derivational morphology. ASL appears to have only derivational morphology (Liddell 2004). There are no inflections for tense, number, or person. Person is indicated indexically with some verbs, but the form this takes is specific to each verb, and can't be arbitrarily extended to new verbs the way verbal inflections can. A similar situation exists with verbal number.
'Mouthing' (making what appear to be speech sounds) is important for fluent signing, and it has morphological uses. For example, one may sign 'man tall' to indicate "the man is tall," but by mouthing the syllable "cha" while signing 'tall', the phrase becomes "that man is enormous!"
There are other ways of modifying a verb or adjective to make it more intense. These are all more or less equivalent to adding the word "very" in English; which morphology is used depends on the word being modified. Certain words which are short in English, such as 'sad' and 'mad', are fingerspelled rather than signed to mean 'very sad' and 'very mad'. Others are reduplicated. Some signs are produced with an exaggeratedly large motion, so that they take up more sign space than normal. This may involve a back-and-forth scissoring motion of the arms to indicate that the sign ought to be yet larger, but that one is physically incapable of making it big enough. Many other signs are given a slow, tense production. The fact that this modulation is morphological rather than merely mimetic can be seen in the sign for 'fast': both 'very slow' and 'very fast' are signed by making the motion slower and more deliberate than it is in the citation forms of 'slow' and 'fast', not by making it slower for 'very slow' and faster for 'very fast'.
Reduplication(morphological repetition) is extremely common in ASL. Generally the motion of the sign is shortened as well as repeated. Nouns may be derived from verbs through reduplication. For example, the noun "chair" is formed from the verb "to sit" by repeating it with a reduced degree of motion. Similar relationships exist between "acquisition" and "to get, airplane" and "to fly (on an airplane)," also "window" and "to open/close a window."
Reduplication is commonly used to express intensity as well as several verbal aspects (see below). It is also used to derive signs such as 'every two weeks' from 'two weeks', and is used for verbal number (see below), where the reduplication is iconic for the repetitive meaning of the sign.
Many ASL words are historically compounds. However, the two elements of these signs have fused, with features being lost from one or both, to create what might be better called a
blendthan a compound. Typically only the final hold (see above) remains from the first element, and any reduplication is lost from the second.
An example is the verb 'to agree', which derives from the two signs 'to think' and 'to be alike'. The verb 'to think' is signed by bringing a 1 hand inward and touching the forehead (a move and a hold). 'Alike' is signed by holding two 1 hands parallel, pointing outward, and bringing them together two or three times. The compound/blend 'to agree' starts as 'to think' ends: with the index finger touching the forehead (the final hold of that sign). In addition, the weak hand is already in place, in anticipation of the next part of the sign. Then the hand at the forehead is brought down parallel to the weak hand; it approaches but does not make actual contact, and there is no repetition.
Affixes are extremely common in spoken languages, which except for suprasegmental features such as tone are tightly constrained by the sequential nature of voice sounds. In ASL, however, morphemes may be expressed simultaneously, and perhaps consequently there are only a few affixes.
One of these, transcribed as '-er', is made by placing two B or 5 hands in front of the torso, palms facing each other, and lowering them. This suffix cannot occur on its own, but must follow one of a limited set of verbs, which then together with it become the sign for the performer of the action, as in 'drive-er' and 'teach-er'.
An ASL prefix, (touching the chin), is used with number signs to indicate 'years old'. The prefix completely assimilates with the initial handshape of the number. For instance, 'fifteen' is signed with a B hand that bends several times at the knuckles. The chin-touch prefix in 'fifteen years old' is thus also made with a B hand. For 'three years old', however, the prefix is made with a 3 hand.
Numeral incorporation and classifiers
Rather than relying on sequential affixes, ASL makes heavy use of simultaneous modification of signs. One example of this is found in the aspectual system (see below); another is "numeral incorporation:" There are several families of two-handed signs which require one of the hands to take the handshape of a numeral. Many of these deal with time. For example, drawing the dominant hand lengthwise across the palm and fingers of a flat B hand indicates a number of weeks; the dominant hand takes the form of a numeral from one to nine to specify how many weeks. There are analogous signs for 'weeks ago' and 'weeks from now', etc., though in practice several of these signs are only found with the lower numerals.
