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American Sign Language: Comparatives and Superlatives:


<<Safa'a writes:
Hello!    How do you sign comparatives and superlatives in ASL? Could you give me please the ASL literal translation of "Peter is older than Jane" and "John  is the youngest?   
Thank you, 
-- Safa'a >>

Hello Safa'a,

A comparative in ASL is roughly comparable to the "-er" concept in English.  Just as a superlative is roughly comparable to the "-est' concept in English.

There are signs for the suffixes "-er" and "-est."  The suffix uses the right "a" handshape, palm-side facing left, knuckles facing forward, thumb-side facing up, back of the hand facing right, pinkie side of the hand facing down.

The movement is a short upward motion.
The "-er" sign-suffix uses a "shorter" movement of about three to five inches.  The "-est" sign-suffix uses a "longer" movement of about five to seven inches.

The motion will vary greatly depending on who the signer is and what sort of emphasis they are putting on the signs.  I've seen excited teenagers sign the word "best" using a full extension of their arm.  That is not the norm mind you…I'm just letting you know that the more emphasis you wish to place on the comparison…the bigger the movement.

The comparative sign "bigger" would be done by signing "big" + "-er."  To mean "biggest" you would do the suffix using an increased length of movement.
Let's take a look at how to interpret the sentences: "Peter is older than Jane," and "John is the youngest."

These could be signed a number of ways in ASL.


If in looking at the situation, suppose I've already identified Peter and Jane.  I would simply sign "P-E-T-E-R OLD+ER" --it would be understood that I'm indicating it is Jane whom Peter is "older than."

If they are in the room or have already been established, I might just sign, "HE OLD+ER."

I think in response to the question "What is the literal ASL translation of 'Peter is older than Jane'?" --a better question is, "How do Deaf people deal with discussions and comparisons of age?"

People don't normally just walk up to other people and start a conversation with the statement, "Peter is older than Jane."  That sentence happens in context.  Suppose two people have met.  Cindi and Belinda.  They have exchanged pleasantries.  At some point Cindi has raises her eyebrows slightly and signs, "CHILDREN HAVE?" (or just "CHILDREN?")  Belinda responds, "FOUR" and holds up her left "4" hand as a referent.

The referent hand (a left 4-hand) is held at a comfortable angle, mostly palm back, fingers outspread, pointing to the upper right area of the signing space.  This referrent could also start as an "a" hand with the thumb extended.

Then Belinda taps the tip of the left index finger with the tip of her right index finger and spells "L-O-G-A-N," perhaps indicates a namesign, and signs "OLD-9."  Then she taps the tip of the left-middle finger, spells K-E-L-S-E-Y, perhaps indicates a name sign, and signs "7-[slight, brief, short side-to-s side shake and momentary hold]"  Then she taps the tip of the left-ring finger, spells B-E-N, perhaps indicates a name sign, and signs "5-[slight, brief, short side-to-s side shake and momentary hold]."  FINALLY she taps the tip of the left-middle finger, signs D-E-A-F (while nodding emphatically with a slightly smug smile), spells S-A-R-A-H, perhaps indicates a name sign, and signs "3-[slight, brief, short side-to-s side shake and momentary hold], signs "GO, GO, INSTITUTE (deaf-school)."

Notice, after the initial indication of the sign for "OLD (meaning age)" the sign "OLD" was dropped.  If the children were older, their marital status and how many children they each have would likely have been included in the information being shared.  If any of the spouses were deaf, that would most certainly have been pointed out.  If the children were in high school or college Belinda would likely have indicated what grade level.

If I were comparing the ages of three individuals and wanted to indicate that Peter was the oldest and John the youngest, I'd simply use my left 3-hand as a referent.  I'd point to the thumb and spell Peter, then to the index and spell Jane, then to the middle and spell John.  It is understood in the deaf community that I am listing them in chronological (unless I have indicated some other order.)  I wouldn't even need to sign the word "OLD" or the suffix "-est" at all whatsoever.


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