November 13, 2001
American Sign Language: Linguistics
The Charlotte Baker-Shenk Dennis Cokely America Sign Language textbook defines
language as "a system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals that changes
across time and that members of a community share and use for several purposes: to interact with
each other, to communicate their ideas, emotions, and intentions, and to transmit their culture
from generation to generation.
Unlike American Sign Language, other languages such as Greek and Russian do not
depend on word order to express relationships between symbols. They depend more on
inflections, a different type of grammatical symbol. Like Russian, the word order in ASL, and
the signs themselves can change to express grammatical relationships.
Generally, languages have one symbol that is used more often than another. The majority
of languages use sign and word order, as well as inflections. Some are more dependent on word
order than others. Some use word order to express relationships between symbols, while others
(i.e. ASL) are more dependent on inflections to express how symbols are related.
A language has symbols that members of a community share and have in common.
A language cannot function constructively if the same symbols mean different things.
Those who use the same language to communicate must establish one symbol for one meaning.
Disagreements on the meaning of symbols cause communication errors and confusion.
Languages are made up of units that are connected or related to each other.
Languages that are spoken use their sounds as a basic "building block". Each sound represents
something different. Words are combined to form sentences. Sentences then can be combined to
create poems, stories, etc. Tone of voice can represent context of emotion or feeling. ASL is
visual, and not auditory, therefore, it relies on facial expression and movement.
"Arbitrary and "iconic" are terms used to describe how the form of a symbol and the
meaning of a symbol are related. If the form of the symbol, and the meaning of the symbol share
nothing in common, it is considered to be "arbitrary". There is no reason for that symbol
representing that specific thing. If there is a specific reason for a symbol for a certain thing, it is
considered to be "iconic".
Three possible reasons for the survival of American Sign Language are the determination
of the Deaf Community to have a way of communicating that was beneficial and constructive for
them, having a language that requires visual processing instead of auditory processing, and that
is it a rarity that someone in the Deaf Community will use actual ASL when communicating with
a hearing person.
Languages are very complex systems. They are the epitome of communication, without
which, it would be virtually impossible to function.
Baker-Skenk, Charlotte & Cokely, Dennis. 1980. American Sign Language; A Teacher's Resource Text on Grammar and Culture. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet Press
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