ASL also has a system of
classifiers which may be incorporated into signs. A fist may represent an inactive object such as a rock (this is the default or neutral classifier), a horizontal ILY hand may represent an aircraft, a horizontal 3 hand (thumb pointing up and slightly forward)a motor vehicle, an upright G hand a person on foot, an upright V hand a pair of people on foot, and so on through higher numbers of people. These classifiers are moved through sign space to iconically represent the actions of their referents. For example, a ILY hand may 'lift off' or 'land on' a horizontal B hand to sign an aircraft taking off or landing; a 3 hand may be brought down on a B hand to sign parking a car; and a G hand may be brought toward a V hand to represent one person approaching two.
Frames are a morphological device that may be unique to sign languages (Liddell 2004). They are incomplete sets of the features which make up signs, and they combine with existing signs, absorbing features from them to form a derived sign. It is the frame which specifies the number and nature of segments in the resulting sign, while the basic signs it combines with lose all but one or two of their original features.
One, the WEEKLY frame, consists of a simple downward movement. It combines with the signs for the days of the week, which then lose their inherent movement. For example, 'Monday' consists of an M/O hand made with a circling movement. 'MondayWEEKLY' (that is, 'on Mondays') is therefore signed as an M/O hand that drops downward, but without the circling movement. A similar DAILY frame (a sideward pan) combines with times of the day, such as 'morning' and 'afternoon', which likewise keep their handshape and location but lose their original movement. Numeral incorporation (see above) also uses frames. However, in ASL frames are most productively utilized for verbal aspect.
While there is no grammatical tense in ASL, there are numerous verbal aspects. These are produced by modulating the verb: Through reduplication, by placing the verb in an aspectual frame (see above), or with a combination of these means.
An example of an aspectual frame is the "unrealized inceptive" aspect ('just about to X'), illustrated here with the verb 'to tell'. 'To tell' is an indexical (directional) verb, where the index finger (a G hand) begins with a touch to the chin and then move outward to point out the recipient of the telling. 'To be just about to tell' retains just the locus and the initial chin touch, which now becomes the final hold of the sign; all other features from the basic verb (in this case, the outward motion and pointing) are dropped and replaced by features from the frame (which are shared with the unrealized inceptive aspects of other verbs such as 'look at', 'wash the dishes', 'yell', 'flirt', etc.). These frame features are: Eye gaze toward the locus (which is no longer pointed at with the hand), an open jaw, and a hand (or hands, in the case of two-hand verbs) in front of the trunk which moves in an arc to the onset location of the basic verb (in this case, touching the chin), while the trunk rotates and the signer inhales, catching her breath during the final hold. The hand shape throughout the sign is whichever is required by the final hold, in this case a G hand.
The variety of aspects in ASL can be illustrated by the verb 'to be sick', which involves the Y/8 hand touching the forehead, and which can be modified by a large number of frames. Several of these involve reduplication, which may but need not be analyzed as part of the frame. (The appropriate non-manual features are not described here.)
stative"to be sick" is made with simple iterated contact, typically with around four iterations. This is the basic, citation formof the verb.
inchoative"to get sick, to take sick" is made with a single straight movement to contact and a hold of the Y/8 hand on the forehead.
* predisposional "to be sickly, to be prone to get sick" is made with incomplete motion: three even circular cycles without contact. This adds reduplication to verbs such as 'to look at' which do not already contain repetition.
* susceptative "to get sick easily" is made with a thrusting motion: The onset is held; then there is a brief, tense thrust that is checked before actual contact in made.
* frequentative "to be often sick" is given a
marcatoarticulation: A regular beat, with 4-6 iterations, and marked onsets and holds.
* susceptive and frequentive may be combined to mean "to get sick easily and often": Four brief thrusts on a marked, steady beat, without contact with the forehead.
* protractive "to be continuously sick" is made with a long, tense hold and no movement at all.
* incessant "to get sick incessantly" has a reduplicated
tremoloarticulation: A dozen tiny, tense, uneven iterations, as rapid as possible and without contact.
* durative "to be sick for a long time" is made with a reduplicated elliptical motion: Three slow, uneven cycles, with a heavy downward brush of the forehead and an arching return.
iterative"to get sick over and over again" is made with three tense movements and slow returns to the onset position.
* intensive "to be very sick" in given a single tense articulation: A tense onset hold followed by a single very rapid motion to a long final hold.
resultative"to become fully sick" (that is, a complete change of health) is made with an accelerando articulation: A single elongated tense movement which starts slowly and heavily, accelerating to a long final hold.
* approximative "to be sort of sick, to be a little sick" is made with a reduplicated lax articulation: A spacially extremely reduced, minimal movement, involving a dozen iterations without contact.
* semblitive "to appear to be sick" [no description]
* increasing "to get more and more sick" is made with the movements becoming more and more intense.
These modulations readily combine with each other to create yet finer distinctions. Not all verbs take all aspects,and the forms they do take will not necessarily be completely analogous to the verb illustrated here. Conversely, not all aspects are possible with this one verb.
Aspect is unusual in ASL in that
transitive verbs derived for aspect lose their transitivity. That is, while you can sign 'dog chew bone' for "the dog chewed on a bone," or 'she look-at me' for "she looked at me," you cannot do the same in the durative to mean "the dog gnawed on the bone" or "she stared at me." Instead, you must use other strategies, such as a topic construction (see below) to avoid having an object for the verb.
Reduplication is also used when expressing verbal number. Verbal number indicates that the action of the verb is repeated; in the case of ASL it is apparently limited to transitive verbs, where the motion of the verb is either extended or repeated to cover multiple object or recipient loci. (Simple plurality of action can also be conveyed with reduplication, but without indexing any object loci; in fact, such aspectual forms do not allow objects, as noted above.) There are specific dual forms (and for some signers trial forms), as well as plurals. With dual objects, the motion of the verb may be made twice with one hand, or simultaneously with both; while with plurals the object loci may be taken as a group by using a single sweep of the signing hand while the verbal motion is being performed, or individuated by iterating the move across the sweep. For example, 'to ask someone a question' is signed by flexing the index finger of an upright G hand in the direction of that person; the dual involves flexing it at both object loci (sequentially with one hand or simultaneously with both), the simple plural involves a single flexing which spans the object group while the hand arcs across it, and the individuated plural involves multiple rapid flexings while the hand arcs. If the singular verb uses reduplication, that is lost in the dual and plural forms.
syntaxis primarily conveyed through a combination of word order and non-manual features. Early accounts of word order, among other issues, were often confused because non-manual features were not considered.
The basic constituent order of ASL is
subject object verb. This is the order of words in a clause; however, either the subject or the object, or both, may be unexpressed in the main clause of an utterance, as ASL is a pro-droplanguage. In practice there is a great deal of flexibility to ASL word order, made possible by the use of "topics" and "tags." Both are indicated with non-manual features. Within a noun phrase, the word order is noun-number and noun-adjective.
ASL does not have a
copula(linking 'to be' verb). For example, "my hair is wet" is signed 'my hair wet', and "my name is Pete" may be signed ' [name my] TOPIC P-E-T-E'.
Topic and main clauses
A topic sets off background information that will be discussed in the following main clause. Topic constructions are not often used in standard English, but they are common in some dialects, as in,
In ASL, the eyebrows are raised during the production of a topic , and often a slight pause follows:
ASL utterances do not require topics, but their use is extremely common. They are used for purposes of
information flow, to set up referent loci (see above), and to supply objects for verbs which are grammatically prevented from taking objects themselves (see below).
Without a topic, "the dog chased my cat" is signed:
However, people tend to want to set up the object of their concern first and then discuss what happened to it. In English, we do this with
passiveclauses: "my cat was chased by the dog." In ASL, topics are used with similar effect:
If the word order of the main clause is changed, the meaning of the utterance also changes:
ubject pronoun tags
Information may also be added after the main clause as a kind of 'afterthought'. In ASL this is commonly seen with subject pronouns. These are accompanied by a nod of the head, and make a statement more emphatic: versus
The subject need not be mentioned, as in
Aspect, topics, and transitivity
As noted above, in ASL aspectually marked verbs cannot take objects. To deal with this, the object must be known from context so that it does not need to be further specified. This is accomplished in two ways:
# The object may be made prominent in a prior clause, or
# It may be used as the topic of the utterance at hand. Of these two strategies, the first is the more common. For "my friend was typing her term paper all night" to be used with a durative aspect, this would result in
The less colloquial topic construction may come out as,
Negated clauses may be signaled by shaking the head during the entire clause. A topic, however, cannot be so negated; the headshake can only be produced during the production of the main clause. (A second type of negation starts with the verb and continues to the end of the clause.)
In addition, in many communities, negation is put at the end of the clause, unless there is a wh- question word. For example, the sentence, "I thought the movie was not good," could be signed as, "BEFORE MOVIE ME SEE, THINK WHAT? IT GOOD NOT."
There are two manual signs that negate a sentence, NOT and NONE, which are accompanied by a shake of the head. NONE is typically used when talking about possession:
:English: I don't have any dogs.
:ASL: DOG I HAVE NONE
NOT negates a verb:
:English: I don't like to play tennis.
:ASL: TENNIS I LIKE PLAY NOT
Yes-no questions are signaled by raising the eyebrows, while wh- (information) questions require a lowering of the eyebrows. In both, the questioner leans forward slightly and extends the duration of the last sign. Yes-no questions do not involve a change of word order. In wh- questions, the question word comes at the end, unlike in English where it is the first word in the question.Fact|date=May 2008
quotation|"you eat [what?] "
What are you eating?
Raised eyebrows are also used for
rhetorical questions which are not intended to elicit an answer, for the same reason as general topic-comment structures have raised eyebrows on the topic portion. Rhetorical questions are much more common in ASL than in English. For example, "I don't like garlic" may be signed,
This strategy is commonly used instead of signing the word 'because' for clarity or emphasis. For instance, "I love to eat pasta because I am Italian" would be signed,
Relative clauses are signaled by tilting back the head and raising the eyebrows and upper lip. This is done during the performance of the entire clause. There is no change in word order. For example, "the dog which recently chased the cat came home" would be signed,
where the brackets here indicate the duration of the non-manual features. If the sign 'recently' were made without these features, it would lie outside the relative clause, and the meaning would change to "the dog which chased the cat recently came home".
In ASL signers set up regions of space (loci) for specific referents (see above); these can then be referred to indexically by pointing at those locations with pronouns and indexical verbs.
Personal pronouns in ASL are indexic. That is, they point to their referent, or to a locus representing their referent. When the referent is physically present, pronouns involve simply pointing at the referent, with different handshapes for different pronominal uses: A 'G' handshape is a
personal pronoun, an extended 'B' handshape with an outward palm orientation is a possessive pronoun, and an extended-thumb 'A' handshape is a reflexive pronoun; these may be combined with numeral signs to sign 'you two', 'us three', 'all of them', etc.
If the referent is not physically present, the speaker identifies the referent and then points to a location (the "locus)" in the sign space near their body. This locus can then be pointed at to refer to the referent. Up to eight loci may be used.
Meier 1990 demonstrates that only two
grammatical persons are distinguished in ASL: First person and non-first person, as in Damin. Both persons come in several numbers as well as with signs such as 'my' and 'by myself'.
Meier provides several arguments for believing that ASL does not formally distinguish second from third person. For example, when pointing to a person that is physically present, a pronoun is equivalent to either 'you' or '(s)he' depending on the discourse. There is nothing in the sign itself, nor in the direction of eye gaze or body posture, that can be relied on to make this distinction. That is, the same formal sign can refer to any of several second or third persons, which the indexic nature of the pronoun makes clear. In English, indexic uses also occur, as in 'I need "you" to go to the store and "you" to stay here', but not so ubiquitously. In contrast,several first person ASL pronouns, such as the plural possessive ('our'), look different from their non-first person equivalents, and a couple of pronouns do not occur in the first person at all, so first and non-first persons are formally distinct.
Personal pronouns have separate forms for singular ('I' and 'you/(s)he') and plural ('we' and 'you/they'). These have possessive counterparts: 'my', 'our', 'your/his/her', 'your/their'. In addition, there are pronoun forms which incorporate numerals from two to five ('the three of us', 'the four of you/them', etc.), though the dual pronouns are slightly idiosyncratic in form "(i.e.," they have a K rather than 2 handshape, and the wrist nods rather than circles). These numeral-incorporated pronouns have no possessive equivalents.
Also among the personal pronouns are the 'self' forms ('by myself', 'by your/themselves', etc.). These only occur in the singular and plural (there is no numeral incorporation), and are only found as subjects. They have derived emphatic and 'characterizing' forms, with modifications used for derivation rather like those for verbal aspect. The 'characterizing' pronoun is used when describing someone who has just been mentioned. It only occurs as a non-first person singular form.
Finally there are formal pronouns used for honored guests. These occur as singular and plural in the non-first person, but only as singular in the first person.
ASL is a
pro-droplanguage, which means that pronouns are not used when the referent is obvious from context and is not being emphasized.
Within ASL there is a class of indexical (often called 'directional') verbs. These include the signs for 'see', 'pay', 'give', 'show', 'invite', 'help', 'send', 'bite', etc. These verbs include an element of motion that indexes one or more referents, either physically present or set up through the referent locus system. If there are two loci, the first indicates the subject and the second the object, direct or indirect depending on the verb, reflecting the basic word order of ASL. For example, 'give' is a bi-indexical verb based on a flattened M/O handshape. For 'I give you', the hand moves from myself toward you; for 'you give me', it moves from you to me. 'See' is indicated with a V handshape. Two loci for a dog and a cat can be set up, with the sign moving between them to indicate 'the dog sees the cat' (if it starts at the locus for dog and moves toward the locus for cat) or 'the cat sees the dog' (with the motion in the opposite direction), or the V hand can circulate between both loci and myself to mean 'we (the dog, the cat, and myself) see each other'. The verb 'to be in pain' (index fingers pointed at each other and alternately approaching and separating) is signed at the location of the pain (head for headache, cheek for toothache, abdomen for stomachache, etc.). This is normally done in relation to the signer's own body, regardless of the person feeling the pain, but may take also use the locus system, especially for body parts which are not normally part of the sign space, such as the leg. There are also spatial verbs such as put-up and put-below, which allow signers to specify where things are or how they moved them around.
ASL makes heavy use of time-sequenced ordering, meaning that events are signed in the order in which they occur. For example, for "I was late to class last night because my boss handed me a huge stack of work after lunch yesterday," one would sign 'yesterday lunch finish, boss give-me work big-stack, night class late-me'. In stories, however, ordering is malleable, since one can choose to sequence the events either in the order in which they occurred or in the order in which one found out about them.
yntactic word order
In addition to its basic topic-comment structure, ASL typically places an adjective after a noun, though it may occur before the noun for stylistic purposes. Numerals also occur after the noun, a very rare pattern among oral languages.
:English: I have a brown dog.:ASL: DOG BROWN I HAVE
Adverbs, however, occur 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
When the scope of the adverb is the entire clause, as in the case of time, it comes before the topic. This is the only thing which can appear before the topic in ASL: "Time-Topic-Comment."
:English: I'm going to the store at 9:00AM.
:ASL: 9-HOUR MORNING STORE I GO
Modal verbs come after the main verb of the clause:
:English: I can go to the store for you.
:ASL: FOR YOU, STORE I GO CAN
The concept of the conjunction "and" does not exist in ASL. Instead, two sentences are combined with a short pause between. There are manual conjunctions for "or" and "but," but the latter is often signed with a slight shoulder twist.
:English: I have two cats and they are named Billy and Bob.:ASL: CAT TWO I HAVE. NAME B-I-L-L-Y B-O-B.
:English: I like to swim, but I don't like to run.:ASL: SWIM I LIKE, BUT RUN I LIKE-NOT
*"Signing Naturally" 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
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